Exercise and Wellness

Orlando Magic: Healthy Diet Takeaways From the Team Chef

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The new year can bring on the annual existential crisis about what to do, what to eat and how to get in shape. Fitness can be difficult to navigate with the onslaught of advertisements, misleading gimmicks and fad diets, but your pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is worthwhile.

What better place to start the journey than by learning about the healthy eating habits that power the Orlando Magic to victory on the hardwood? We learned a lot through talking with the team chef as he preps the team for game day. 

Game Day Fuel, Straight From the Kitchen

Orlando Magic team chef and licensed dietician Zach Kerkow-Provo says it all starts at breakfast. "I'll arrive at 6:00 am with sous chef Jason Carter to set up a breakfast bar for the players and coaches." 

Breakfast runs until 10:00 am when morning practice (called “shoot around”) begins. The chefs prepare a spread of healthy options to start the day. Whole-grain pancakes and breads, fresh fruits, lean proteins and plenty of egg options on are available.

While the team practices, Chef Zach flips the room from breakfast to lunch and prepares the first post-workout meal of the day to refuel the team for the night's upcoming game. Zach knows the players can burn through a huge amount of energy, and healthy options are in order. 

Whole Grains Power Up the Magic

The menu can vary from player to player depending on dietary needs, but Chef Zach prefers whole grains to replenish calories burned during practice as well as stoking the fire for the competition to come. 

"Whole, red jasmine rice, bulgur wheat, and green wheat freekeh are some of my favorites," he says. Supplementing the whole-grain offerings are unsweetened real fruit smoothies, proteins and plenty of fresh vegetables. The pre-game meals also feature two fresh-made healthy soups and a salad bar. Once properly fed, the team heads home to rest before tip-off. 

After lunch, Chef Zach preps the pre-game meal. With the competition looming, he knows he needs to power the players' engines. "I try to fuel the guys up before the game," he says. Carbohydrate-centric action stations, where players can customize a rice or pasta dish catered to their individual tastes, sets the foundation of energy to compete in an NBA game. He says they customize diets down to the number of minutes a player might play. Higher carbs are in order for those players shouldering the biggest load, as an example.

Refueling After the First Half With Clean Sugars

After 24 minutes of fast and physical first-half action, Chef Zach offers some quickly digestible options to keep the team going for the rest of the game. "We try and put out some healthy snacks," he says. 

Each player knows what their body can digest during such strenuous exercise, and they choose between a spread of fresh fruit, high-quality gummy candies, nut butters and natural honey-sweetened granolas. These items give the burst of energy only clean sugars can provide during an exhausting full-court game.

Post-Game Recovery Meals

After the final seconds tick off the clock ending another thrilling Magic home game, Chef Zach is at the ready with a post-game meal for the team. Usually consisting of a healthy and tasty grab-and-go option, it makes it easy for players to refuel as they head home to their families and to recuperate. Finally, around 10:30 pm, the chefs hang up their aprons for the day.

All these options are prepared on-site at the Amway Center. The arena has a practice facility attached, and that's where Chef Zach's newly remodeled kitchen is located. Armed with only a four-burner stove, one oven and a flat top grill, his two-man team can feed upward of 75 people per meal, counting the Magic players, coaches, operational, analytical and training staff. It's on the heels of Chef Zach's healthy food options that help power the entire Magic organization to victory. 

The Magic's culinary team works together with the strength and performance team as well. Through daily meetings, they can go over upcoming game schedules and individual player goals to enhance results, achieve goals and maximize performance on the court.

The Magic’s Comfort Food, Made Healthier

It's not “all no-pain-no-gain” when it comes to the Magic’s food. Zach strives to provide familiar comfort foods as well, just with a healthy twist. Fried foods are a no-go (the facility doesn't even have a fryer), but the Magic's team chef uses creativity and culinary techniques to make sure the food is appealing. 

