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DOCTOR PREDICTS WINS, NATURALLY : Hendler Hopes New Dietary Supplements Will Help Chargers Achieve Upper Hand

Times Staff Writer

San Diego Chargers Coach Don Coryell, ever in search of ways to give his players an edge on the competition, thinks he’s hit on a fail-safe method.

With the help of a San Diego physician and biochemist, Coryell next month plans to expose his players to a new nutritional regimen that is designed to enhance performance without exposing his athletes to the potentially harmful effects of downing tons of pills.

Physician Sheldon S. Hendler looks at the Chargers and sees an opportunity to put into practice the tenets of his new nutrition book, which takes hard shots both at health food extremists and at traditional doctors who pooh-pooh any supplements.

Together, Coryell and Hendler have now combined to design a program for the Chargers that emphasizes less fats and closely monitored experimentation with certain natural supplements. Hendler already is consulting with individual players about their dietary habits and will run a clinic during next month’s Chargers training camp.

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“I think that understanding the principles of good nutrition, along with using supplements in certain cases, can give athletes an edge in their performance,” Hendler said. “And at bottom, the principles of good nutrition for an athlete are pretty much the same for everybody.”

Coryell, an advocate of good fitness and nutritious food for many years, has long hoped to boost the performance of his troops on the football field through better diet. But Coryell is leery of the hype that has traditionally surrounded dietary supplements. The latest touts include bee pollen, DHEA (a steroid) and octacosanol (a derivative of wheat-germ oil).

So Coryell has tread cautiously with his team, given the propensity of athletes to try any so-called health product that promises better endurance or greater muscle strength--plus the willingness of some to experiment with potent drugs as well. In addition, memories remain of the early 1970s, when numerous Chargers received amphetamines from a UC San Diego psychiatrist as part of a controversial drug treatment program.

But now, Coryell thinks he has found the proper match by hiring Hendler.

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“I’ve read a lot on the subject, and with this book I am extremely impressed,” Coryell said of Hendler’s work. “I like the fact that Dr. Hendler warns of taking too many things and uses his scientific background to support what he says.

“My concern,” he said, “has always been that the players would take too much of something or take things with no scientific basis.”

The program is voluntary, although Coryell expects that players will be more likely to listen to Hendler than to him.

Hendler, a former biochemist at UC San Diego and at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, makes no secret of his desire to plow a new path in the field of nutrition and dietary supplements. His work with the Chargers will represent a major chance to put the conclusions of his book into practice.

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“I take my research seriously,” Hendler said. “I want this book to have an impact on medicine, and I don’t want it tainted in any way by association with drugs or fads.”

In fact, Hendler fought successfully against the original “Megahealth” title that his publisher proposed for the book, believing that it connoted a misleading image of dosing oneself with tens of vitamins each and every day without regard to their cumulative effects. The final title, “The Complete Guide to Anti-Aging Nutrients,” is far less sexy but more honest, in Hendler’s view.

Where some scientific evidence exists to indicate that certain uncommon supplements can improve specific sports performance, Hendler will recommend their use, as long as they are closely monitored and are known not to have harmful side effects.

“Whether all of these substances actually perform as touted remains to be researched,” Hendler said, adding that the work with the Chargers will add to the general knowledge of nutritional data. “But I know these things--biochemically--like the back of my hand and in no way will any recommendations be harmful. These are natural substances, not stimulants or drugs.”

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Hendler has already begun examining individual players, explaining how his program breaks into two parts: macronutrition, or how a diet is constructed; and micronutrition, where various vitamin and mineral supplements are used.

Essentially, Hendler wants players to alter the mix of fats, proteins and carbohydrates--the building blocks that fuel the body’s activities--to lower the amount of fat. Hendler recites impressive research from a wide variety of nutritionists worldwide to recommend that 55% of daily intake come from complex carbohydrates, such as wheat, potatoes, vegetables and fruits. Fats should consume no more than 30%, with proteins about 15%.

A typical American diet today still includes fats up to 40% or more, he said.

“It wasn’t so long ago when athletes thought if you didn’t get a lot of protein--from steaks, hot dogs, etc.--you wouldn’t have enough energy,” Hendler said. “Actually, protein is the least efficient energy source of all. We now know that complex carbohydrates are far better.

