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Brain Armor had the pleasure of speaking with Jennie Zabinsky, the Senior Director of Sports Nutrition from Virginia Tech.
Jennie is responsible for many aspects of nutrition and performance related issues for varsity student-athletes. Her work in this field is full of variety; she handles everything from individual counseling to body composition analysis using the Bod Pod, to recovery nutrition plans. She also manages the Nutrition Oasis and Fueling Stations, develops and delivers training on nutritional supplements, and more.
As a member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Jennie is one of over 60 full-time registered sports dietitians.
What does a typical day look like for you?
That is not an easy question, I’ve had that question asked to me before. Every day is different but in general there are a lot of moving parts with Sports Nutrition; I am not a one man show. I have over 20 interns and two graduate assistants that are also dietitians and together, collaboratively our day starts around 6:30 in the morning.
We have fueling stations that open then and those are how we provide food to our athletes on a day to day basis. They're mostly pre-workout, post-recovery types of snacks and day-to-day snacks, so if they’re in between class and they want something we would prefer them to eat what we have available there.
We are also feeding a lot of football players so we have mandatory mornings where we supervise and counsel during that time with the guys. Then the rest of the day is one on one counseling so we will see athletes from any one of or 22 teams.With the other sports it’s more counseling and getting them through the season, or we might be helping them with travel plans etc.
We are also currently in Bod Pod season: At the beginning and end of each semester we test our athletes body composition using the Bod Pod. We have teams come in as groups and in the five minute we have with each athlete, we ask them a series of questions and get their feedback on how nutrition and performance is going. Then we follow up with any more official assessments as needed.
Another type of day is a team talk: This is where we organize our thoughts and address, in a group setting, something sports-related specific to that team.
We also provide recovery smoothies three times a day to our football guys after their lift and conditioning sessions. Since they are still in their spring season our day doesn’t really end until 11pm and that’s because they are practicing so late. We do this recovery spread which includes Gatorade slushies and fresh fruit. A vendor comes in with a menu we created and it’s like a "grab and go" situation.
A lot of the work during the day can be broken down into 2 things. One is the education piece and the other is fueling the athletes. I say that I have the best job in the department because I get to be around food and the athletes and see them grow and buy into our culture.
It is a very rewarding job.
What types of foods are on the table for the Athletes at breakfast?
For football we have a rotating menu, which is provided 5 days a week. Breakfast has a limited menu, but we always have fresh fruit; the favorites are strawberries and pineapple, but mango and kiwis are always popular too. The menu starts with fresh fruit, and then we do oatmeal and toppings, scrambled eggs - of course - and we’ve recently added chicken breast which is not traditional but we’re trying to keep their protein up. They only get sausage once a week, but we have turkey bacon. We try to have variety. We have bagels and cheese, with ham, so something like this is rotating. They like French toast with berries and the traditional drinks, juice, milk, water and of course the basic cereal is available.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I feel like I’m part of the coaching staff, but I’m the food coach; I have a different relationship with these athletes. I’m there for them from a performance stand point, but I’m not in their face. It’s a positive relationship. We’re still not super cool, but we’re trying to make it cool so it’s nice that there is a challenge. Our athletes are not always going to buy into everything we say and that’s what keeps up progressing and keeps us on our toes.
What are some of the challenges you face?
One would be, because everyone eats, everyone thinks they know what they should be doing or maybe their own nutrition expert. You have to debunk the myths, and we are constantly having to change people’s minds or make them think differently. The other challenge we face is that these are college students in general, so I’m working with crazy schedules. Finding the time to make nutrition a priority is a challenge as well.
What kind of advice do you offer to new athletes coming into the program?
Summer and early fall are our busiest times of year because we’re part of their initial physicals. This involves a nutrition screen which includes all the athletes’ filling out nutrition assessment forms. There we can weed out any issues and target certain athletes that will need our help more than others. That is the initial communication.
Next comes orientation with every team. We meet with new students and upper class-men. We discuss our services and what we can provide; this leads to them realizing we’re part of their team and they can utilize us.
We do a freshman-only nutrition talk, we meet with our sports psychologist and academic people, and the students spend a whole day listening to our lectures. We changes it up each year and make it more interactive. There is food now so that’s fun. We don’t do initial assessments on everyone because we have over 500 athletes but we do what we can to be available.
Do you have anything else you would like to add or comment on?
I really didn’t discuss more of our medical side but just touching on supplements, like Brain Armor: It is written in our concussion protocol. We have athletes that are healthy and then we have our medical athletes who are injured or have issues like food allergies and we are able to provide supplements like Brain Armor which we think will really benefit them. We have a food first philosophy but something like Brain Armor is a perfect extra piece.
We wish we could give it to everyone but unfortunately per NCAA rules it’s impermissible to provide it without a prescription, so currently it’s only for the concussed athletes. VT as a university is one of the leading researchers in the nation regarding concussions and athletes, much of the work is being done in our bio-medical engineering department.
We also do 2-3 cooking demonstrations per semester and one of our graduates is a Chef Registered Dietitian - so that makes it a lot of fun. This is where we help teach them with life skills. We do grocery store tours so our athletes learn to make their own choices. We don’t want to hand hold them throughout the entire thing; we are just guides to what good looks like.
Jennie Zabinsky, MAed, RD Senior Director of Sports Nutrition from Virginia Tech
Jennie, it was a pleasure speaking with you, thank you for
Brain Armor is proud to part of the ongoing efforts to bring nutrition and health into the lives of all athletes.
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