Food for thought
Last year, when the NCAA relaxed the regulations schools must follow to feed their college athletes, sports dietitians took on a whole new level of importance. Now, their numbers are growing even faster on campuses – and so is their influence.
Like any first day of class, anxious freshmen sit at the front, backpacks crammed around their feet. Seniors lounge in the back, overlooking their teammates from the highest point of the small auditorium.
“Before we begin,” Jana Heitmeyer calls to her students, “if you do not have a bag of snacks, raise your hand.”
From the veterans in the top row to the newcomers at the bottom, hands pop up around the room. Heitmeyer’s eyes widen. It’s time to deliver her first lesson. “You are very wrong,” she informs the men, who are all members of the Baylor University football team. “Get something in your hands right now.”
The words trigger a flurry of action. Coaches and graduate assistants and interns dart to a table in the back holding plastic bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix and tropical fruit cups. They scoop up the bags and send them flying like footballs, one after another across the room, until every player has food.
This day is the first of summer workouts for the Baylor football team. Already this morning, the players jogged around the athletics facilities as the sun rose; grunted through rounds of pushups, high knees and sit-ups; and ran timed repeats across the length of the football field, fresh dew spraying in their wake. Now, minutes later, they are gathered for the introductory team meeting, where they review everything from alcohol to class attendance to social media.
But first, the snacks. Knowing players need to refuel immediately, Heitmeyer prepared the snack bags to hold them over until their breakfast an hour later.
Heitmeyer is a fast-talking, fast-walking 35-year-old who wears workout clothes all day. Like the football players she instructs, today is her first day, too; she was hired as the Baylor director of sports nutrition only weeks earlier.
In the world of sports dietitians, she is a seasoned veteran. Roles like hers were rare when she stepped into the field more than a decade ago and began building the nutrition department for the University of Missouri, Columbia, athletics. She has witnessed the NCAA rules on food evolve throughout her career and has eagerly adapted each time the opportunities for student-athlete nutrition grew, at first little by little, and then all at once.
Now, she takes on a new challenge at Baylor – one of 53 NCAA schools that employ a full-time registered dietitian, according to the latest numbers from the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association. On days like today, her work doesn’t stop when the food gets laid out. Nutrition education – the reason the players needed to pick up the free snack bag – will be her biggest priority over the coming months. Every meeting, every practice, every meal has the potential to be her classroom.
Her challenge begins as nutrition in college sports demands attention like never before. During the 2014-15 academic year, for the first time, the NCAA lifted restrictions on how much and how often Division I schools can feed college athletes. Similar loosened rules will apply to Division II beginning in August.
The opening of the food gates has pushed many schools to re-evaluate their investment in nutrition. With fewer limitations, how much food should they provide student-athletes? What could they provide?
Another obvious question – what are other schools doing? – isn’t far behind. This, of course, is the reality of college athletics. Competition is fierce, and schools are searching to find an edge. Just as the competitive nature has driven coaches’ salaries and training facilities, so, too, can it drive the quest for increasingly sophisticated approaches to nutrition for college athletes.
“The arms race is something we all have to be mindful of,” says Michael Rogers, a law professor at Baylor who served for 13 years as the school’s faculty athletics representative. “But at least we’re spending the money on the student-athletes.”
So as athletics administrators explore whether they can afford to increase their nutritional offerings, they’re also faced with another complicated question:
Can they afford not to?
When the University of Kansas hired Randy Bird in 2005, it became the 10th college athletics department to bring on a full-time registered dietitian. Four years later, Bird joined six other dietitians in organizing a national conference on sports nutrition in Nashville, Tennessee. Information about the conference spread through word of mouth. Forty-five people showed up.
A year after that, in 2010, the group held a second conference, during which it established an official not-for-profit organization to advocate for the proper nutritional care of athletes and promote the position of sports dietitian. The Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association was born.
Today, Bird is the director of sports nutrition at the University of Virginia and past president of the organization, which has grown in five years to more than 900 members. “We’re in the business of taking care of athletes,” Bird explains.
