Jeff Parke worked for a lifetime to become a professional soccer player. It wasn't until he'd reached that goal and spent a few years in Major League Soccer (MLS) that he realized just how much it meant to him.
"I can remember the day it happened," says Parke. "I was still playing in New York, going through some different injuries. We were out to dinner with my girlfriend's [now Parke's wife] brother, and we just started talking about different foods and some of my habits. It kind of dawned on me what I'd need to do to take my career to the next level."
This was back in 2008, when Parke was 26 and single. Now 31, Parke is married with a young daughter and another child on the way. He is back home playing defense for the Philadelphia Union (he was born in Abington and played collegiately at Drexel.) It's his first year with the Union, but his 10th season in MLS. He attributes his longevity to the changes he made after that fateful conversation.
Parke certainly wasn't out of shape at the start of his career, but he found himself consistently nagged by injuries. A sprained ankle here and a pulled hamstring there had him wondering how he could survive a long career in a sport as demanding as professional soccer. And he admits his dietary and social habits weren't optimal either.
"So I cut out all the bad foods I was eating," he recalls. "Pizza, burgers, Doritos… those were all parts of my diet. My buddies used to joke I always had a Fruit Roll-Up in my pocket. That's not being a professional. Those things are fine when you're a kid. I was 26 years old."
"On top of that, I was partying every weekend, out drinking. Meanwhile, I'm dealing with these injuries—hamstring, groin pulls. I started slowly implementing different things to my daily routine, and it started with nutrition."
Specifically, Jeff says he started staying away from regular pastas, breads and rice and switching to brown or whole-wheat versions. He cut out the fast foods and started shopping for healthier foods. "Suddenly, my energy level was steadier, my body felt better," he says.
Before long, he became interested in specific ingredients in everything he ate. "If I want to try something new, I'll look at that list of ingredients," he says. "If it's a paragraph long, I won't eat the product. I want the shortest list of good ingredients."
As we talk, Parke eats a bowl of chili, prepared by his wife the previous evening. "I eat a lot of home-cooked foods—at restaurants, you can't be sure exactly what goes into your food," he points out.
While eating, Parke points out the differences between his meal and the chili he might've eaten 7-8 years ago. "Lean beef… beans… there are a lot of vegetables in here, like tomatoes and onions. Just a little cheese—I'm not really big on dairy."
Parke takes us through his diet for that particular day:
"My wife made me three eggs, with two pieces of chicken sausage and some whole wheat toast this morning. I had a banana as well. This (the bowl of chili) is lunch. Dinner tonight's going to be chicken fajitas—a brown rice wrap with free-range chicken and salsa."
Sounds like a fairly typical, manageable diet for one day. "It's not hard to do," confirms Parke. "You just have to be committed. People will say, 'you have to have money to eat healthy.' You really don't. Go to the grocery store, and have a prepared list of the stuff you want to have."
Like anything, Parke says preparation is the key. "Go online, look up a couple of recipes for healthy meals, and go buy the ingredients. They don't have to be from any particular stores."
Parke has established a routine, but he's also developed the discipline that allows him to go outside his customary habits now and then. Invite him to a birthday party, and he'll have a piece of cake. "Once or twice a week, I'll splurge and get some ice cream," he admits. "But I don't need to get a large. I'll have a kids' size ice cream. I want something sweet, and that fulfills the need. I don't need a king-size serving."
As for the partying, he'll enjoy a glass of wine, but "I can't remember the last time I drank more than two beers," he says. "It was probably my honeymoon."
Two simple rules govern Parke's diet: one fairly customary; the other a bit surprising. "Nothing after 9 p.m.," he says, "and I don't count calories. I think it's fine for someone trying to lower their weight, but once you're in a lifestyle, don't stress over a number. Stress affects your weight as well."
Playing professional soccer gives Jeff Parke a leg up, so to speak, on many of us who want to be healthy and stay in shape. But talk with him and you'll come to realize the main ideas are quite similar: be active, eat healthy, and above all, enjoy your life.
"Be as healthy as you can," he stresses. "If you can work out three times per week, that's great. You just don't want to get sloppy, get out of your routine and reach a point where you stop caring. That's when people start saying 'I'll get in shape next year' or 'I'll wait until I have to do it.'"
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