How to Eat Healthy at the Ballpark
A writer who loves to eat nachos and hotdogs at the ballpark interviews a registered dietician and finds out that it's still possible to enjoy her favorites
My husband and I used to go to a lot of local baseball games. Living in Maryland, we're both diehard Orioles fans. And watching a game at one of the most beautiful stadiums in the country — Oriole Park at Camden Yards — is a benefit.
Since the pandemic, we haven't been at all. (See my essay on being an extrovert stuck in our home.) But we've toyed lately with the thought of attending a game.
Then I thought about the food. Mmm ...
But we're eating better, so I thought I'd check in with someone who knows what she's talking about when it comes to healthy eating at the ballpark. I interviewed Jana Wolff, a registered dietician focusing on bariatric surgery and weight management and the Director of Nutrition at Greater Baltimore Medical Center's Comprehensive Obesity Management Program.
"If you're going to get that one thing you really want, share it with a friend or get a small or kid-sized option."
Having spoken both nationally and internationally about obesity, as well as patient support for weight loss and regain, she would know what I should and should not be eating at the game.
The larger question was: Did I want to hear it?
I started off with an easy question for Wolff. (Please note that all the comments in italics are solely from me — usually my thoughts of despair when realizing what kind of caloric intake I've had in past stadium visits.)
Next Avenue: When it comes to food and drinks at the ballpark, what are some ways to make healthier choices?
Jana Wolff: If you're going to get that one thing you really want, share it with a friend or get a small or kid-sized option. I do that already. I share it with my husband. I figure that if he's eating it too, I'm eating less. I delude myself that way.
Eat before you go, especially if you go to the park often. If you go hungry, then you're likely to consume more. I always try to eat before I go. Note that I said 'try.' It usually doesn't work out that way. Because I think of all the tasty foods at the ballpark and figure I'll eat there. Argh ...
If you're going to drink alcohol, make sure to eat first to avoid overeating later. Have a limit for yourself. Alcohol is highly caloric and can add up quickly, plus it can lower inhibitions and impact blood sugar, inviting us to eat foods that aren't helping us towards our weight management goals. Hey now — I don't drink alcohol. Could I steal these calories for some loaded nachos with extra cheese?
Avoid the words 'loaded,' 'deep fried,' 'extra sauce' and 'extra cheese.' I call foul! I love loaded nachos with extra cheese.
What are the best foods to eat at the ballpark if you're trying to lose weight or have diet issues?
Opt for low sugar, diet or seltzer water drinks — this will help you stay hydrated, which helps with weight management on a cellular level. Dang. I don't like diet drinks. And seltzer water always reminds me of getting a Coke after the soda tank has run out. Ick. Guess I'll stick to plain water. Okay, I can do this!
Visit the team store — usually they have packaged foods like baked chips, nuts, fruit, veggies, yogurts, string cheese, protein bars, small sandwiches and foods that you can physically see on the food label what the serving size is and the number of calories. I'll get my husband to do this. Otherwise, I'll be in the team store and see all the expensive jerseys and suddenly decide that I'm the biggest baseball fan ever — and I just neeeeed to be the owner of all of these cool clothes. Then $300 later, I won't need to worry about what I'm eating because I'll be nauseous from all the money we've spent on other things.
Is a bag of peanuts a better alternative than a box of Cracker Jacks?
It depends on how much you eat of it. Peanuts are highly caloric — a quarter cup of nuts de-shelled is about 200 calories. However, it's much better for your health than sugar coated popcorn (Cracker Jacks), as peanuts contain healthy fats, vitamins and some protein. If you get a big bag of peanuts, portion it out in a small cup so you can limit your portion size, but still feel like you're getting a cup of peanuts. Define 'small.'
Healthy and Less Healthy Options
What are the absolute healthiest foods to eat? What are the worst?
The word 'healthy' can mean lots of things to different people. Maybe for some it's low sugar, low calorie, low carb, high protein, vegan or minimally processed. To keep it simple, I look at the 'healthiest' foods as the ones that are lowest in calories. In the long run, for most people, this is what can best help you manage your weight. Hmmmm … I usually eat a hot dog, nachos, and ice cream. I don't think I want to know the calories.