No two days are alike for the dietitian. Some days he is working with the chef of the athletics dining hall to develop menus that meet the needs of college athletes. Other days he is planning meals for team travel or ordering the Greek yogurts, trail mixes and fruit that keep the fueling stations stocked. He conducts cooking demonstrations, grocery store tours and body composition tests, discussing with athletes when they should be eating their meals; what nutritional supplements they should be taking; and how they should go about gaining muscle or losing fat or fixing an iron deficiency. He does it all with the help of one other full-time dietitian and a couple of interns.
He’s proud of the services they provide at Virginia. And he likes the direction nutrition across college athletics is heading. In his eyes, however, there’s still a long way to go.
“We would ultimately love to see sports dietitians elevated to equal status as athletic trainers or strength coaches,” he says. “You can’t imagine a school not having a strength coach or an athletic trainer. Why is it OK for a school not to have a sports dietitian?”
Of course, the glaring reason is money. When the deregulation of meals and snacks passed in 2014, some believed the gap would widen between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Schools such as Auburn University and the University of Oklahoma churned out the newest and coolest in sports nutrition, from smartphone apps to smoothie and juice bars specifically for student-athletes. Fifty of the 53 schools with at least one full-time registered dietitian hail from one of the five conferences typically considered to have the most resources: the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten Conference, the Big 12 Conference and the Pac-12 Conference.
Yet even in those Division I conferences, nearly a quarter of schools haven’t made the investment. For some, Bird says, it’s a matter of where they prioritize their money. Others “aren’t aware of what they’re missing out on,” he guesses.
Bird adds: “They think they have it covered.”
Jana Heitmeyer’s office overflows with football players.
They sit on the two-person couch across from her desk, and at her desk, and at the desk of the assistant nutrition coach. A couple players stand near the door, while one lies on his back on a machine that is scanning his body.
The machine, a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, measures bone, muscle and fat mass. Many schools use similar body composition machines on campus, yet Baylor is one of the few with a $100,000 DXA located inside its athletics department. Every athlete gets scanned at least twice a year.
Heitmeyer sits in a chair next to the machine with a clipboard in hand and launches into her list of questions. How much do you weigh? What’s your weight goal? What did you play at last year? Are you taking any supplements?
The player begins to walk Heitmeyer through his eating habits during their break. It starts with cereal for breakfast.
“When’s the next time you eat?” Heitmeyer asks.
“Fast food. Wendy’s, Fazoli’s, Whataburger honey butter chicken biscuits …”
Heitmeyer has her work cut out.
What about dinner?
“Dinner’s good,” the player says emphatically, as if he’s reliving last night’s meal.
“Dinner’s good how?” Heitmeyer is amused. “Like you think it tastes good? Or good like I’m going to approve of it?”
The dietitian understands the obstacles college athletes face in fueling properly. She was once in their position, as a gymnast at Kent State University. After college, she started as a strength and conditioning coach at Missouri but soon realized she didn’t get excited about lifting regimens the way she got excited about meal plans.
Eager to tap into this area, she began small. “We started literally with buying the athletes water bottles in 2007,” Heitmeyer says. From there, the passion grew, and she returned to school to become a registered dietitian while working full-time with Missouri athletics. She earned her certification in 2011.
Meanwhile, in Waco, Texas, the seeds of a nutrition program were beginning to sprout. Led by Kaz Kazadi, Baylor’s associate athletics director for athletic performance, the Bears athletics department added a volunteer to handle nutrition. The role evolved into a graduate assistantship and, eventually, into an entry-level position.
Now, as some of his peers in athletics work to hire their first sports dietitian, Kazadi focuses on building an entire department. He recruited Heitmeyer and will soon hire a third dietitian to replace his former assistant director, who moved to the University of Notre Dame to become the director of sports nutrition.
Kazadi believes it takes a team effort to satisfy athletes’ nutritional needs. “If you’re going to work on eating disorders, food allergies, plan meals for away games, plan meals during summer conditioning – if you’re going to put all these responsibilities on one person, it’s a recipe for failure,” he says. “I call it bad mathematics: One person does not a department make.”
