The humble peanut butter and jelly combination is having a moment in the sun.
In a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, Baxter Holmes wrote a fascinating feature about how PB&J has taken over the NBA. Nearly every NBA team now makes PB&J sandwiches readily available to their players. The Milwaukee Bucks do it big—their spread usually includes three nut butters, a wide assortment of jellies, Nutella and three different types of bread from a local bakery. NBA stars like Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Steph Curry all religiously eat PB&Js for their pre-game snack.
But the pre-game PB&J obsession doesn't stop at the NBA. Countless elite athletes in the NFL, MLB, NHL and PGA also rely on the classic sandwich.
Rob Gronkowski likes to have a little chocolate milk with his traditional pre-game PB&J. Andrew Miller—arguably the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball—always whips one up before he makes his way to the bullpen during the third inning. Derek Jeter took his pre-game PB&J about an hour before the first pitch. At roughly 5 p.m. prior to a game, Sidney Crosby scarfs down his mandatory PB&J. Dustin Johnson—who's currently ranked as the No. 1 golfer in the world—was seen eating one during a round at last year's U.S. Open (a tournament he won, by the way).
These are the elite of the elite, athletes capable of doing extraordinary things every time they compete. They've spent thousands of hours honing their bodies for victory. And they all rely on PB&J sandwiches—a snack most of us have been eating since before we were in grade school—for fuel during game day.
Here's why the humble PB&J is a potent pre-game power up.
PB&Js are super simple, but there's still a lot of room for variation in their preparation. To start, let's establish a basic recipe:
- Two slices of bread
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter (typically one serving)
- One tablespoon of jelly (typically one serving)
Now, let's whip up a hypothetical sandwich using popular conventional ingredients. We'll start with two slices of Classic White Wonder Bread. We'll add two tablespoons of JIF Creamy Peanut Butter. Then we'll finish off with a tablespoon of Welch's Concord Grape Jelly. Here's what the nutrition facts look like for that hypothetical PB&J:
430 calories, 18 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 450 mg sodium, 58 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 16 g sugar, 14 g protein
Let's break down why this sandwich might work for an athlete as a pre-game meal.
The biggest plus is the high amount of carbs. To get as many carbs as you'd find in this PB&J, you'd have to consume more than two bananas. Most of the aforementioned athletes are eating their PB&Js one to two hours before game time, a window of time when carb consumption is crucial. Dr. Wayne Phillips, a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, says, "When you consume carbs, your body converts them into a form of sugar called glucose that can be used for energy. The glucose, in turn, is changed to glycogen so that it can be easily stored in your muscles and liver for later use. It is the predominant storage form of glucose and carbohydrates in humans, and it's an essential fuel source for the body during all forms of exercise."
Prior to games and high-intensity training, simple carbohydrates are critical. Simple carbs are carbs that can be digested quickly. They're made of just one or two sugar molecules, allowing them to be digested rapidly and produce energy quickly. A PB&J is high in simple carbs, thanks in large part to the fruit jelly or jam.
Running out of simple carbs during a game can make you feel like you're moving underwater. Your first step will be slower, you'll have trouble finishing plays, and your reactions won't be as sharp. "Human bodies don't necessarily stop when they run out of carbs, but they do slow down," says Robert Anding, Director of Sports Nutrition at the Houston Children's Hospital. When you see Russell Westbrook dive bomb his way through the defense and throw down a thunderous slam in the fourth quarter? Such an exquisite display of athleticism wouldn't be possible if he didn't adequately fuel up on carbs.
The protein provided by a PB&J is also a plus. Protein is the major player in muscle recovery, but it can also be used to provide fuel during high-intensity training in a process known as gluconeogensis. However, protein takes a while to digest and can make you feel full, so you don't want to scarf down a ton of it prior to a game. The 14 grams in a PB&J is a nice amount, since it offers many of the benefits of pre-activity protein consumption without slowing you down.
The 450 mg of sodium is actually quite useful for an athlete. Though 9 out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium, increasing their risk of high blood pressure, heart failure and a range of other health issues, athletes are a different breed.
The recommended daily level of sodium intake is 1,500 mg—about what you find in 2/3 teaspoon of table salt. (Note: While many equate salt with sodium, sodium is in fact a component of salt. Table salt is about 40 percent sodium; the rest is chloride.) But that number is much higher for athletes who train and compete hard, since sodium is an electrolyte. Sodium helps maintain blood pressure and fluid balance throughout the body, and if you don't have sufficient levels in your body, your muscles can weaken and cramp. Athletes need more sodium than the general population since they sweat more often and for longer durations, and sodium is lost through perspiration.
"Salty sweaters" are people who lose more sodium through sweat than the average person, and they need to consume even more sodium through dietary sources to prevent dehydration and cramping. Just how big a role can sodium play in athletic performance? Well, a 2015 study found that triathletes who replaced 71 percent of the sodium they lost during a Half Ironman finished an average of 26 minutes faster than triathletes who replaced only 20 percent of lost sodium.
The last thing a professional athlete wants to feel during a game is bloated and sluggish. Anyone who's tried to work out on a full stomach knows that pain—it's like you're moving around with a pair of ankle weights on. This is another area where the PB&J excels. Volumetrically speaking, a PB&J doesn't take up a huge amount of space in your stomach. It's nutrient-dense, but it won't make you feel like you just ate a full Sunday dinner. That means a player can have it an hour or two before action without worry. It also cannot be overlooked that many of these athletes have been eating PB&Js for their entire lives. This means the sandwich can be a form of comfort before a high-pressure competition and that the athletes know exactly what to expect from it.
Unlike more complex dishes, there's little risk that a PB&J will wreak havoc on your digestive system. The athletes know exactly how it sits in their stomach and how they feel after eating one, an important factor in sports nutrition. They can chow down on a PB&J without having to think twice, allowing them to focus on more pressing matters—like winning a ball game.
A Versatile Sandwich
It's very easy to customize your PB&J to better fit your personal nutritional needs.
For example, when Dwight Howard was trying to clean up his sugar-laden diet, his nutritionist changed the recipe for his beloved PB&Js. Gone were the conventional ingredients and in came sourdough bread, organic peanut butter and low-sugar jelly. Thanks to the lactic acid that ferments the dough in sourdough bread, it's easier to digest than conventional bread. The lactic acid also makes the vitamins and minerals in the flour more easily available to the body, and they render the gluten more digestible. Organic peanut butters are typically lower in sugar than conventional peanut butters, but they don't sacrifice any of their valuable protein. Low-sugar jelly is pretty self-explanatory. Howard was already consuming way too many simple carbs in other areas of his diet, so he adjusted his PB&J to fit his needs.
When it comes to PB&Js, the options for customization are endless. Want more complex carbs, which give you a steady stream of long-lasting energy? Use whole grain bread. Less sugar? Use organic nut butters. A high-carb alternative to jam or jelly? Try honey or banana slices. No matter how you customize it, your sandwich will still have many of the same strengths as a conventional PB&J (high carbs, easy on the stomach, etc.), so it's really about what works best for you.
There's a reason so many elite athletes turn to PB&Js for their pre-game or halftime meal—it works. The simple carbs give players fast energy; the modest amount of protein helps them stay strong without weighing them down; and the sodium helps them stay hydrated. The modest-sized sandwich also doesn't sit heavy in their stomachs, and the easy customization options allow players to tailor their sandwiches to their exact needs. Is a PB&J the only thing you should eat leading up to a game? Maybe not, but it can be a great complement to other simple pre-game snacks.
The PB&J sandwich has been a pre-game staple for years, and with so many players eating them religiously on game day, it doesn't look like it'll be going away any time soon.
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