When Dave Ellis began studying to be a dietitian at the University of Nebraska in 1982, combining sports and nutrition into a full-time job was a fresh concept. A student assistant strength coach for Tom Osborne's football team, Ellis saw his role expand substantially after the training table manager put out a bratwurst and Braunschweiger feast on the same day the Huskers were scheduled to run 440s. "I got a lot of responsibility after that day to make sure we never witnessed that kind of a cumulative purging again," says Ellis, who approaches his 30th year in athletics nutrition with plenty on his plate. As president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association, which held its third annual conference in May, he reports that 26 NCAA FBS athletic departments now employ what he terms "sports RDs" — full-time registered dietitians. Paul Steinbach asked Ellis about this growing field.
Q: Why have higher education institutions taken this long to get wise to sports nutrition?
A: Traditionally, athletic departments could get somebody to pop in from somewhere else — campus food service or student health — and kind of subcontract him or her on the cheap. The reality is, it's a full-time job managing the athlete feeding that occurs at home and on the road. And sports dietitians can pay for themselves just managing those expenditures. But schools have been slow to do it. They've been slow to empower somebody to be not only a good manager, but an impactful and engaging educator who is really up on topics specific to athletics.
Q: What are some athletics-specific nutritional challenges?
A: The more you're around athletics, the better you learn how to deal with the very diverse cultures that exist. So we've been trying to make aspiring sports RDs a little more savvy about what it takes to work in power sports versus endurance sports, with males versus females, with young and maturing athletes versus fully mature athletes. It's a real art to know how to message in each of these unique environments. You have to be savvy about what time of the year you're going to talk about accruing muscle or losing fat, and there are maintenance phases where you don't broach those subjects.
Q: Is there one thing all athletes should avoid in their diets?
A: The number-one thing we're worried about in sports is the athlete who shows up under-rested and defaults to stimulant use to solve his or her energy and focus issues. Whether it's just a bunch of caffeine or it's more advanced sources of stimulants in energy drinks or pharmaceutical materials, all these things when used chronically can raise blood pressure, and that kills endurance in the short term. Long term, it enlarges the heart, and then you risk a potentially fatal acute cardiac event. You add undiagnosed sickle cell trait or asthma to the mix, and you've really got a problem.
Q: Where do you stand on the use of dietary supplements?
A: Anybody who has ever worked around Olympic and professional athletes knows that these people got tired of pills and powders a long time ago. They get it done with food. We put our energy into not only managing food and writing menus, but managing the labyrinth of dietary supplement issues that are out there in terms of permissibility and safety. That's what sports dietitians do. We jump into all that stuff, and we stay ahead of the curve.
Dave Ellis University of Nebraska Collegiate and Professional Sports Dieticians Association nutrition sports RD registered dietician