Tien Le: A Mann's diet and a 30-day trial

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 10:22pm

Hockey beat writer Tien Le and sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann sharing food within their dietary restrictions.

Hockey beat writer Tien Le and sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann sharing food within their dietary restrictions. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Molly Shea

The first thing you should know about Strauss Mann’s Paleo diet is that it isn’t exactly Paleo.

When I found out, I was popping open three boxes of tupperware and unwrapping a large bowl. It was Day 30, and I had just finished my month-long self-initiated challenge of trying out the famed diet.

Earlier in the week, I met up with the sophomore goaltender for our weekly check-in on my progress and, feeling bold, I asked if he would be down for each of us to cook up something Paleo and swap — a celebration for the end of my trial.

He was happy to.

Three days later, I presented my masterpiece: A box of sliced chicken thighs, roasted sweet potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts and a bowl of fried rice.

I started reading off the ingredients I used. Everything was tossed in olive oil and roasted except some chicken, which was coated with almond flour. As I went down the list, I realized the whole exchange flopped.

For one, he forgot to bring food. Maybe I didn’t think this through.

Second of all, he couldn’t eat a bite of anything I cooked that day. Yeah, I definitely didn’t think this through.

“You can’t just throw me in the deep end, say ‘Eat my food,’ ” Strauss explained. “There’s details here!”

While his diet is closest to paleo, there’s a lot of small changes that make it his own. No olive oil for cooking. No nuts. No plastic tupperware. He’s the master of his own diet. That’s the first thing you should know about his diet, and at the end of my 30 days, it was the last thing I found out.

I guess I just did it wrong.

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Courtesy of Sally Mann

Before his junior year, Strauss ate like any other teenager — pizza, pasta, wings.

He was the third-string goaltender on his high school team. Something had to change.

In past years, he tried different types of diets.

He tried cutting out meat, and he even attempted to eat less. While he lost a lot of weight, he lost a lot of muscle, too.

The summer after his sophomore year of high school, though, Strauss found out there was a gym in Greenwich, Conn., his hometown, where a lot of NHL players would work out during the off-season. 

Strauss begged his mom, Sally, to go. But she wouldn’t let him.

Instead, a friend of his went and chanced upon a nutritionist who gave him an entire dietary meal plan. When Strauss saw it, he simply took it for himself. Hockey had become a commitment, and he had to go all in.

“Strauss made a decision for himself that he really wanted to take hockey as far as he could,” Sally said. “And I think he started recognizing at that point that wishing wasn’t going to be enough.”

Strauss cited that summer as a turning point in his career.

But he didn’t start all-in — instead cherry-picking what he liked from the base Paleo diet. Over time, he did more research and started pinpointing specifics he thought he could improve. He talked to as many people as possible and even met with the nutritionist who made the original meal plan for his friend.

“It was hard, but he kind of stair-stepped into it at the beginning,” Sally said.

Because of the gradual start, Sally and others had just labeled it a phase. His family was no stranger to unorthodox eating habits. One of his three sisters was a vegetarian; another had food allergies. So when Strauss declared he was trying out this new diet, they all just wondered how long it would last.

But it lasted, and the conviction showed. When Sally went shopping, Strauss asked for ingredients aligned with what he could eat. And when it wasn’t made for dinner, he made it himself.

“It’s something that gives me discipline,” Strauss said. “I was the third goalie on my high school team, and then, everything started to change. So it’s like, you’re not gonna just stop doing it.”

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Courtesy of Tien Le

The problem for me was never stopping, it was starting. And honestly, I can’t say my reason for starting the diet was as inspired.

From the start, I knew I wanted to do it for an article — and also so I could get in better shape for spring break.

I didn’t have a bottom line. I wasn’t trying to improve my hockey skills. I was just … going to do it.

I kept pushing it off until January, and I had run out of excuses. That didn’t stop me from trying, though. Anything to get out of doing it. 

