Interview with Becci Twombley, RD, CSSD
Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Southern California
What made you want to become a sports dietitian?
After graduating from Pepperdine University with a B.S. in Kinesiology – I began coaching volleyball as the volunteer assistant with the women’s volleyball team. My hope was to discover my true passion and find a career that never felt like work. During this time there were many events that highlighted how fueling directly effects performance in the athletes – from fatigue to eating disorders. Quickly, I knew that sports nutrition was the curiosity that I would never quench. Click here to read more
How has sports nutrition evolved since you began in 2007?
Every aspect of the job has changed. Sports nutrition used to be thought of as “one size fits all – menu creation” by many of the departments that were hiring. As sports RD’s went to work their value was quickly realized to reveal a skill set that is multifaceted. Research has become more specific, to sport, gender, energy system and duration, while data collection has become more available. Whether its ‘in game analytics’ or training measurables and strength or power numbers, we have objective numbers to assess the efficacy of our interventions. The combination of better research and data collection has allowed legislation in the NCAA, MLB, NFL, NBA etc, to be driven by facts and science rather than tradition and expectation. This has created a culture of wellness in addition to performance and tightened the circle of care around each athlete to yield improved resilience and smarter training.
A sports dietitian cannot only be an expert in food and nutrition, but also has to understand the science of training and how food and training impact the health of the athlete physically and mentally. Our job is to take the barriers out of fueling and to create a safe food supply so that our athletes can create sustainable habits that will sustain them throughout their careers.
You mentioned science driving legislation, how has that impacted your job on a daily basis?
The most poignant example would be the decision to “deregulate” food in the NCAA. Prior to this change, athletic departments were only allowed to feed athletes supplements that contained less than 30% of their calories from protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and “bagels, nuts and fruit”. This put a huge barrier on sports dietitians because we were often caught in a philosophical battle – food was expensive for the athletes to buy and prepare, but bars and shakes are not “food”. As science evolved to make a case that athletes should eat multiple times per day, that food contains the most bioavailable forms of essential nutrients and that the current athletic department practices did not protect the athletes from heart disease and metabolic disorders, the NCAA was forced to take a look at their policies.
Now, foods can be used as functional foods. We can feed athletes incidental to competition – meaning every athlete (walk-on or scholarship) can be fed according to their nutrient needs based on their training schedule - Breakfast in the morning, high carbohydrate fuel prior to practice, smoothies post training, and Greek Yogurt, deli meats or cottage cheese as a high protein snack for instance. Athletes still are responsible for their meals most of the time, but this allows the athletic departments to fill in the gaps so that injury risk can be kept to a minimum.
How do you incorporate Pistachios as a functional food in your fueling stations?
Since pistachios are a multi-tasking food, they can be used in several ways! We have shelled pistachios in plastic cups to be used as a pre-lifting energy source. Pistachios in the shell in pre-portioned bags, ready to be taken to class for mid-day fueling and we mix pistachio butter into smoothies or oatmeal to add nutrient density when athletes do not like to eat vegetables.
Mainly, we are looking for the healthy fats, antioxidants and protein in the pistachios. The mixture of the healthy fats and lutein helps to support the brain and eyes, the polyphenols help to decrease inflammation and the arginine effects circulation and recovery. From a macronutrient standpoint, the fiber, carbohydrate, fat and protein help to fuel every energy system the athlete uses throughout the day – whether at rest, to generate power or for endurance.
What would you recommend for aspiring sports RDs?
Getting your foot in the door in sports nutrition requires a willingness to volunteer and to find opportunities to practice your skills. Since sports nutrition is not an entry level job – but rather a specialty in the field of dietetics – it requires an underlying knowledge base with the art of practical application.
I recommend getting to know the culture of the sports you wish to work. Each team and sport have their own nuances that will make team interventions effective. Without clear understanding of the language, energy systems and scheduling requirements, fueling plans are difficult to create and implement.
Joining professional organizations like the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (sportsrd.org) will provide them with a network of professionals to help them get connected with internships, scholarships and research opportunities as well as educational resources.