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The culinary game at MLB ballparks has exploded in the past 20 years. Eating healthy is a challenge

Tim Suwinski, father of Pittsburgh Pirates' Jack Suwinski, and his grandson Will Hackl, both of Chicago, share “The Renegade” — a foot-long hot dog topped with potato pierogies, pot roast, pickles and onions — before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox in Pittsburgh on Friday. Associated Press

PHOENIX — Danielle LaFata's been around major sports ballparks and arenas most of her adult life, so the nutritionist has one word of advice for those who want to eat healthy when attending a pro sports event.

Don’t.

“Go ahead and have your burger, have your hot dog, have your couple of slices of pizza,” LaFata said.

LaFata — the director of performance and nutrition for the NBA's Phoenix Suns — says her advice is simply practical and based on her own appetite. Over the past 20 years, the culinary game across the baseball landscape has exploded, with offerings like The Renegade in Pittsburgh, The 4 Bagger in Atlanta or a Polish Sausage topped with smoked brisket and spicy BBQ sauce in Chicago.

Even glancing at the pictures feels like it can raise cholesterol.

Yes, there are a few health(ier) options, particularly in places like San Francisco, where the Giants have a place called The Garden that highlights “sustainability, urban farming and healthy eating.” Most parks and arenas have a handful of areas that offer salads, gluten free or vegan offerings if fans are willing to hunt a little.

But the vast majority of people attending baseball games aren't necessarily looking to eat healthy.

The food offerings reflect those cravings.

Baseball occupies a unique space in the sports food world because of a few factors. For one, the 162-game regular season means each team has 81 home games, so there are lots of opportunities to sell. There's also the sport's relatively slow pace, which permits plenty of time to down a hot dog or five.

Juan Villegas Sr. walked through the Chase Field concourse — home of baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks — with a big tray carrying two items called an XL Footlong Sonoran Style Dog and some Korean Pork Belly Nachos.

“Usually, I’m more of a classic guy, you know, like a regular hot dog,” Villegas said. “But me and my son had to give these a try. I’m about to devour them.”

LaFata said she likes to use an 80/20 rule when it comes to a diet, eating healthy 80% of the time while indulging in some comfort food for the other 20%. The nutritionist said if a person knows they're going to a sporting event, they should spend the previous few days eating healthy so they can enjoy themselves.

That means plenty of veggies and lean meats like fish.

“This is going to be my 20% day, or my junk food day,” LaFata said. “Throughout the whole week, you’re eating your 80%, you’re eating clean, you’re eating often, you’re doing all the good things you need to do for your body.”

Most customers aren't counting calories at the ballpark — and in fact, calorie counts frequently aren't even posted. Diamondbacks executive chef Stephen Tilder said Chase Field offers a handful of healthy options, but the top five sellers are almost always some variation of hot dogs, chicken tenders, popcorn, soft pretzels and nachos.

“That’ll be 90% of your sales at any stadium and arena, because that’s just traditional fare,” he said.

There do seem to be a few exceptions in places like San Francisco, but most cities are more like Milwaukee.

“We had Impossible (Meat) at our taco stands, and we just found that it wasn’t very successful,” said Loren Rue, the executive chef at the Milwaukee Brewers' ballpark. “We offered it at multiple locations, and the sales just weren’t there to prove that it was worth keeping on.”

Even so, Rue said people don't have to pack on the pounds when watching the Brewers.

“It’s not that we’re trying to limit those options,” she added. “We still have veggie dogs. We still have veggie burgers. There are options that are available to our guests. It’s just making sure the menu speaks to what the fans want.”

LaFata — the nutritionist — said there are some tips for those who don't want to pig out while watching a baseball game. Among them, it's a good idea to walk a few laps around the park, getting an idea of the selection and what options might be better than others.

Healthy options are usually clustered in a few parts of the venue.

She also suggested eating before attending the game, so you're not starving when staring at a display for an Apple Pie Chimichanga.

Though there are certainly ways to cut caloric corners, LaFata suggests it's better to quit worrying. Those who have paid to attend a sporting event might as well spend their money on the good stuff.

“Sure, we could do a bunless hot dog, or a bunless burger, and that might save 100, 150 calories if we're looking to do it that way, or if we're following a specific paleo or keto type diet and trying to cut the carbs,” LaFata said.

“Or you can just take away the bun to make room for your beer!”

Korean Pork Belly Nachos, left, and the Millionaire Steak Sandwich, right, two of the new menu items available for fans at concession food vendors at Chase Field, are displayed prior to a baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Phoenix. Associated Press
Tim Suwinski, father of Pittsburgh Pirates' Jack Suwinski, and his grandson Will Hackl, both of Chicago, share “The Renegade” — a foot-long hot dog topped with potato pierogies, pot roast, pickles and onions — before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox in Pittsburgh on Friday. Associated Press

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