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You are what you eat when it comes to your feet. Teams at the World Cup this year are depending on an increasingly professional squad of chefs and nutritionists who treat food as fuel, both for the body and, in the form of dishes from home, for the mind. The Italians brought pasta, Parmesan and wine, the Swiss, muesli and chocolate; and the Americans, bins of peanut butter and jelly.

At the same time, nutritionists such as Danielle LaFata, who works with the US team, are making sure the athletes are able to endure the sweltering heat of Brazil’s soccer stadiums with items like kiwi and bananas, to replace the potassium lost in sweat, and six bottles of water a day. For LaFata, the menu is a constant balancing act that includes the familiar, the healthy, and even a taste of Brazil.

“We do our best to kind of incorporate the culture but at the same time keep some familiar flavours," LaFata said in an interview at the home of the Sao Paulo Futebol Clube, where the US team trains. “The guys love the Brazilian beans so, for the most part, every meal now has Brazilian beans and rice."

Thursday’s crucial game against Germany in the coastal city of Recife will decide whether the US players get to sample more local food before they fly home.

Amazon heat

Last Friday, before the US flew to Manaus on the edge of the Amazon, where temperatures averaged 31 degrees Celsius and humidity was 62%, lunch after the 90-minute morning practice had an Asian bent. Menus include protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats and rely on herbs and spices with an anti-inflammatory punch instead of salt for seasoning. Avocado is a crowd-pleaser. To fight the heat, players usually eat extra fruit and vegetables, which are 80-90% water. In Manaus, though, the team decided to avoid fresh produce after what LaFata called intel from other teams suggested the host city’s hygiene wasn’t up to the mark. This is no low-carb diet. Elite soccer players need four fistfuls of carbs a day, LaFata said, compared with just one for most people. That’s because of the running so abundantly on display in the US attacks against Portugal. A player covers 10-13km in a game, varying from a jog to a gut-busting sprint.

4,000 calories

Germany’s Thomas Mueller, nicknamed ‘the thin one’, uses up around 1,500 calories per match. Photo: Laszlo Balogh/ Reuters
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Germany’s Thomas Mueller, nicknamed ‘the thin one’, uses up around 1,500 calories per match. Photo: Laszlo Balogh/ Reuters

As soon as the teams got to Brazil, they probably started simulating game days, says Braun, who has advised players from the German Bundesliga’s Bayer Leverkusen and 1. FC Cologne teams. What do I eat in the morning for breakfast when I play at 1pm? Braun says. For the Germans, typical breakfasts would be bread or muesli. And then they practise at 1pm and see how they feel.

The German team turned down a request for an interview. Before the World Cup started, team chef Holger Stromberg told German newspapers he serves Teutonic classics like spätzle, an egg noodle from the southern part of the country, and griessbrei, a pudding usually made for children that’s like Cream of Wheat.

Stromberg told the Schwaebische Zeitung about a few of the players’ favourite foods. Manuel Neuer, the baby-faced goalie, loves seafood salad. Team captain Philipp Lahm is partial to Austrian beef broth with dumplings. And 6ft, 6 inches tall centre back Per Mertesacker eats any kind of tomato soup.

After the match, Stromberg said he uses water from the shower heads to cook pasta right in the middle of the locker room.

The Germans’ southern cousins, the Swiss, rely on spaghetti. Four hours before each game, even the midday ones, head chef Emil Bolli will serve bouillon with julienned vegetables, spaghetti with veal Bolognese sauce and apple cake.

When the going gets tough, people need carbohydrates, says James Carter, head of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute’s (GSSI’s) UK branch. The GSSI has been helping to develop personalized Gatorade formulas for Brazil’s team, part of the PepsiCo Inc. brand’s sponsorship.

Each player’s drink gets a personalized carbohydrate content, electrolyte concentration and flavour in pods that click on to the bottom of a sports bottle.

Hydration is one of the most important things weekend athletes can learn from watching soccer’s pros, nutrition researcher Braun says. That and something most of us already know and conveniently forget: If you aren’t burning the same calories as German striker Thomas Mueller or US midfielder Jermaine Jones, you can’t eat like them.

A fan who munches his way through one 200g bag of chips during the game and drinks two pints of beer will ingest about 1,500 calories, Braun points out. That’s about what a player burns off in that same time period. Bloomberg

For more stories from Brazil, go to www.livemint.com/worldcup2014

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