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“But athletes are still much of the protein mentality.”

Although the percentages eaten of the three fuel groups should remain the same for all players, Hendler said, the amount consumed should depend on the ideal body fat percentage. And that differs depending on whether a Charger plays cornerback or anchors the defensive line.

“If someone is inactive and weighs 300 pounds, he definitely needs to lose some pounds. But if he is a 300-pound lineman with relatively low body fat, he may need that extra weight for an energy source.”

Hendler is using a sophisticated electronic device to measure a player’s body fat percentage. Already, he has told one player desiring to lose weight that shedding pounds could be harmful because the player will lose naturally during the season.

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Athletes also should not take sweets before exercise because research shows that the effects can bring dizziness, Hendler said. For years, the common notion in sports was to consume sweets about a half hour before exercise, he said.

While changes in macronutrition are generally accepted today, the picture in the vitamin and mineral supplement area remains controversial, Hendler said.

“There’s has been a real resistance to this because supplements have been equated to drugs,” he said. “But they are not drugs, they are not harmful, unless they are taken like crazy.”

In the same vein, he criticized those whom he called the health-food gurus for emphasizing supplements at the expense of good diet.

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“You can’t sacrifice one for another,” Hendler said. “It does no good to pig out at restaurants and then pop a lot of vitamins. Nutrition must be thought of as a totality.”

Hendler said that minerals must be stressed as much as vitamins because they are lost the quickest during exercise. They include zinc, magnesium, copper, selenium, chromium and calcium.

Coryell had a local nutrition firm last year design a broad spectrum powder supplement that he handed out to players. The supplement included several substances still in the experimental stage as to their benefits for athletes.

“Some players took it, some didn’t,” Hendler said. “There was no monitoring of it and no guidance as to how it should be used together with diet. The players had little idea of what exactly it contained and why they should be taking it.”

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Hendler isn’t saying the supplement is bad. In fact, it will continue to form the basis of the Chargers’ micronutrition program, with some exceptions. For example, Hendler has asked that an additive suspected of causing gradual muscle weakness be eliminated.

Beyond the so-called Chargers’ supplement, Hendler said he may experiment with certain other substances, in particular those which while not energy sources themselves are crucial in helping the body produce energy.

“For example, in selected cases I may recommend lycene and argenine, on which there is some evidence that they release growth hormones to cause additional protein synthesis to add in making muscles stronger,” Hendler said.

But he will strongly stress that no Charger take ornithine, a related substance with similar claims of building muscle mass, which is available in health food stores but which may cause diabetes and other diseases if taken over prolonged periods.

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Hendler also discounted bee pollen, ginseng, pangamic acid, spiorolena and a host of other substances that athletes are known to have experimented with.

“Not doing something is sometimes the best medium of all,” Hendler said. Such advice will play an important part in his consulting, Hendler said, because many athletes in recent years have grasped at any substance that advocates say promises better performance.

Because of the voluntary aspect of the program, Coryell does not expect all his players to participate.

“The service is available if players want it,” Coryell said. “Some fellows might follow all the recommendations, some maybe a third and some in-between. But I’d at least rather have good stuff available to them through Dr. Hendler than have the players go out and try something without good sound advice.

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“The routine obviously can’t hurt their performance, and if it can help them sustain performance over a long, tough season, it’s definitely worth it.”

Coryell plans to stack the training camp menu with those foods recommended by Hendler and other nutritionists even more so than he has in the past, particularly since that is the only time of year the Chargers can directly influence the players’ diets. But again, Coryell said the burden will be on the players to take advantage of the expertise and willingly pass on the fried foods, which are so much a traditional part of football diets.

Coryell also hopes that the hands-on approach of Hendler could have an effect in convincing some players who might otherwise be tempted by purported benefits to forego the use of questionable drugs.

“In some individual cases, I hope that will have an effect,” Coryell said.

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For his part, Hendler expects to use data from his Chargers’ work as part of a larger study planned with other sports doctors on the effects of micronutrition on performance. A complete study requires that certain athletes be given placebos in order to measure differences with those athletes taking supplements. But Hendler said that in the present case of the Chargers, it would not be fair to give placebos because his main responsibility is to help performance.


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