Heitmeyer thinks, in the future, sports dietitians could be employed like athletic trainers, where there is one designated to every team. Orchestrating the diets of the football team alone, she says, could be a full-time job. “Will it be in my lifetime? I don’t know. But we’re moving there.”
It’s easier to imagine such a scenario for schools such as Baylor, where administrators value sports nutrition and give the practitioners the resources they need. At other schools, the benefit of a nutrition program is recognized but doesn’t rise to the level of other priorities. Would a full-time dietitian be nice to have? Sure. But is it worth a chunk of a limited budget?
Antwan Floyd, the director of speed, strength and conditioning at Coastal Carolina University, says nutrition experts must make their case to decision-makers. “Even if you have a big budget, nobody’s going to say, ‘You want a nutritionist? I’ll make that happen,’” Floyd says. “More than likely, you have to educate them on why you need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars feeding the athletes. It’s our responsibility to share what we do and why it’s important.”
Floyd is still working toward acquiring a full-time dietitian on staff – he’s hopeful it will happen in the next two years – but in the meantime he is not overlooking nutrition. He educates student-athletes through handouts, bulletin boards and social media, and he has used a volunteer nutrition intern since 2012. Last year, Floyd received funding for a new graduate assistant position dedicated to nutrition.
“We are forced to be creative in our nutrition planning,” Floyd says. “It’s a challenge, but at the same time, it’s part of the job.”
Targeted nutritional efforts are beginning to appear in Division II, as well. In 2010, California Baptist University hired Christopher Bates to develop the school’s first strength and conditioning program. Soon after he arrived on campus and began observing and listening to student-athletes, he felt pulled to expand his program beyond the weight room.
“That was affirmed by a lot of athletes coming to me with questions about diets and supplements,” Bates says. The strength coach began asking around to learn what other schools – mostly at the Division I level – were doing. He discovered a “Pandora’s box of sports dietitians” and became convinced he could find a way to better fuel his charges at California Baptist despite limited resources.
Bates reached out to the school’s nutrition and food sciences program, which is led by Margaret Barth. The strength coach and the professor agreed to work together to serve college athletes, and in 2013, they launched Lancers Fuel. Now, when Bates comes across student-athletes who could use nutritional guidance, he refers them to Barth. And she, with the help of her students, interviews them and develops customized nutrition plans.
Bates and Barth have also published a nutrition guide for California Baptist student-athletes and “maps” they can use to make healthy choices at campus dining halls. In the fall, the duo will offer a new one-credit-hour course based on the student-athlete nutrition guide.
None of the initiatives would have been possible without collaboration, Bates says. Barth is quick to credit the strength coach. “I think Chris has been very intuitive about keeping in touch with people who may be potential collaborators,” Barth says. “We don’t have big budgets here, but we find a way to get it done.”
On April 15, 2014, Lauren Link saw the news on Twitter. She turned to her colleague and said something she never thought she would: “They just passed deregulation.”
Link, a sports dietitian at Purdue University, knew the rules change was under consideration, but that didn’t dim her surprise when the NCAA Division I Legislative Council made it official: In four months, athletics departments would be able to give their student-athletes meals and snacks – in addition to the meals some already received as part of their financial aid package.
Link and her fellow dietitians cheered the deregulation. But with this new frontier came an onslaught of questions. “Even though we could do so much more now,” Link recalls thinking, “what would we be able to do logistically? Financially?”
The movement toward deregulation began in 2011, when a group of representatives from Division I schools was formed to examine NCAA rules on student-athlete well-being. In 2013, the group submitted the proposal to provide more nutritional freedom to schools. At the time, financial aid rules limited schools to funding 21 meals a week – three meals a day – through a campus meal plan or stipend. One of those meals each day could be a “training table,” or a meal provided only to student-athletes. These benefits did not typically apply to college athletes who were not on scholarship.
