A Café or a Learning Lab? The Cleveland Browns Dietitian Explains
FLIK: Tell us about your background and what led you to your current role as the Browns dietitian.
Katy: I started as an athletic trainer in the collegiate setting taking care of athlete injuries and I thought it would be better to either get the players out of the training room sooner or prevent them from coming in injured in the first place. Much of the research showed that nutrition is pretty important in this process.
I was working at a college in the northeast and we didn’t have a dietitian for the [sports] teams, so that is what drove me into going to grad school and becoming an RD (registered dietitian). It was right before the boom of sports nutrition. I worked at several different universities as their sports dietitian in the athletics department then moved to the Cleveland Browns as their first full-time dietitian. This was three years ago, right when the NFL was starting to realize the importance of nutrition and investing in the holistic health of the players.
FLIK: Is it a requirement within the NFL that each team have a dietitian?
Katy: Yes, there needs to be a dietitian involved on a consultant basis for the athletes that have questions.
FLIK: Start with the basics: what does an NFL team dietitian do? What is a typical day like?
Katy: Much of the role is daily nutrition support and making sure the players have what they need. If there are any illnesses or injuries then it’s about assessing those and seeing how nutrition can assist. But, a lot of the role is food service based. Our day-to-day support is making sure the players have [the food] they need when they need it, that they like what they’re eating. A lot of it is daily nutrition support and being there if they have any questions. And we are the reminder to eat – being there before the first meal and then throughout the day until the last player eats.
FLIK: During your day, do you work one-to-one with players as well?
Katy: Most of the education is fly-by sessions, sometimes standing in the hallway. We will do a traditional one-to-one session with the rookies to gauge their nutrition and weight status as well as food allergies or special nutrition requirements. A player’s position will determine his weight goal, which impacts his nutrition needs. The time of year also plays a role in nutrition needs. For example, off-season involves a lot of running and lifting without the football component which is a lot of activity. We also need them to build muscle during the off-season, so their nutrition needs will be different at that period of time versus training camp versus weight and muscle maintenance during the regular season.
FLIK: What is your nutrition philosophy?
Katy: I’m definitely a “food first” dietitian and believe all foods fit. This is all dependent on the athlete’s goals, health history, and playing history. I don’t recommend any specific diet unless there is a food allergy involved. If a player has his own philosophy, then we try to meet them where they’re at, but no huge lifestyle changes while they’re playing.
FLIK: What about supplements – where do they fit in?
Katy: Supplements and protein powders are needed, but as minimal as possible. We do use protein powders for protein shakes as a convenience tool. Most professional athletes aren’t going to want to eat a chicken breast after a workout, so we are going to make protein shakes to meet that need. The NFL has very stringent supplement rules. I am also very conservative when it comes to supplements, but something like protein powder can be used when necessary.
FLIK: You often refer to the FLIK café as a learning lab. Can you tell us more about this?
Katy: When I first got to the Browns, we talked about how the café can be the learning lab for the players. If they don’t see it in action or I can’t show them how it is done then it’s hard to learn without actually doing it. We talk a lot about strategies to maintain weight or stay energized. So we take those strategies and, whether it is working on portion sizes or choosing one option over another or making a salad or putting a smoothie together -- those are all tangible skills that we can learn together in the cafe. Any time we can put education and messages out on a label or a table, it can definitely make a difference. We all learn in a different way and those messages can assist with that. Sometimes we do what I call ‘plate coaching’ where I will go down the line with a player and discuss why they need specific foods, maybe it is two servings of protein or a specific amount of carbs, and how to recognize those options in the café. It’s a great, hands-on lab.
We recently talked about the fact that only one in 10 Americans are eating enough vegetables in a day. The players were trying to make sure they were getting enough vegetables in a day and there was a challenge among them to see who could eat enough. We also discussed what a serving size looked like and realized that our player’s fists are a lot bigger than most average adult’s fists. So we looked at serving sizes in the bowls and plates that we use every day and that was eye-opening.
FLIK: Do you find that some messages are better received than others?
Katy: It really depends on the person and their prior experiences. Competition and challenges really work well with the athlete base. Anything that ties to their career longevity also resonates the. It is a lot about building relationships and getting to know the population you’re working with.
FLIK: Do you find that the information you share in the café is helpful for the players when they’re eating on the road?
Katy: For me it is a lot about the function of food and what the food provides. If it is carbs it is energy or fuel, if it is a fruit or vegetable then it’s an antioxidant, is it an immunity building food. I want them to know the function of the food so that it relates back to them. On the road, I travel with labels and we put them out for the players to use. On off days, they might text me their food or ask me what they need to do to on an off day to maximize recovery. If they’re on vacation then I help them by providing guidance for what they should eat in certain environments. Being a dietitian on the team, you have to be visible and you have to be a positive presence so that they are comfortable reaching out to you to ask questions.
There are strategies for different players and different positions have different needs, so it is knowing the needs of the position and how active they are. But when it comes to it, they are just regular people.
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