Allergies : Avoiding Food Sensitivities Boosts Player's Game

Joe Christensen

The visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a sugar lover's paradise, with big glass jars filled with every type of candy imaginable, from Twizzlers to Twix to M&M's.

Justin Morneau - who cut gluten, dairy and sugar from his diet last winter after going through food allergy testing - had no problem avoiding Candy Row, when the Twins visited the Rays two months ago. But after the series finale, the real temptation came as workers dished out a catered spread of ribs and macaroni and cheese.

That used to be one of Morneau's favorite meals.

"It was difficult," he said. "But I knew I'd feel like absolute garbage after eating it. I knew my body wouldn't be recovering because it's trying to break down food I shouldn't be eating, so I was better off avoiding it."

Morneau, 31, isn't allergic to gluten, dairy and sugar, but he learned his body is sensitive to those foods. He began avoiding them, hoping to stay healthier after going through four surgeries last year and suffering another season-ending concussion.

After losing 20 pounds before spring training, Morneau knew it would be tougher during the season - finding ways to eat healthy on the road and facing skeptics who wondered if this skinny guy could still hit for power.

Morneau hasn't returned to All-Star form, but he has been healthier, save for a 15-day stretch on the disabled list because of a sore left wrist. He's batting .238 but has 10 home runs, one triple and 11 doubles, giving him a .470 slugging percentage, not far below his .497 career mark.

"It's not like I'm down 20 pounds of muscle," he said. "I think it's mostly the extra fat that puts pressure on your knees and back. I'm lifting the same weights. I feel strong, and I actually feel lighter on my feet."

When Morneau arrives at PNC Park in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, he'll find a cardboard box waiting at his locker. Inside, packed in dry ice, he'll see his day's meals made by a chef from Target Field and shipped overnight.

"It's pretty much just lean proteins, rice, almost any vegetable or fruit," Morneau said. "It's pretty much the way everyone should eat. No greasy foods, no fatty foods, or all the rest of that stuff."

While slowly recovering from his latest concussion last fall, Morneau went through a series of medical tests, looking for answers. He wondered how his diet might be affecting his recoveries, so he took the ALCAT (antigen leukocyte cellular antibody test) to see if he had food allergies.

He stopped eating gluten - a protein found in foods processed from wheat - and cut dairy and sugar with a plan to gradually re-phase them into his diet. In December, he weighed 242 pounds, and by spring training, he was about 10 pounds under his usual 233-pound playing weight.

Carrie Peterson, a University of Minnesota sports nutritionist, said it was important for Morneau to find healthy substitutes to fill the void in his diet. Now, he's getting a double benefit of cutting foods that are bad for him and adding foods such as fruits and vegetables that do him good.

"Most of those foods are pretty high in phytochemicals and antioxidants, so that also helps reduce any form of inflammation," Peterson said.

Peterson has done consulting work for the Timberwolves, Wild, Vikings and Lynx. Told about Morneau's case, she said this doesn't mean every athlete should eat the way he does, fearing parents might get the wrong idea.

"First and foremost, Justin has a diagnosed intolerance, so he has to work around some things," she said. "But you can't make blanket statements that if I cut all these things out, then I can be a better athlete. I'm a firm believer that all food fits into a healthy diet, even Doritos and cookies, periodically. That's part of being human."

Morneau showed up at spring training notably thinner and didn't hit a home run in his first 37 exhibition at-bats. Some wondered if his power-hitting days were over.

"Your swing has nothing to do with strength," Morneau said. "You can take a body builder, and they're not going to be able to hit a ball out of the infield. It's mechanics, it's technique, and then it's actually how hard you hit the ball, and where you hit the ball on the bat.

"Not that I would ever compare myself to Ted Williams, but you look at the (red) seat at Fenway Park where he hit that ball (502) feet, and they didn't have weightlifting or anything like that when he played."

Morneau quieted the doubters during the season's second week, when he smashed three homers in a three-game span at Yankee Stadium.

"Those home runs in New York will stay in people's minds," Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra said. "And more importantly, his mind, so he knows he can do that. It's all confidence and trust."

Morneau ranks third on the team in home runs behind Trevor Plouffe (14) and Josh Willingham (13). But according to ESPN Home Run Tracker, Morneau has the Twins' two longest homers of the season - a 439-foot shot at Yankee Stadium on April 16, and a 451-foot blast at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field on May 24.

Morneau was primarily the designated hitter early in the season, but he has started 23 of the Twins' past 27 games at first base. He credits the diet for helping him become a full-time first baseman again.

"I've done a ton of reading on it, so I could talk for hours about it," he said. "Half the people look at you like you're crazy, and half the people are interested and wonder how they would do if they tried it."

©2012 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service

Editor's note: Mediator Release Testing (MRT) can also be used to identify food sensitivities.

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