Additionally, representatives from member schools had previously passed reforms allowing schools to supply certain snack foods: specifically, fruits, nuts and bagels. The adjustments were an attempt to give schools more dietary breathing room but still keep the reins on competitive advantages. Instead, nuances of the regulations turned into the butt of countless jokes, mainly centered around the infamous prohibition on bagel spreads that riled up cream cheese and peanut butter lovers alike.
Most schools recognized the new meals and snacks proposal was intended to provide members the flexibility to better meet the nutritional needs of athletes. Yet skeptics remained worried about competitive equity and the familiar arms-race struggles in college sports.
The proposal made its way through the NCAA governance process, which included a months-long membership comment period before the Legislative Council – made up of university presidents, athletics administrators and faculty members – formally adopted it in April 2014.
In response to the rush of questions that inevitably followed, NCAA staff issued an educational column clarifying that, yes, as long as schools were still following the rules for financial aid and training tables and banned substances, they could provide both scholarship and non-scholarship athletes with any food the school deemed appropriate.
Purdue, led by Link, responded with a half-million-dollar investment in fueling stations. Located in the two athletic weight rooms, the stations hold an array of grab-and-go offerings. The staff stocks refrigerators with bottled waters, Gatorades, cherry juice and milk. They cover counters with trays of protein bars, packages of jerky and containers of trail mix.
Link and the other dietitian on staff manage the stations with a team of students from a nutrition course they teach on campus. To help athletes with their choices when she’s not around, Link’s team created signs for each grouping of food. “I’m protein-rich and great for post-workout!” reads one tag above a bowl of Clif Bars. “I’m calorie-dense! Use me in moderation unless trying to gain weight,” reads another attached to a dispenser of snack mix.
Snacking stations are some of the more common post-deregulation additions to athletics facilities. For many schools, including Purdue, those were just the beginning. Diverse, creative offerings have begun to pop up around the country as dietitians take advantage of the newfound nutritional latitude.
Link decided to literally grow what she could offer. The 25-year-old former Purdue soccer player had only dabbled in gardening, but on a campus with one of the world’s leading agricultural programs, she knew her resources were ripe. Why not let athletes grow their own fruits and vegetables?
The pieces came together faster than Link had imagined. Not long after presenting her idea, she received permission to transform a 75-by-25-foot patch of land behind the football practice field into her student-athlete garden. She formed a partnership with the local Fresh City Market, which funded all the starter seeds, and consulted with a Purdue horticulture professor and farming students to gather advice.
By the start of summer, Link and a small group of student-athletes and staff had planted rows of kale, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, onions and peppers along with a variety of herbs. When the rest of the teams return to campus for the start of the fall semester, they’ll have the opportunity to tend the garden and take home produce. Any leftovers will be donated to the community.
As her latest initiative gets off the ground, Link is already thinking ahead.
“Could we have a farm-to-fueling station operation?” she asks, picturing stations stocked with cucumbers and carrots picked fresh from the garden. Maybe in a year or two.
Her brainstorming continues.
“This would be really far in the future,” she says, “but what if you had apple trees out there? That would be cool …”
Jana Heitmeyer has yet to eat lunch.
She has been going since 5 this morning, not that anyone can tell. Streams of college athletes have been walking through her open office door all day, and she welcomes each one with the same energy and banter.
Heitmeyer is talking with another football player about his diet when her boss, Kazadi, pops his head in. He knows the new dietitian has not taken a break. Even the experts need a nudge sometimes. “Let’s go,” he tells her.
Later, while Kazadi and Heitmeyer are headed back from lunch, the dietitian’s phone rings. It’s a video call from a player she used to coach at Missouri. He wants to know what supplements he should – and is allowed – to take. “I’m glad you called instead of just buying stuff,” Heitmeyer tells him.
For college athletes who are already performing at high levels, improvement lies in the details. Maybe it’s consuming 20 grams of protein before going to bed. Or drinking cherry juice to aid recovery. Dietary tweaks that might go unnoticed in the average person can make a significant difference to competitive athletes.