Give up candy and chips? I ate those every day. Wings and pizza, too? Those made up every dinner.

And not having a legit reason to do the diet made it that much harder to flip the switch. But tequila helped. I was at Skeeps on Jan. 7 when the fifth shot started to kick in. 

Now is the time, I told myself, as beer and other gluten-infested drinks spilled all around me. Tequila is technically Paleo, so I was off on the right foot. But I took my declaration seriously. I’m a man of my word.

I went to media availability the next day and asked Strauss for tips. I wanted to do the diet right.

“You can’t just be eating like carrots for lunch or something,” Strauss said. “That’s just not enough for your body. I have to eat like a ton of food.”

I had, indeed, only eaten a bag of carrots — not for lunch prior to talking to him, but for the entire day. I hadn’t gone grocery shopping for the week yet, nor did I have the time.

So for the first 72 hours of my trial, I had three eggs, a bag of carrots and two bags of Clementines.

And to be honest, I was miserable. I was gassed doing the simplest things, tired all the time. My sight was a little blurry, I constantly felt like passing out and it was hard to think straight. So nothing changed, really.

But I stuck through it. Tough times make tough people or something like that, right? It didn’t help that I had to travel to South Bend on Days 4 and 5 to cover the hockey games. I packed an extra bag of carrots.

Luckily, my fellow writers noticed my famined state and brought me to a Paleo-friendly brunch place. I ordered everything I could eat.

“How do you cook your bacon?” I asked just to make sure it was Paleo-approved. It was the final question from the long list of things I had to check off every time I ate out. She already noted they use sea salt and that the sweet potato fries were baked instead of fried.

“Not too crispy,” the waitress replied. Perfect.

The start was by far the hardest part, and the adjustment period my body underwent — Days 1 through 5 — made me question my existence. But I started to actually feel change, effects that Sally listed that Strauss felt too, like waking up every morning with a clearer head. 

Maybe it was worth it after all.

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Courtesy of Sally Mann

Strauss continued the diet throughout high school. It became easier with experience.

He realized he couldn’t turn the diet on and off as he had the previous ones, because it would be too hard to start again. No more spending Saturday nights snacking on chips. No more eating any refined carbs of any sort. No cheating for anything. But it wasn’t difficult — he grew to really like the Paleo palate.

“I think he finally realized that he kind of needed to be more focused about (the diet) if he was really going to do it,” Sally said. “It’s funny. It’s just kind of got to the point where it became what he liked to eat.”

There were still sacrifices, though.

Immediately after he chose to forgo processed food, his mom was adamant he have a cake for his August birthday. So they compromised. She would make a gluten-free, dairy-free cake, using only a dash of processed sugar. And he would consider eating it. But in the end, it wasn’t worth the cheat.

Eating and doing things with friends, for one, was a big challenge for him. His friends were at the age where they started drinking, and he couldn’t join. When they went for pizza, he couldn’t have any. But his high school friends already knew him.

It was a different story when he graduated high school and headed to juniors hockey in Fargo, N.D.

“He was thrusted into a team situation where nobody knew him beforehand at all,” Sally said. “And it was like, ‘Who is this? Who is this guy? What is he doing? Why does he have all this stinky food on the bus? And why is he not getting off when we stop and grabbing a pizza with us.’ ”

Fargo was a reality check from the bubble he had previously lived in. His billet family wasn’t prepared to cook around his diet, so he did all his shopping and all his cooking. His teammates learned about his diet before they learned who he really was. He learned the extent of his commitment.

“He’s figured out a way to kind of take a deep breath and wait for everybody to start accepting that this is just who he is and get to know him past (his diet),” Sally said. “It’s been a growing experience for him in regards to being willing to own something of himself.

“I think it helped him grow a lot beyond the physical aspect of what (the diet) meant to him.”

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Courtesy of Tien Le

After the first week, I knew what the diet meant to me.

