How to tailgate the healthy way

For fans, part of the joy of football season is the chance to eat tailgate food – and to drink plenty of alcohol. Cynthia Bulik, a professor of eating disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains how you can stay healthy at tailgate parties from before kickoff until the final touchdown.

How to tailgate the healthy way click to enlarge CookingLight offers four tailgating menus at

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

Written by Sara Peach for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL – Former sports broadcaster and Pro Football Hall of Fame coach John Madden once explained that to plan a proper tailgate-party menu, you must distinguish between “floaters” and “sinkers.”

“Salad is a floater,” he wrote in his 1998 tailgating cookbook. “Sushi is a floater … the stuff you eat in tiny bites with your little finger in the air.”

In contrast, real tailgating food is all sinkers: “Chili is a sinker,” he said. “Pork-chunk stew is a sinker. Jalapeno-venison meatballs are sinkers. They sink down there and keep you on the ground.”

But eating such high-fat, high-calorie food can easily cause weight gain, said Cynthia Bulik, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the UNC School of Medicine. That's bad news for millions of tailgaters, fans who celebrate football games by holding parties in stadium parking lots. Most tailgate parties feature grilled meats, creamy cold salads and drinking games such as beer pong and flip cup.

A majority of tailgaters arrive at the stadium at least three hours before the game, according to The duration of the party can contribute to weight gain, Bulik said.
“The concept of a discrete meal goes out the window, and it's more like a long graze,” she said. Eating for long periods of time can interfere with your body's usual fullness signals, meaning that you can end up consuming much more than you intended.

Alcohol can cause you to eat more, too.

“It's much harder to maintain control over your eating when you are drinking,” Bulik said. “Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, and it lowers our eating inhibitions as well.”

So how can you stay healthy at a tailgate without spoiling the party?

First, remember that you don't have to eat or drink excessively to be a fun tailgater.

“It's your personality, not how much or what you eat or drink, that contributes to the atmosphere,” Bulik said.

  • Stay aware of how much you're grazing. “Take small portions and get away from the food every once in awhile,” Bulik said. “Take a little walk around, visit friends, focus on the social and not just the food aspect of the event.”
  • Bring a festive and colorful dish, such as a fruit salad, to balance the calorie, salt and fat-heavy fare. Or try putting bananas, pineapples and peaches on the grill to bring out the fruits' natural sweetness.
  • Vegetables also taste delicious when grilled. Try placing marinated mushrooms, sweet pepper slices, chopped onions, cherry tomatoes and zucchini chunks on skewers to make vegetable kebabs. Or grill sweet corn for a tasty treat.
  • Serve raw vegetables with dip made from low-fat yogurt. Choose a recipe with plenty of garlic and fresh herbs, and you'll get a dip with intense and satisfying flavor.
  • Serve grilled meat on whole-grain buns. Add flavor and crunch with lettuce, onions, sprouts and sweet peppers.
  • Watch your alcohol consumption. For every glass of alcohol you drink, follow it with at least one glass of plain or bubbly water. “If you have plastic cups, people don't have to even know what you are drinking,” Bulik said. “In fact, you might even forget.”
  • Try taking inspiration from the Deadhead community, in which tailgating music fans often eat vegetarian food, such as egg rolls, burritos and falafel. But remember that those foods also contain plenty of calories.


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