Jason Osei, a senior football player and a computer science major at Baylor, has felt the difference on the field. He says he noticed Baylor staff place a bigger emphasis on nutrition starting in spring 2013. Before that, he says, “We didn’t know how to eat, so guys weren’t recovering as much as they are now.”
Osei believes the additional snacks and meals offered over the last year have helped mitigate fatigue. “Workouts before were intense and hard,” the offensive lineman says. “We’re still doing the same stuff, but guys are saying it’s tons easier.”
To measure physical progress in athletes, sports dietitians can use tools like the DXA scan, urine samples and other medical tests. But when examining other benefits of a school’s nutritional efforts, the bulk of the evidence is anecdotal.
Bird, the Virginia dietitian, says he has observed fewer players pulled from practices due to cramps and muscle strains. Allison Maurer, the lead dietitian at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says she sees her athletes making better choices, like grabbing a salad to go with their meal.
“Unfortunately, we can’t measure it,” Maurer says. “But the benefits are obvious when you see the athletes over the course of their years here.”
To the Tennessee dietitian, the long-term benefits are the most valuable of all.
“One of the things that has been rewarding is watching them graduate and already have the tools in place to make those dietary adjustments from being an athlete to not being an athlete,” Maurer says. “My favorite is when they get desk jobs and they tell me, ‘I started packing my lunch every day.’ I can’t measure how important that is to me.”
Drive less than a minute down the road from the Baylor athletics facilities. You’ll hit Interstate 35.
Head north from Waco for 85 miles. You’ll arrive at Texas Christian University. Head south from Waco for 100 miles. You’ll reach the University of Texas at Austin. Eighty-five miles southeast is Texas A&M University. One hundred miles past that is the University of Houston.
In this hotbed of competition, recruiting never ends. And as the focus on nutrition secures a place of importance in college sports, no one can predict just how heated this piece of the game will get. Already, some schools show off their nutritional offerings the way many programs talk up their training facilities. Is it possible, in the world of sports nutrition – built around the altruistic ideas of fueling and educating student-athletes – to go too far?
Rogers, the former Baylor faculty athletics representative, simply hopes schools will make nutritional enhancements for the right reasons. “I don’t want to see people hiring Emeril Lagasse to be the chef for the athletics department,” Rogers says. “I hope they will employ some common sense.”
Outside on the Baylor campus, a piercing, beeping clamor of construction resounds. Crews are hard at work creating an $8.5 million dining facility for Baylor student-athletes that is set to open this fall. The Beauchamp Athletics Nutrition Center will feature a traditional sit-down dining area, grab-and-go stations, a lounge area and a recovery center. For the first time, college athletes won’t have to travel across campus to eat a meal at one of the regular campus dining halls. Instead, they will walk a few steps to consume meals designed to meet their specific needs.
On top of the investment in the nutrition center, Baylor athletics budgeted $1.5 million over the last year on extra food, hydration and supplements. The school’s financial commitment to nutrition will be ongoing, and Heitmeyer plans to take full advantage of these resources.
Back in her office, on this first day of her first summer with the Bears, the dietitian starts with getting the athletes’ attention. “I want to make you guys the beasts of the team,” she tells two football players, who perk up at the words. “That’s my mission this summer. But I need your help.”
Like the flow of people entering her office, Heitmeyer’s advice is never-ending. And while most student-athletes will use the knowledge in their quest toward short-term goals, Heitmeyer has some long-term objectives in mind.
When a football player claims he has no time to cook, Heitmeyer offers guidance he can draw on years down the road: “Go to the grocery store. Get a rotisserie chicken, a bag of steamed broccoli and rice. Pop it in the microwave. Done.”
To the athlete who is inadvertently losing muscle: “You need to get something into your body before you run so your body burns that instead.” And to the one running low on energy during games? “I bet if you had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before you played, you’d feel better.”
If all goes as planned, the student-athletes will make healthy choices now – and later.
Her lessons don’t come with an expiration date.