My fueling philosophy has adjusted many times throughout my life, but it has always aligned with my goals.
As a young guy, all I wanted was to increase in size, so I blindly shoveled food without attention to nutritional value. I discovered that nothing was out of bounds if it could help me gain weight. My college teammate, whose family managed a large herd of cattle, shared a special high-protein recipe they fed newborn calves to help them develop. All I heard was high protein and I was onboard, so he dropped off a heavy burlap sack with a rope tie and a cow diagram on the side.
This was a little different than the protein powders I came across in the health food stores of Minneapolis. Yet, undeterred, I found the one line of directions that were rather straightforward: pour contents into a large metal bucket and stir with a wire whisk. This was straight off-the-farm stuff. Then I found a tagline stating that the low lactose content reduced the incidence of diarrhea in cows. How far would I go to put on muscle? This was a test, and I was starting to question my sanity. In the end I pressed on, holding back my gag reflex, while I managed to put on a few pounds.
This fueling philosophy extended into my Cowboys years when I saddled up to all-you-can-eat sirloin steak dinners and devoured herds of cattle that were raised on the formula I consumed in college. It would be logical to expect NFL teams to encourage and offer healthy meals, but not during my first few years with the Raiders. They were hanging on to the nutritional dark age. During my first pregame breakfast with my new team, I was shocked to see five-gallon vats of ice cream with all the toppings at the end of the buffet line. Assorted flavors, chocolate sauces, and whipped cream all to be consumed five hours before taking the field. When I questioned the trainers about the fifteen gallons of ice cream, they shrugged, “Al wants it the way it has always been done. It’s tradition.” I later saw a couple of teammates with rabid dog cottonmouth sniffing on ammonia caps in the third quarter to stay sharp. I knew they were not out of shape but rather enjoyed too much of their fudge sundae.
When I hit my mid-career stride with the Raiders, my attention turned to longevity. Since my career depended on my body's health, I got more serious about this complex machine. I started using a nutritionist to methodically plan and portion more nutrient-dense meals. This included employing Dr. Philip Goglia’s training and nutrition background to organize three meals and three snacks a day to maintain a solid 300 lbs. Fast forward to my post-career life, I no longer needed or wanted to maintain my bulk, so I adopted a plant-based diet and leaned out. Without getting into labels and restrictions, it would be fair to say that I am just shy of a card-carrying vegan at this point in my life. My younger self, slurping my baby cow formula, would not believe it.
I never considered any of my eating programs a diet. I have a visceral reaction to the word because food is meant to be enjoyed, and we sometimes forget that part. I doubt many athletes say they need to diet and work out. They eat and train. As one looks around, diet programs abound, but humanity continues to balloon. Obesity was an outlier up into the 1970s, and then the quantity of cheap foods opened addictive doors that society has been unable to close.
I have always loved this saying: you cannot outrun your fork. Eighty-five percent of weight management is through my mouth, not training. No matter how hard I exercise for at least an hour a day, I still need to manage the other twenty-three hours and not fill it with sugars and other dead carbohydrates. I know my eating plan and do my best to stick with it, but if I veer off and junk out, I make the necessary course adjustment and do not wait until Monday to regroup. I jump back on the plan the following day.
More recently, I embraced time-restricted eating, which has kept me disciplined. This approach allows me to eat as much as I want during my eating window so I do not feel deprived. Plus, it is a repeatable pattern that offers my body the predictability it craves. Every day I enjoy my first meal around 7 a.m. and my last bite no later than 2 p.m. This gives my body more than enough time to digest everything and burn through my glucose storage which lasts roughly twelve hours. Now my body is creating ketones to use my fat as fuel and feed my mitochondria. It was a bit of a struggle initially, but the desire to munch on something fades as the cravings last only twenty minutes. I also down plenty of water to help squelch the hunger, and I am better for it. Since the eating window is so short, I focus on consuming high-octane fuel, not empty carbohydrates, which leave me begging for more.
How do I have a social life with this kind of eating plan? Well, it takes compassionate friends who are understanding and enjoy our time together more than the food part of the equation. That said, sometimes I pause the pattern for nights of entertainment or vacations. In the end, it is worthwhile to resume my program after all the fun.
More on this topic and others in my forthcoming memoir, Aggressively Human, to be released on all platforms in November 2023.