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WHAT THE BILLS EAT. PORK CHOPS? MASHED POTATOES? GUESS AGAIN

A walkie-talkie pressed to her lips, nutritionist Phyllis Carriere paces the sidelines of the dining room and huddles with chef Jeff Serwi nowski about the ingredients of his steak sauce.

"Olive oil . . . uh-huh. Peppers. OK. Spices. Yes, thanks."

As Rob Johnson passes a steaming kettle of tortilla soup, Steve Christie lofts a turkey taco through his personal uprights.

It's lunch time at One Bills Drive.

The menu might surprise some. You were expecting pork chops stacked as high as linemen on a goal-line stand? Try a heaping plate of fruit. Butter-laden mashed potatoes? There's no place on the roster for them.

Instead, featured items include Caesar salad with Cajun chicken, pasta primavera and lean steak sandwiches -- the first time red meat has been offered at the team's group lunches in three weeks.

It's common knowledge that an athlete's diet is critical to his or her performance. Even so, a myth persists that professional football players can tank away to their heart's content -- or discontent, as it were. As we watch Jamie Nails trying to fend off fat like it's an angry pass rusher, we consider him the exception in a group that has free rein on all foods deep-fried.

Truth is, they're supposed to count calories just like the rest of us. They just get to count higher.

While an average diet amounts to anywhere between 1,800 and 2,200 calories, the Bills eat -- or should eat -- between 2,500 and 4,000 calories, says Rusty Jones, the team's strength and conditioning coach.

"In most cases, an athlete has to watch his diet a lot more closely than the normal population because speed and strength are such big factors in his life. His whole existence depends on it."

Because nutrition matters so much when the Bills are on the field, it's emphasized off the field. Ms. Carriere tries to simplify healthy eating for the players, posting a color-coded menu at the head of the buffet before each meal. Low-fat foods are highlighted green, higher-fat foods red, and medium-fat foods yellow.

Linebacker Dan Brandenburg squints at the lunch menu, sidesteps the steak (red-yellow) and opts for a taco (green-yellow). His is heavy on the rice and beans, light on the turkey.

"Every once in a while I do go out and have a bad meal, but it's easier for me to eat good food," he says.

Brandenburg has taught himself how to cook low-fat. To keep his metabolism alert, he eats four smaller meals instead of three larger ones. When he's in restaurants, he makes a point of requesting grilled, instead of fried, food.

Healthy eating was not always such a snap. Growing up on an Indiana farm, Brandenburg ate red meat "four times a week, kind of like the Brady Bunch."

He didn't worry about his diet at Indiana State. As a result, when he started playing for the Bills three years ago, he was a self-described "fat a--."

But he has since dropped from 255 pounds to 235, and from 16 percent body fat to 7 percent.

"Could I go for a Big Mac now?" he grins. "Sure."

Ethan Albright can sympathize. "I didn't know anything about nutrition when I came here," the special teams player says. "Variety for me was changing pizza companies."

Jones confirms that the Bills have the same food foibles as the rest of us. When asked about the players' worst eating habits, he doesn't hesitate:

"Skipping meals and selecting too high-fat a diet. When they look at a chicken wing, they don't realize that there are 6 grams of fat in one, and they're only allowed 40 or 50 grams a day."

You won't see a chicken wing at the Bills' table. When they eat together, about seven times a week during the regular season, their diet is high-nutrition, low-fat and balanced calories.

Ms. Carriere offers plenty of foods that provide a sustained release of energy into the bloodstream and can enhance endurance and stamina, such as rice and pasta. Foods that make blood sugar rise and fall quickly are generally avoided, except after practice.

Of course, in their off hours the players answer only to themselves. But back at One Bills Drive, they're accountable to the Bod Pod.

The Bod Pod is a $25,000 capsule that sits in the corner of Jones' office. It measures body fat and looks like Sigourney Weaver's sleeping chambers in "Alien."

If a player indulged his hankering for Ho-Ho's in his down time, Jones will know.

"It's like an MRI of fat mass. If they cheat," Jones says, pointing to the Pod, "they have to answer to me -- and that."

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