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Friday, January 4, 2013
Menu is Alabama nutritionist's playbook

By Holly Rowe

Alabama football coach Nick Saban wins by paying attention to detail.

So it should come as no surprise that Amy Bragg, Saban's director of sports performance nutrition, spent her holidays going over 158 pages of menu options from the South Florida hotel the Crimson Tide are calling home as they prepare for Monday's national championship game against Notre Dame.

Bragg plans and delivers nutritious, high-performance meals for the team in the week leading to the game. She must be cognizant of peanut and shellfish allergies. She also learned from last year's title game that she needed to improve late-night snacks, which are intended to fuel and hydrate athletes going into the next day's practice. Bragg sends photo texts of the fajita bar to players to increase turnout at the 10 p.m. feeding.

"Eat a good meal, sleep, be ready for practice -- that is a victory a nutritionist can offer," Bragg said.

Bragg also acts as the food police, checking expiration dates on dairy and bread and using her digital scanner to monitor food temperature to make sure there is no chance of players becoming ill after a meal.

Attention to detail has paid dividends for Bragg, who has helped Alabama win national championships in football, gymnastics, women's golf and softball in three years with the school.

Saban recognizes Bragg's value. "We've had some guys make some significant improvements in improving their body fat, muscle mass, hydration to be more geared toward consistency in performance and really fueling and having the kind of energy that they need to perform," Saban said.

Last year Saban, strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran and Bragg set goals for the players' weights for the championship game to help offset the long layover between the end of the regular season and the title game. A well-conditioned, lean Alabama team rolled LSU for the championship.

For more than 650 athletes in 18 sports, the physical evaluation begins within days of their arrival at Alabama. Most start out in a machine called the Bod Pod, which looks like something out of "Star Trek." Bragg uses it to establish a starting point on players' body composition.

"When people lose muscle, they lose power," she said. "In football, we have an ideal frame in mind for every position. We begin by conducting a full-body evaluation with baseline measurements, blood work, photos and a scoreboard to help individuals track their own progress.

"It builds confidence and gives them a sense of reward for their hard work. Coach Saban wants them to be accountable for their decisions."

Many young prospects arrive with poor eating habits, but they quickly learn from Bragg that there is a better way to eat. One example is a smoothie bar and fueling station in the weight room. A nearby counter has five large bowls filled with fruits, nuts and bagels for refueling.

Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy said Bragg is so detail-driven that she took his team in small groups to the grocery store, walking players down the aisles asking what foods they liked, then offering them better options.

"They will take for a lifetime the things Amy Bragg taught them," Murphy said.

When Alabama running back Eddie Lacy underwent foot surgery in the offseason, Bragg handed him a calorie budget so he could prevent his limited ability to work out from resulting in weight gain. It worked. This season, a 220-pound Lacy rushed for 1,182 yards and played in all 13 games.

Bragg meets with Saban every couple of weeks to assess players' progress.

"There was one season in particular when I identified a group of players that I thought needed better body composition," Bragg said. "Coach Saban had done the same and said he had 28 guys in mind. I had a list of 29. He is just so good at evaluating. It helps to be on the same page with the head coach."

But how does Bragg reconcile Saban's well-documented breakfast habit of dining on Little Debbie snack cakes?

"He is entitled to one vice," Bragg said. "He is incredibly disciplined with overall nutrition and eats balanced, heart-healthy meals. And it could be worse. At least Little Debbies has oats."