Sports nutritionists forge ahead despite pandemic challenges

“I don’t eat vegetables. I only eat food like cheeseburgers, Spam, hot dogs and pizza.”

“I’m a light eater. As soon as it’s light, I start to eat.”

–Art Donovan, Pro Football Hall of Famer who gained renown for his appearances on the late-night talk show circuit of the 1980s & ’90s

Sports and nutrition have come a long way over the course of the past decades. Today, nearly all Division I athletic programs feature a staff member who focuses on addressing those nutritional needs as a key element of sports performance.

It’s absolutely critical,” second-year Eastern Illinois head football coach Adam Cushing said. “You talk about how small the differences are when you get to this level, Division I. The talent levels aren’t that drastic, so finding the small details that make a difference and proper nutrition is certainly one of them.”

For a school the likes of EIU where budgets were stretched even in pre-pandemic days, athletic departments have to get creative. Eastern uses a series of graduate assistants, enrolled in 18-month programs, to address its need for a staff nutritionist.  Presently, that role is held by Nicole Cirrencione, who grew up in New Lenox and did her undergraduate work at Northern Illinois University.

Nicole Cirrencione

Nicole Cirrencione

My job is to provide nutrition education to the EIU athletes,” Cirrencione said. “With a lot of the football guys it’s that they want to gain weight and muscle. With the different positions they play, it’s not one size fits all. Whatever their personal goals are is how I tailor nutrition sessions.”

At Illinois State University, the task falls to Chris Carter, who plays a dual role as assistant strength coach and nutritionist.

For both nutritionists, the COVID-19 world has been the biggest challenge.

“It’s limited my interaction with them (players). Covid has hindered what post-workout nutrition we can provide them. And Covid has affected their facilities such as their fuel-up stations after practice,” Carter said.

As with so many aspects of contemporary life, gone are face-to-face meetings.

Whenever you’re looking through the screen and everyone has that Zoom fatigue, it’s harder to get your message across. I’m sitting here preaching, ‘this is what you need to do, nutrition is so important for X, Y and Z’. They’re like, ‘yeah, I can do it’ and then turn off their computer and don’t always follow it. So that’s been a big challenge I’d say,” Cirrencione said.

Different approaches

With in-person meetings not an option, the nutritionists have turned to technology and its tools.

“We’ve been working on a communication app (featuring) recipes, grocery lists,” Carter said. “The more the athletes see you, that’s when actual conversations happen. When they’re out there training, it’s easier to connect . . . But now it’s often when it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind so that’s the biggest struggle.

“That being said, when you look at our entire student body (in all sports), I’ve probably had more one-on-one nutrition meetings from August to now than I had all last year.”

Cirrencione said, “In the past it was more of the nutritionist going in person to do presentations or little 5-to-10 minute team talks, but everything that I’m doing this year is basically all over Zoom to keep everybody safe. I actually like that. It’s been good for me. When I meet with an athlete, I can pull up different things and share my screen. I can show them all these different resources that I have.”

In recent years, the EIU nutritionist took the players on grocery store tours to demonstrate the best items to fuel their bodies and minds.

“It’s about how to actually go shopping and not just buy five frozen pizzas for four bucks,” Cushing said.

Again, due to the pandemic, Cirrencione has instead turned to creating virtual shopping tours at local stores.

‘Don’t eat’ lists

Perhaps surprisingly, neither nutritionist gives the players lists of items to avoid.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter

“I try to steer away from that because at this level, the guys are going to do what they want to do,” Carter said. “I’ve changed my tone over the years. I convert anything nutrition-related to money. I want athletes to focus on what they should be getting in(to their bodies). First of all, are they getting enough calories? That’s number one, especially if they’re trying to gain weight. If they’re eating really high-quality food but they’re not getting enough calories, well they’re getting tons of micronutrients and fiber which is fantastic, but they’re probably losing weight. So, I always emphasize the need for calories to be the priority. So if the default is to eat some high-calorie junk food to reach your calorie goal and get your weight gain, I want you to do that.

“Number two is emphasizing protein. I’ve done so many studies in food service. Every athlete at Illinois State, I guarantee you, that at least 95 percent of them don’t come close to the bare minimum of protein that their bodies need based on weight-body mass, based on being an athlete, based on the amount of training that they’re doing. The only athletes that are even close are the meatheads who need their protein shakes 30 minutes after they work out. It’s funny, they don’t need to do that, but they’re the ones who come the closest because they’re so programmed that they have to do it.”

Cirrencione said, “I’m okay with just about anything in moderation as long as you can fit it into your plan.”

You can lead the horse to water . . . 

Of course no matter how good the nutritionist and no matter how well-developed the plan, it won’t matter if the athlete doesn’t buy in.

“I have an offensive lineman on the team right now, he needs to take in at least 4500 calories. He hates to eat,” Carter said. “He tells me, I had a salad today. I tell him, ‘that’s great, but that does nothing for you.’ I tell him to take a multivitamin and make a smoothie at night and add some greens powder to it to get your micronutrients in and then eat tons of PB&Js, tons of things like smoothies that can fill you up (and get you what you need).

“The amount of protein he needs, he’s not even coming close. You need to add shakes, because if I ask you to eat eight ounces of chicken three times a day, you’ll do it once. You’re not going to do it two other times.

“Within the football team there are some guys who when they see me are like, ‘oh, you’re the health guy.’ That’s fine, but when you’re an offensive lineman and you’re undersized or you’re a running back who has gained 10 pounds of body fat and you want to be fast . . . it isn’t going to work out very well come game time.”


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