Calories are the fuel athletes use to power their bodies, similar to putting gasoline in a car.
Good calories can propel athletes to compete at optimal levels; consuming bad calories is like putting low-octane gas in a high-octane vehicle. The performance will be impaired.
Jill Joseph, the sports nutritionist at Penn Athletics, provides nutritional education and individual counselling to more than 900 student-athletes across 33 teams, helping players fuel and recover, and ensuring that they are healthy and able to play.
On any given day, she can be found giving individual counselling sessions, doing team talks, or assisting freshmen in devising an eating and training schedule. She serves athletes with medical nutritional needs, creates nutritional plans for athletes returning from injury, and instructs athletes on how to buy healthy groceries and cook healthy meals. She also gives tours showing how to eat healthy in dining halls and works with coaches on travel meals, locker room snacks, halftime fueling, and hydration protocols.
Joseph joined Penn in September 2016 from the University of Louisville, where she served as the assistant director of performance nutrition. She says her interest in nutrition was only a hobby until she attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she received her master’s degree in nutrition in 2011.
“Athletes demand so much of their bodies and they’re working so much, training three, four hours a day,” she says. “I just became really interested in the additional nutrition that they would need to be able to support that kind of work.”
Penn Today sat down with Joseph in her office inside Franklin Field to talk good and bad nutrition, eating healthy while in college and away for the summer, foods athletes should avoid, vegan living, and general nutrition advice for all.
Why is nutrition important for athletes?
Number one, for any athlete, their energy needs are so much higher than the average person—their mineral and vitamin needs are so much higher, just based on the amount of work that we’re asking their bodies to do every day. We really have to be conscious that they’re doing X amount more work than the average person, so they need X amount more of all of these types of things, calories, minerals, vitamins, proteins, et cetera.
What are the effects of bad nutrition?
We see a lot of energy deficits. For example, in the second half of the game, they just run out of steam. Your body stores energy fairly efficiently, but if somebody is playing a lot of minutes at a high intensity, they can run through those stores of energy pretty quickly and, coming up on the second half, you can see energy just tank.
College students are not necessarily known for healthy eating. How do you help them eat healthy when they have so many unhealthy options?
It helps that we have, I believe, good options available in the dining halls. [Student-athletes] can mix and match, and make a different meal almost every single day for the whole school year, if they really tried. But we do have the food carts and the different restaurants that are close by, and it’s difficult.
In terms of trying to navigate students to the healthy choices, I do feel that I try my best to make baby steps. If they’re eating out 10 meals a week, whether it’s lunch or dinner if we could just reduce the number of those because the reality is they’re not going to eat what a dietician would eat every meal. But if we can make small changes, then hopefully they feel how those changes make their bodies operate in a better way, and then, hopefully, that’s when we start to get some of that buy-in. Freshman year is largely regulated by their dining plans. I think a sophomore year is really the trickiest because they’re out on their own, they may not have a dining plan, and so that’s our hardest group to work with.
Do different sports and athletes have different nutrition plans?
They’re pretty unique.Some of the field sports may get clumped together, like lacrosse, and soccer, and, to a little lesser extent, field hockey—those sports where they’re covering a lot of distance and they’re doing really high-intensity work with very short breaks. They might run downfield and then they’ll stop for a matter of seconds, and then they’ll change direction and they’ll go somewhere else. Those types of sports I sort of have in one category. And then it even gets more complicated within those sports because you have different positions. The needs are different for a goalie versus a midfielder. The basketball players are high-intensity work. They’re going up and down the court the whole time. Their mileage isn’t as high, but they are sprinting, largely, for most of the game. And then you have other sports, like gymnastics. They really have unique needs because when they’re competing, they do an event with moderate- to high-intensity output for a couple minutes, and then they take a break for a little while.
While I do kind of group some of them together, each sport is unique in some way. Swimming and diving, that’s a very high-output sport. Some of those athletes need 4,000 or 5,000 calories a day based on their volume. An offensive lineman is going to be very different than a swimmer, certainly a long-distance swimmer.
What about sports that have weight, classes? Do you help wrestlers maintain their weight?
I was just working on a meal plan for a wrestler. We have wrestling, we have sprint football, and lightweight crew: all of those are going to be what we call weight-dependent sports. My main role in that is to help them make the weight and be successful at the weight they need to be at, but get there safely and healthily, and not do crash dieting.
Is there a certain type of food that you advise athletes to avoid completely?
Fried food. I could say avoid alcohol or avoid soda, but there is a large amount of research out there about fried foods and trans fats and heart disease. Eating grilled chicken fingers versus fried chicken fingers I feel is not that big a concession to have to make. I try to have them avoid the grease and the unhealthy kind of fats in fried food at all costs.
What advice do you give athletes when they are away for the summer?
If some of them have specific goals and things they want to work on over the summer, I send them meal plans. I’m here all summer, so if they’re living or working in Philly, or if they live in a suburb nearby, they can stop in. Otherwise, I can do things like email and FaceTime.
Are you strict with your diet?
Not strict, per se, but I’ve tried different things. I really am a big advocate of–whether you want to call it a diet or a lifestyle–trying different things to see what makes you feel good and feel your best. Most recently, I was a vegan for a couple years because I was really interested in the way that people talked about how it increases your energy, and you just feel kind of cleaner and better. I think it’s fun to do little experiments for yourself.
Did you notice a difference in your energy when you were a vegan, or how you felt?
Not energy, per se. It wasn’t like an overnight thing, so it’s hard to say. But I really like in general how it made me feel. I don’t think I changed my weight at all, but I didn’t feel as heavy on the inside. I liked it and I hope to go back to it.
Do you have any general nutrition advice for athletes or non-athletes?
Don’t eat large meals. That’s one that transcends all, whether you’re trying to lose weight or trying to put on healthy weight. It’s really trying to avoid those large meals based on the hormonal response that follow large meals, an insulin release. Try to stick with small, more frequent meals throughout the day as a way to reduce body fat and stay healthy, no matter who you are, athlete or non-athlete.