Interviewed by Dalina Soto
Written by Maria Sylvester Terry
A little bit about Leslee…
A Penn State grad, Leslee did not have plans to go into nutrition. She applied her degree in biology to her work in a cancer epigenetics lab at UPenn; she studied leukemia and breast cancer as the lab manager. She felt that from here, she’d eventually go to grad school for her PhD in the biological field or even go to medical school. But… neither of those were on her career path. She realized she truly wanted to study nutrition and dietetics. And, we are so glad she did!
After making this decision to switch gears, Leslee pursued her Masters degree from Drexel University, a rigorous and fast-paced program that prepares students to apply for a highly competitive dietetic internship (only 50% of applicants match). Leslee matched to Yale-New Haven, a highly sought-after program with a clinical concentration. However, something about Yale’s program attracted her a bit more than the clinical emphasis. She knew she would have a two week elective that she could design herself. This two week elective arguably serves as Leslee’s introduction to a field she would come to love: sports nutrition. She arranged her elective rotation with the Philadelphia Eagles. After internship, she acquired her RDN and LD credentials.
Currently, Leslee is working to advance her practice by earning her Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credentials.
What led to the switch? Why nutrition?
Leslee shared that working in a cancer laboratory was extremely stressful. In her much needed free time, she found herself working out at the gym often and researching nutrition. Yes – researching in her FREE time. She found a growing passion in exercise and healthy eating. Leslee started a healthy living blog and applied the principles of sound nutrition to her own life, which led to a significant weight-loss she has sustained since 2013. Her passion for sports nutrition was further fueled by her own athletic endeavors, such as running half marathons, taking on the Broad Street 10 Miler, and even competing in her first bodybuilding competition this April. In her own words, Leslee shares, “I feel like I am living out my passion by working in sports nutrition.”
Where is Leslee now?
Though she served as a registered dietitian on the Philadelphia Eagles’ staff, Leslee moved back to Minnesota where she now serves as the Assistant Director of Sports Nutrition for the University of Minneapolis, a Big 10 football team. She solely works with football players at University of Minnesota, and trust us when we tell you – that is MORE than enough work! She is responsible for educating and consulting with over 100 football players, and they absorb her time every day.
Oh Baby, Baby It’s a Wild World: Sports Nutrition & Diet Culture
When asked how the culture of wellness, dieting, and food trends affects her clients, Leslee offered a truly eye-opening perspective. Working with NCAA Big 10 football athletes, she consults all different body types, from specialists like kickers and punters who may weigh 160 pounds to linemen, whose body weight could surpass 300 pounds. Regardless, it seems that diet culture and trends affect them, for they often ask her about diets like keto or intermittent fasting. But, given the sport they play, these diets do not support their performance. Leslee conducts diet and nutrition education often to help them understand that, depending on their position, their proposed body composition goals might not actually serve them or their team.
For example, she will hear from players frequently about achieving a six-pack year round. But, if you’re a linebacker or a tight end, an extremely low body fat percentage and a six-pack are neither ideal nor purposeful. She educates them that holding extra weight helps them to withstand a hit they may take on the field.
In terms of diet culture as we often see it (i.e. achieving the thin ideal), Leslee doesn’t see this as much in her field. Sustaining weight gain is more of a typical goal rather than achieving weight loss, according to Leslee, especially working with college athletes. Players are not concerned about achieving thinness as a goal, but that doesn’t keep her from addressing trends with her players. On “Taste Test Thursdays,” Leslee introduces trending ‘superfoods’ to players; additionally, she has a team of interns she employs to try new recipes that fight “flavor fatigue” and offer creative ways to fuel players’ bodies. Seriously, Leslee is an all-star expert for these athletes!
That Moment When You’re a Registered Dietitian Driving a Fork Lift…
There are challenges and elements to being a sports dietitian that many would never realize unless someone like Leslee broke it down for you. And, lucky for us, she did.
First, Leslee notes that when you work with a professional or college team, there are many, many players and just one of you. “I am running around like a chicken with its head cut off during games,” she shares candidly. Is everyone fed? Did everyone get a snack during half-time? Is everyone hydrated? She might not be an athlete on the field, but she has a lot of footwork, sweat, and manual labor included in her line of work.
Fortunately, Leslee follows her own weight training regimen so she is able to keep up with the demands of the job; in a way, her work on the field is a form of cross-training! Wherever she needs to go, she carries trunks full of supplies. One thing they definitely don’t teach you in a dietetic internship is how to drive a forklift, but… when you promise personal pizzas to over 130 players and coaches on weekends in-season, you learn how to drive a freakin’ forklift and make it happen.
There’s a lot of small, seemingly insignificant tasks that a sports dietitian takes on, but they are essential to helping the team. For example, she spends time stocking refrigerators and making different protein bites. It isn’t always glamorous. Leslee joked, “sometimes I feel like the Bobby Boucher of the team,” a perfect Waterboy reference.
Leslee is one of few women on staff, which leads to her feeling like her role goes beyond sports nutrition. Sometimes, it’s a mixture of being a mom, telling the guys what foods are best for them, and being the food police, making sure they are actually eating their meals. Perhaps the least exciting part of her work is budgeting, which Leslee manages in addition to her many other tasks as a sports dietitian.
The #DalinaMeets Pop Quiz Question: What’s Your Top Fast Food Meal?
When she’s not preparing for a bodybuilding competition, Chipotle is Leslee’s choice for fast food. She orders the salad bowl with fajitas, chicken, pintos and black beans. “I load that baby up!” she adds. Leslee leans more for the Mexican options than other fast food choices, which might include a Taco Bell Crunchwrap, a favorite from her college days.