Illini football: Brown twins focus on nutrition to improve performance

Chase and Sydney Brown like a challenge, so near the end of the 2020 winter months they decided they would challenge themselves by dramatically changing their diets – they were going to go vegan.

What they may not have known when they started their all-in attempt on veganism was, they would have to completely rethink how they fueled their bodies. No more could they eat anything with animal products. No more red meat. No more chicken. Fish? nope. Eggs? No, but nice try.

“It’s really hard because I wasn’t vegan for 19 years of my life and then I just made a huge change there and I didn’t really know what I was going into,” Chase said. “I just stopped eating meat one day. It’s extremely hard because when you go into the Varsity Room or the food they have catered, it looks really good. I can’t do mac-and-cheese, I can’t do the hash browns. There was a lot of stuff I had to cut out,”

Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Sydney Brown (30) reacts to a penalty call during the third quarter against the California Golden Bears at Levi's Stadium.

Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Sydney Brown (30) reacts to a penalty call during the third quarter against the California Golden Bears at Levi’s Stadium. (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Said Sydney, “We went into quarantine and I did a little research myself and saw the benefits from it. We made the decision to just go for it because we had the time. . . . We made the leap and went for it.”

One thing that new head coach Bret Bielema told Chase early on in their relationship-building was that for Chase to be able to run the ball as much as he wants that he needed to put on some extra weight. So, Chase put on between 10-15 pounds in the offseason, but he did it with the help of one very important individual.

Jade Brinkoetter, a 2017 graduate from Illinois, was hired in February and oversees all of the nutrition needs for the Illinois football team. She is in charge of fueling the athletes and educating them about nutrition and provides them counseling as it relates to their diet.

In the early days of her new position, Brinkoetter was greeted by a set of twins who had adopted one of the most serious diets among any of Illini athletes, but veganism was something that she had dealt with in the past. In fact, it’s something that she says is becoming more and more popular for athletes to experiment with.

“I feel like it’s a very common theme right now,” she said. “A lot of documentaries and athletes are coming out and saying they are vegan. A lot of guys are like, ‘oh I should try this then.’ I wasn’t too shocked by it, by any means.”

Her experience with vegan athletes quickly became a big asset for both Chase and Sydney. Brinkoetter said that it’s common for student-athletes to think they need to do something with their diet, but they don’t know all the effects of removing certain things from their eating routine.

“Jade has been amazing,” Sydney said. “She really helps us dial into what we need. Guys like to experiment with what they do and she really helps try to guide them in the right direction. As for me, she really helped me hammer into what I wanted to do, being vegan.”

Putting together a vegan diet isn’t easy – especially for a college football player. For the Browns to be able to function at the necessary level they needed to meet a specific calorie goal and protein total. Brinkoetter was the engineer in formulating a plan for the Browns to do that.

“You are pulling out these big food groups and major food groups. You have to be strategic with how you get those from other sources,” Brinkoetter said. “A lot of educating things like if we aren’t getting protein from dairy or meat, we have to get it from other sources. Unfortunately, you have to end up having to supplement it with a lot of different supplements. A lot of protein shakes, you have to be willing to try tofu and you have to be willing to try these other plant-based protein sources if that is the route we are going to go. They were willing to try.”

One of the big reasons it was important for the Browns to get the necessary proteins and other nutrients is because it prevents injury. Animal-based proteins have creatine, collagen and lucy, all amino acids that naturally help the body build muscle mass. Without those nutrients, the Browns became more prone to injury.

“If you are in any sort of calorie deficit, your body is going to start pulling from muscle, your body is going to start pulling away from its stores and that puts you at an increased risk of injury,” Brinkoetter said.

This summer, both Chase and Sydney decided to move away from veganism. Sydney has added eggs back into his diet and Chase has started to get back to adding animal products back into his routine. Both said that veganism didn’t work for them and that there are good vegans and not-so-good vegans. They believe they fell somewhere in the middle – or closer to the poor vegan side.

“You can be a good vegan and you can be a shitty vegan,” Sydney said. “I was more so in the middle, closer to the crappy vegan. That’s why I made the change.”

On the surface, adding animal products back into your diet might seem like a really easy thing to do, but in reality, it’s very hard on the body. Dairy products are hard on the digestive system and red meats – like steak – have lots of unhealthy fats, which can also be hard on the stomach. Developing a plan to add things back into the diet was a difficult task too.

“I encouraged them to try eggs and fish to try and get those healthy fats and easy digestive things as opposed to things like dairy because their bodies hadn’t had it in a long time so they aren’t going to digest it very well,” Brinkoetter said. “It’s not going to sit easily. Kind of had them ease back into it that way.”

Complicating things, even more, was trying to find the right time in the calendar to add things back into the Browns’ diet. Brinkoetter didn’t think it would be a good thing to add dairy and red meats back to the diet during summer workouts, and especially not during training camp. So, during the twin’s off week, they slowly started to add the different food groups back to their routines.

“I was vegan during the spring training and then over the summer I transitioned out of that,” Chase said. “I started adding chicken, salmon, fish, stuff like that back to my diet. When sitting down and talking with her about ways I can build my body. I have done everything; I feel like that’s really helped me going into the season.”

Standing next to most college football players can be an intimidating thing. They are big, physically imposing humans, but standing next to Chase and Sydney is different. Both are really toned, and because of their diets and work with strength and conditioning coach Tank Wright in the weight room they have transformed their bodies in the last year.

“It’s a mixture of everything,” Chase said. “Our nutrition staff and Tank have done a good job of focusing on the little things. Tank has played a huge role in the transformation.”

Brinkoetter made it clear that the transformation Chase and Sydney have seen in their bodies isn’t something that she and Wright can take all the credit for. She praised Chase and Sydney for their dedication to work on their bodies.

“It’s not body by Tank. It’s body by you,” she said. “It’s body by Chase Brown. It’s like we are here to provide you and help you get to where you want, but ultimately you are the one that has to do it. I think it’s a credit to Chase and Sydney on that one.”

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