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Active Athletes Sing the Praises of Pasta

October 02, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Apparently, it doesn't take much persuasion to get trainers, strength coaches and athletes from Southern California's sports teams to slip on green aprons and sing the praises of pasta in the basement of the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

At least such was the case last week when representatives from USC, UCLA, Loyola Marymount, the Los Angeles Rams and pro basketball's Lakers and Clippers eagerly and indelicately slapped together pasta dishes that were intended to typify selections from the modern athlete's nutrition-conscious diet.

However, the occasion was actually a sparsely attended media affair meant to showcase Olive Garden Italian restaurants, which coincidentally specialize in serving pasta at three local outlets. Presumably, the fact that many of the nation's athletes and their coaches have embraced spaghetti with its attendant complex carbohydrates means the rest of the non-athletic world should also be so inclined.

Olive Garden executives in attendance certainly hoped to encourage the linkage because this General Mills food-service subsidiary is rapidly becoming the nation's first chain of dinner houses specializing in a full range of Italian cuisine. In the next 24 months, the company hopes to add at least 11 more outlets in the Los Angeles area, complementing the 22 restaurants currently operating around the country.

One of the keys to making a variety of Italian foods as popular nationally as tacos, pizza and hamburgers is to eliminate the myth that fettuccine, rigatoni, linguine and the likes are fattening. And there is no better way to address this waistline issue than to gather a group of sports experts who specialize in solid torsos to endorse pasta's purported energy-boosting properties.

"Most people think pasta is still fattening, but it's good for everyone," said Bill Lombardo, Olive Garden marketing director. "It's good for your diet regardless of whether you are an athlete (who burns up a lot of calories) or not."

To further its cause, the restaurant chain will soon publish a collection of Italian recipes gathered from those fitness specialists in attendance and other local sports personalities. Proceeds from book sales will be donated to the L.A. Games, an annual amateur athletic competition.

But before any of the Sports Arena creations are likely to be printed anywhere they'll need some shaping up. The extemporaneous entrees were assembled from a wild collection of ingredients, the results of which are unlikely to appear on even the Olive Garden menu. For example, one participant topped his pasta with zucchini pieces sliced so thick they resembled clam shells. Another offering was liberally doused with four-inch-long green beans; then there was the generous addition of eggplant strips the size of pencils, and a fourth dish contained enough olives to raise eyebrows in Sicily.

Food and Football--Apart from the formal Olive Garden presentations, more than just lip service was paid to the role diet plays in sports. At USC, all the school's athletes regularly have their eating patterns analyzed by a specially programmed computer, according to Jerry Simmons, the Athletic Department's strength and conditioning coach.

The students are then instructed in ways to properly change food selections in order to reduce fat intake, improve performance and raise energy levels. Nutritional instructions continue throughout the year for both men and women on all USC team sports.

Weaning college students away from potato chips, soft drinks and hot dog staples is not too difficult.

"When an athlete comes to me and complains about a lack of energy, we look at their diets and make recommendations. Many of the suggested changes are subtle, such as reducing fat intake by not eating the skin on chicken," Simmons said. "When our kids see the results, they're sold on the program. They respond--very much so.

"I think the athletes on our football team have a better knowledge of nutrition than their fellow students. And besides, they need the extra energy to train as hard as I work them in the weight room."

Programs, such as the one at USC, are relatively rare at the professional sports level. However, Russ Bolinger, a recently retired Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman, said that dietary awareness is growing in the National Football League.

"On the Rams, 10 years ago, they always served steak for the pregame meal. Then people began to realize what a steak does to you on the day of the game," he said. "Today the team's pregame meal at around 10 a.m. is always pasta. At first, it was pancakes and pasta but they cut out the pancakes. Pasta gives you a lot of energy and about three-quarters of the players now eat it. And before you know it you're out on the field jumping around."

Vodka and Chernobyl--The federal government recently announced an extensive testing program to monitor imported beers, wines and spirits, primarily from Eastern Europe, for radioactive contamination.

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