This diet was the greatest. I was fully adapted and started to get used to not just the physical effects, but the mental ones, too.

Strauss told me one of the biggest things about his diet is it gave him a sense of discipline and consistency. I felt that — at least the consistency part. I definitely consistently felt hungry.

Paleo is all natural, with nothing artificial so it digests easily. I’d go through multiple large meals a day and not worry about how much I ate. In fact, Strauss encouraged me time and time again to eat a lot.

“That’s the best part,” Strauss said. “You can eat as much as you want and not worry about getting fat!”

That’s a hell of a perk. I love eating so not having a limit was great. Like Strauss’s, my body started absorbing things, working on its own better.

And most importantly, he mentioned how he felt more refreshed as a person. I was told many times over I’m much happier and more enjoyable to be around after I started my diet. A compliment, I guess?

I felt more structured and more responsible. I saw what Strauss and his mom were talking about. The discipline carries over. Strauss said his grades skyrocketed after starting his diet. Doubt it’ll have the same effect, but here’s to hoping.

My commitment was tested multiple times, too. So many late nights, I’ve driven friends to donut shops or Taco Bells, just to say I can’t have anything. 

But Days-6 to 19 were a breeze compared to the hell the first five days were. 

***

Fargo was a trial for him, but Strauss’s first year at Michigan was the real test.

When he first got to school, the team had a notion he was a little weird. Michigan coach Mel Pearson put it best: All goalies are a little weird. But Strauss admitted it got to him a bit.

The Wolverines held a team meal on the first day, and Strauss couldn’t eat anything they served.

“It’s so important to me that I’m not just going to go and change it just to fit in,” Strauss said.

The coaches understood, but, still, they had their grievances. He packed his own food and ate on his own during team dinner, which was important to them for team bonding. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even show up.

“We want to make sure we do things together as a team,” Pearson said. “And even if he’s having his own meal, at least come and sit with the guys for a half hour, hour and then go home and eat.” 

Once they addressed that, and forced him to add more carbs to his protein-heavy diet, they were fine with whatever he did.

He credits it as a part of his success, and above all else, he wanted to succeed at Michigan. And his teammates saw how he carried himself to such a degree for the sake of the team. He was caring for his body, drinking only Mountain Valley water or water from his filter, eating a strict diet and sleeping with blue-light goggles. 

“I’m someone that puts these routines over what people think of me basically,” Strauss explained. 

And his teammates teased him for it, in good fun. But they would get used to him filling his three extra fridges in his house with food he’s prepped. They would get used to his coolers clinking against each other each plane trip. Because they understood.

“We’re athletes and our bodies are our tools,” Jake Slaker said. “You got to do what it takes for you to play your optimal level, and he’s found a recipe that works for him.”

***

After the third week of Paleo, the hassle was no longer finding what I could eat or struggling with going out. It was just finding the time to cook.

Strauss cooks most of his food in the off-season, but in season, he has some help. He found a woman on Craigslist, an empty-nester who had time to kill. I placed an ad up, too, but to no avail.

But when I have the time, the meals I make might exceed both Strauss’s and his personal chef’s. I can say this with confidence, because after the Day 30 botched food exchange, we tried again the next Monday.

This time, I was ready. I knew now that olive oil denatures at high temperatures. That Strauss can’t have nuts. I knew to put the food on ceramic plates.

Day 35, he led me into the nutrition room at Yost, and we swapped meals. I cooked asparagus, sweet potatoes, fried rice, all with coconut oil and his favorite spices and herbs. The chicken I baked three different ways: honey glazed, spice-based and herb-based.

He served me slightly seasoned chicken, white rice, carrots and red cabbage. It was no contest. Teammate Luke Martin even walked out of the weight room to grab some of the chicken I cooked — twice.

A week earlier, I asked Martin about Strauss not caring about others’ opinion of his routines, and the level of commitment he had to his diet. Martin’s answer was as simple as it got.

“It’s just Strauss.”