"We offer oven-baked crusted fish or chicken to satisfy those cravings for crunchy, fried foods. In the marinara I make, instead of sweetening it with some sugar, we use a roasted carrot puree instead that sweetens and thickens it.” 

These are just a few ways of offering familiar foods to the athletes without sabotaging their dietary goals. "I try to get foods the guys are familiar with, but then put in a healthy spin and swap in better quality, more health-conscious ingredients."

When the team is in Orlando between home games, there’s usually a 10:00 am practice. Zach and sous chef Jason are back at it at 6:00 am to have the breakfast spread ready. But with no game upcoming that evening, they can go heavy on lunch and pack the players with healthy calories to help their bodies recover on the rest day. Chef Zach even offers customized take-home meals for the players to enjoy at their homes as they rest and prepare for the next game. 

Pointers From the Magic: Takeaways About Healthy Eating

While they may never step foot on the Magic court, every Magic fan can learn healthy eating tips from their hometown team.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Sherri Flynt, MPH, RD, LD, of the AdventHealth Center for Nutritional Excellence, is also on the whole-grain bandwagon. She sings the praises of the high fiber and nutrition that fruits, vegetables and whole grains offer in overcoming obesity, heart disease and cancer, to name a few treatable health conditions.

Both Sherri and Chef Zach emphasized inflammation as an unseen problem. Replacing some animal products, especially highly processed ones, with a more plant-based diet can do wonders to combat inflammation and promote joint health. 

Zach says increased vegetable consumption can be beneficial down to a cellular level, aiding in recovery time and performance — and not just for professional athletes, either. "Even a casual athlete, running a few 5K races a month, will see results from the switch," Sherri says.

Sherri cautions to consult a registered dietitian before any drastic diet changes. The AdventHealth Center for Nutritional Excellence can help ensure that all your protein, calcium and iron needs are met, regardless of the diet you choose.

Diet and Exercise Balance

Setting realistic dietary and hydration goals is also important for casual athletes. Sherri says it is all about balance. "Exercise cannot overcome a poor diet any more than a good diet can combat a sedentary lifestyle," she says. 

If you take a 30-minute walk, water should be enough to rehydrate with afterward, whereas a more strenuous exercise may require something with more carbs and proteins, such as low-fat chocolate milk.

Timing is important too, Sherri says. "You don't want to eat something too soon after a very strenuous workout because you may not be able to digest it." She says a small snack that’s rich in protein and good carbs, like peanut butter on whole-grain bread, can refuel your body.

Back at the Amway Center

The Magic play 41 home games and 41 away games every year. So, while the team faces off against the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers, Chef Zach is in the Amway Center kitchen, making the most of this downtime. 

Not just a culinary professional, Zach is also a registered dietitian, and he puts that expertise to work fine-tuning the players’ diets and goals, researching and designing custom supplement regiments and planning upcoming menu changes to keep the food fun and fresh. 

"When a player comes in, I'll usually sit down and talk with them about their nutritional needs. We'll go over their current meal plan and what they currently eat and then try to adjust and tune certain things in their eating behavior,” Chef Zach says, “so, when I’m cooking something for a player before a game, I have the goals we set for the individual player."

How to Make the Switch to Healthier Foods

Sherri Flynt encourages a similar philosophy for people looking to get into better shape. 

She says to start by thinking about all the foods you love and do some research to find healthier recipes. Then, take the time to plan out a healthy meal plan for the upcoming week. Doing so prepares you to make good eating decisions and resist the temptations of the drive-thru and other easily accessible processed foods — something the AdventHealth Center for Nutritional Excellence can help you with, too. Learn more about our programs or contact us today.

Even though it's going to take some old-fashioned hard work and discipline, this new year can be your opportunity to turn the corner on creating healthier eating habits. Fueling up on the right foods can give you the energy to conquer your workouts and leave energy to spare to cheer the Orlando Magic on to victory this season.

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