By all accounts, Villarreal CF is a family club in Spanish football. It is located outside the main city of Valencia in a quaint little town. It is owned by a local businessman (a billionaire, nevertheless), their stadium is made of tiles produced by the thriving ceramics business in the area, they have a thriving academy that produces most of their first-team talent (nearly 50 per cent in a recent La Liga match).
But the most striking aspect of their closeness as a unit is seen in the training center; where hundreds of kids live in the boarding-school arrangement and have rooms overlooking the first-team training pitch. They also have canteens where they eat specifically-designed food, a few tables away from the stars they aspire to be in the future.
And, the man in-charge of what is consumed by the players at this historic club is Hector Uso, regarded as one of the most important behind-the-scenes professionals at Villarreal. He has worked as the club’s nutritionist for over two decades. He is a pharmacy graduate from the University of Valencia, he graduated in Nursing from CEU Cardinal Herrera University and studied a master’s degree in Sports Nutrition at the University of Granada.
The veteran nutritionist spoke to a group of reporters recently to offer insights into the diet of a footballer. Here are the excerpts:
In two decades in the field, is there any particular incident that you remember in terms of trying to convince a player to buy into your idea? Do players always readily accept or have you had issues to convince a player who doesn’t want to go through the diet?
A lot of times, I would lie if I said no. How do I convince them? It was more than just me, it was the players that convinced themselves. When I started it was a lot harder because I had to convince the 22 players, the coach and everyone around. But nowadays the nucleus of the club knows the nutrition rules. Someone says ‘I’m feeling better than I ever felt. I wish I’d done this before’ and that is what it’s all about.
Here’s the most important thing: It is not just the food they eat at the club that matters. It’s what they eat throughout the whole day from breakfast to dinner. There are players who take food back home with them. And those players who don’t take food with them can have chefs, for example in the house to make sure that them and their family eat well. There are times when the player comes and says, ‘Can you give me food for my wife or my girlfriend to eat as well?’ So we know that then it’s working if the families are eating the same thing and that’s how we know, we’re getting through to them.
There are big athletes now endorsing a vegan diet like Novak Djokovic and Virat Kohli. Is that something that you recommend to players? Because it’s counter-intuitive for us to think a professional athlete does not need meat.
These things are in style in our society. A diet could be a vegan base but with animal proteins, because our body is designed to eat them. I don’t consider it the best diet for athletes. When we’ve carried out studies with our players. For the first three or four months, they’ve had a lot of improvement. Then, after those first three or four months, when they’ve used up the proteins that they already have, that then isn’t there anymore, they need specific supplements. If something is missing in our nutrition, that’s because we’re not eating right. We’re not giving ourselves the right food. We are currently going too far with [avoiding] animal proteins.
We need to supplement when we are on a vegan diet. The performance gets better in the first four months but then if you don’t take supplements like vitamin B 12, then your performance will eventually decrease.
How has the menu evolved to adapt to the requirements of age-group teams and first team? And are there specific diets for individuals who have more body fat, for instance?
There are many types of menus. We’re all unique individuals so we take that into account. In a team of 20, you could have 10 diets that are the same but 10 that are completely different. So we work on an individual basis, because we don’t all metabolize at the same rate.
Some people do have a different metabolism for carbs and fats and protein. And players have different deficits in nutrients. So we take that into account as well and establish the menus for the players from this. But from the academy food to the first team, it’s the same. It’s very ecological. We don’t have food with pesticides, and that’s the same throughout. The only thing that differs with age is the quantities of these nutrients, but the quality of the nutrients is the same throughout.
Carbs are essential for for the athletes. But how do you balance the carbs in the diet or of the football players? And what is the best practices to use sugar sugar for? How do you provide sugar for a professional football player?
Carbohydrates are essential for us all, not just athletes. Our body gets energy in the quickest way possible from them. We need to know what kind of carbs are consumed kind of generally.
We carry out tests on each player to find out how much they’re burning in terms of carbs, whether that’s normally without doing exercise and how much they do when they start to do sport. And the example is that we have some players who in the first 30-45 minutes of a match don’t burn their carbohydrates. They’re burning fat instead. So that allows me to not give them too many carbs. Other players for example, you have to get more because they burn more.
When you talk about sugar...it is needed but it also available everywhere. Rice, milk, carrots... we have enough sugar sources so white sugar is not allowed in any of our meals.
What is the typical meal before matches?
There are some players who burn carbs from the first minute. So we give them a good amount of carbs but not just before the match. Instead carb-loading is over time. And when they burn off all the carbs we give them some liquid at halftime.
The most important thing is that it’s a meal that won’t cause a player digestive problems during the match and that has everything they need in terms of proteins or nutrients.
What’s also important it’s a meal after a match. That’s something that maybe not enough attention is paid to. If you don’t reload your body in the correct way, the fatigue can take longer to recover from instead of taking 24 hours it can take 48 hours. It also depends on time. If the game is at 2pm, we are not going to give the players proteins.
Different countries, different food culture...how do players adapt when they come from elsewhere to Spain?
The first step is to find the balance. We have to look for the carbs and proteins that belong to their countries. And it takes phases, we have to take it bit by bit. So first, we’ll use foods, carbs and proteins from their countries and slowly introduce foods that we have here. We have to adjust to him first and slowly making him used to what we have here.
During the season, what is the biggest restriction or the biggest no-no for your players? And what are your concerns during the off-season for a football player?
We can talk about athletes but it’s the same for people in everyday society. The most important thing is health. The two things that are the biggest concerns, to restrict throughout the season and off-season too, are refined foods and alcohol.
Firstly, refined foods take away the vitamins and minerals in food and they don’t serve us just like trans fats. We probably won’t agree on this, but we shouldn’t consume alcohol. Nutritionally alcohol doesn’t do anything for us apart from give us calories and slowly damages our kidney and liver because they have to get rid of the alcohol from the body.
The thing that worries me most about summer is when players go out regularly to eat because obviously a player might have been away from their family and their friends. When you’re eating out, it’s hard to find the balance for find to eat something healthy.
And we do imagine that yes, they will come back a little bit heavier. Hopefully not too much. But we do need to give them a little bit of freedom. When they do come back, we trust them, and they can get back to the day by day routine and then we confirm that everything isn’t lost. They can come back to eating how we expect them and we don’t want them to stress about it.
Food is very cultural, it can be for pleasure with family and friends. Can a player enjoy his food with all these restrictions?
We need to find them a balance. You need to give them good nutrition, but it needs to be something that the player enjoys. And while he understands that it’s healthy. That’s even possible when you’re eating when you’re eating out. You also need to understand that players are human beings.
They like to go out and they enjoy eating with their friends. And they can do that once a week. If they go back to their daily routine after, that’s not a problem. The problem is where things are accumulated when things carry on happening. And one of the problems of many nutritionists, is they want to be so strict in situations and eventually it has the opposite effect of what they want. Players abandon your ideas of nutrition and the most important thing the nutritionist isn’t they have to understand that the players are human beings.
The main objective of nutrition is that you enjoy what you’re eating but you also feel good physically. So enjoy eating, and then you can enjoy life as well.
(This reporter was in Spain on the invitation of La Liga for a press trip)