Lower calorie options include:
Cracker Jacks: 120 calories, 14 gm sugar
Nuts: 160 calories per ounce, don't eat the whole bag (the whole bag can range up to 1200 calories)
Hot dogs: 290 calories (without toppings)
Soft serve ice cream: 200 calories for 1/2 cup (the baseball cap)
Small soft pretzel: 350-400 calories (avoid the large ones or share with a friend)
Corn on the cob without butter
Note: These are per serving. The portion sizes that they come in are huge, so sharing these with a friend may be helpful. Or get a small cup and portion some foods out.
Well, these aren't too bad. I could eat a hot dog and ice cream, and my world wouldn't crumble.
Higher calorie options include:
Nachos: 600 - 1000 calories depending if they're loaded or super. What? For the love of all that's holy … clunk. Oh, sorry, I fainted there for a second. But nachos are my favorite. They're in a league of their own. Sob … I'm not crying; you're crying.
Chili cheese fries: 600-1200 calories depending on size. That's okay, I don't like these anyway.
Cotton candy: 420 calories (mostly sugar). It dissolves in your mouth — going, going, gone! Where's the fun in that?
Pizza: upwards of 500 calories per slice. Gasp! Pizza is one of my favorite foods.
French fries: 500 calories for a 6 oz. serving. I think I'm losing my will to live.
Many parks have new, exciting combinations of food like a pizza burger, loaded tater tots with crab dip and cheese, etc. so these will likely be your highest in calories.
Is eating at home before the game really a good idea? I'd tried to do this before and then end up eating something at the game anyway.
Eating ahead or even just making sure you have a balanced breakfast and/or lunch so that you're not famished before you get to the park [helps]. If you're super hungry, you're more likely to eat more. If you're less hungry, you can think a bit more clearly about what you want to prioritize to eat and really savor. I'd say that this makes sense, but I'm still crying over the nachos.
Could we make a compromise? What if I eat something at the ballpark, but also bring something with me? What should I eat to delude myself into thinking I'm balancing it all out?
If you're spending one night at the ballpark, enjoy it! Bring something with you if the park allows it but get one thing that you've really been looking forward to. Weight management isn't about the one night that you overate calories, it's an average of what you eat most of the time. So if you're attending lots of games, going to parties, etc. then yes, compromise and bring something healthier with you. Yay! I don't go there a lot. I can eat whatever I want. All right, all right. I'll be good.
"My mantra is 'all foods can fit, but how often and how much matters, too.'"
How can I control my portions at the ballpark — besides giving the rest of my food to my husband?
Drink a bottle of water before you eat, eat ahead of time so you're not 'hangry,' stay hydrated that day as dehydration can usually lead to higher feelings of hunger. Really savor your food choice. You're allowed to enjoy it. Actually, if you don't truly enjoy it, was it even worth it if you're going to beat yourself up afterwards? If you indulge, taking smaller bites, slowing down, and savoring while practicing mindfulness can really help you feel fuller sooner — our brain has time to catch up to our stomachs filling up. So what if I chew the nachos really slowly while I walk around the stadium? Ugh … I know, I know. Eat the baked potato chips instead.
As a Director of Nutrition, do you always make the right choice at the ballpark? What is your downfall food?
No, nobody is perfect, especially dietitians. We really make it a point to not demonize food. My mantra is 'all foods can fit, but how often and how much matters, too.' Just because you love a food doesn't make it a downfall. Challenging yourself to savor that food, enjoy it, not beat yourself up and balance out the rest of the day is a much healthier way to live, mentally.
Your overall diet determines your weight and health. If there are plenty of areas for improvement in your lifestyle, look at them one at a time. If you go to the baseball game once in a blue moon, then make sure you're exercising, eating well, managing your stress and eating balanced meals, and then the one thing you want won't hurt your efforts. If you go often enough, then start eating ahead and choosing one small option that will satisfy you.
So if my 'downfall food' is the food that I love most, it would be French fries and an ice-cold beer. What a save! I'm relieved to see that everyone has their favorite at the ballpark.
While I can't guarantee that I'll be able to give up my nachos, perhaps I'll just get them with cheese to dip in. For my health, that would be a home run!