Editor's note: Longtime Baton Rouge sportswriter, author and television host Lee Feinswog takes his unique approach to sports to dig deeper into LSU Athletics. Look for these features online and in official athletics department publications throughout the 2014-15 season.
As she was explaining exactly what the new LSU “Healthy Tiger” fueling stations offer, a big lineman stopped on his way from lifting weights to changing into his practice uniform. He surveyed the smorgasbord laid out before him in the football practice facility, grabbed a beef jerky and a plum, and moved on.
And Jamie Meeks nodded and smiled.
“Now the athletes, no matter where they are, at the football facility, at the Cox Academic Center or at the north stadium weight room, they have a place to grab a snack,” she said. “In the mornings we have hot breakfast sandwiches.”
In other words, for the first time ever LSU’s 450 or so student-athletes always have healthy food choices at their disposal.
“The biggest thing is time. A lot of their schedules are so jam-packed they don’t have the time to prepare stuff,” said Meeks, who knows firsthand. The former Jamie Mascari was an LSU cheerleader from 2005-09 and, in case you didn’t know, cheerleaders actually practice as much or more than LSU’s athletes, so demanding is their job.
Meeks, who just turned 27, came to LSU from New Orleans. After graduating with a major in nutrition, she did a dietetic internship in Little Rock, followed by clinic rotations that enabled her to become a registered dietician. She returned to LSU to get her master’s in exercise physiology, because LSU didn’t offer a sports-nutrition master’s.
“I had the nutrition component and knew I wanted to go into sports nutrition and wanted to stay at LSU,” she said. So she took her degrees, learned all she could about the sports end of it, and was hired in 2011.
“This profession has grown so fast,” Meeks said.
Which is a wonderful thing to see for senior associate athletic trainer Shelly Mullenix, now in her 19th year at LSU.
“We had our staff meeting and I stood up and I won’t say I was close to tears, but I was moved by the fact that it’s taken this long – 19 years – that we started talking about food in a different way,” Mullenix said.
“This is one of those pivotal times for us. There were some younger coaches in the meeting and I don’t know if they could appreciate it, but there were some who have been here a long time and understand what a massive change this is for LSU.”
One who has been around is LSU volleyball coach Fran Flory, now in her 16th year. Flory, who is from Baton Rouge, was previously an assistant at LSU in the early 1990s.
“Whether it’s football players or even volleyball players who need to increase calories, how do you increase the right type of calories? How do you keep these kids healthy long-term? Instead of just piling up a lot of fat calories on them. Or if someone does need to lose weight how do you help them learn to lose weight in the long term? All of those things came together in people realizing that this needs to be a total plan. And we’ve got a lot of hungry kids in the world and we’ve got a lot of hungry kids on this campus and we need to fix that.”
Mullenix handled much of the athletic department’s nutritional needs and education before Meeks arrived, many years ago color coding the food groups for the football players. For example, red meant greasy and salty and not to eat too much. Yellow was OK. Green was good. Have all the green you want.
Senior fullback Connor Neighbors also said he stays away from fast food.
“During the season I’ll grab a healthy lunch and after practice I’ll go to the cafeteria and if it’s high in fat or sodium it’ll have that red box,” said Neighbors, who at 5-foot-11 weighs 229 pounds.
“And it’s got yellow for OK and green for as big a portion as you want. I tend to stay on the green because I know in my family we can get pretty big pretty quick, so I try to eat as healthy as I can.”
It’s all part of the educational component that Mullenix started and Meeks has taken to a higher level. And it’s not that simple, when you think of, say, keeping fed properly all sorts of athletes, from a 330-pound lineman to a 4-foot-10 gymnast to a soccer player who runs five miles a game to a lanky 6-2 volleyball player. They all have different needs.
“Food is your fuel,” Meeks tells the athletes.
“Then we have to find which foods work best for you. Linemen will eat very different than a gymnast, so it’s teaching which types of food will be optimal.”
“We let our kids eat whatever they like, but we try to educate them to eat for life,” Flory said. “Jamie is our No. 1 resource. She’ll do a breakdown nutritionally on everything they’re eating and give them an analysis like you would have if you went to a dietitian outside (of LSU). She’s pretty amazing. And then the fueling stations. The addition with the NCAA rules that we can feed them all the time, the implementation of that is going to be huge. Not only in allowing athletes to perform at a higher level, but for recovery and for overall health. They’re never going to get hungry. They have the ability to stop by and get a snack or a hot breakfast sandwich or a sandwich at night.
“I think the balance of that and learning how to eat smaller meals more times during the day is going to lead to better performance, healthier kids and happier kids.”
The issue got a lot of attention last spring during the NCAA basketball tournament when UConn’s Shabazz Napier said he sometimes went to bed “starving” because he couldn’t afford food. There were skeptics, but the NCAA – seeing so many schools hiring dietitians like Meeks -- was in the midst of making changes that allowed for 24-hour food, and LSU’s three stations are perfect examples.
“For the past three years sports dietitians have been pushing for (NCAA) deregulation,” Meeks said. “And it’s not meant to overfeed these athletes.”
“Additionally they’re going to have supplemental things in each team’s locker rooms,” Flory said. “Some fruit, some bars, that kind of stuff. Chocolate milk for recovery. I’m big on that because Jamie taught me about that. And the accessibility is there for walk-ons, every student athlete. They’ll all be allowed to go to the fueling stations.”
Meeks’ duties go far beyond simply stocking three stations. Flory said she’s actually taken her athletes to the grocery store to help them become better shoppers.
“She cooks team meals for us and teaches them recipes,” Flory said, noting that the department has a Healthy Tiger Facebook page. And she takes time in the preseason to make her players cook healthy meals for their teammates.
Many of the athletes at LSU live on their own. After a day in which you’ve worked out a couple times, been to class, had other sports obligations, it’s easy to make bad food choices.
“That’s actually something I’ve been working on,” LSU junior linebacker Lamar Louis said. “Honestly, before last spring I ate a lot of fast food. So I started to mature in my eating habits and got with our nutritionist and started to eat better. Instead of fried food I eat grilled food.”
Not that he doesn’t miss the greasy stuff.
He laughed. “Yeah, but I feel good and after three or four months it became routine.” What’s more, he said he is healthier and said specifically this preseason is the first time in a while he hasn’t had a hamstring problem and he credits his food choices.
“A lot of these athletes come from a background where they don’t know what good nutrition is or what good sports nutrition is or how food relates to how they play on the field,” Meeks said.
All of the food – and there’s a lot of it -- comes from the university food service, from bagels to fresh fruit to yogurt to nutrition bars and even oatmeal. And it’s not cheap:
“It’s a lot,” Meeks said. “A lot. We’ll find out. A lot of schools say it could be a million dollars (a year), but it’s up there.”
All of it worth it, of course, when you factor in health and performance.
“She’s wonderful,” Mullenix said of Meeks. “At first when she got here the athletes had to do some adjusting, but over the course of time they really started to trust her and all the sports seem to be really receptive to her. She’s always available to them and she helps our staff understand nutrition better so we can assist with that. And her program is growing. We’ve added a graduate assistant and she’s got interns. And you have to because now we’re manning three stations.”
Another football player stopped, perused, and grabbed a nutrition bar.
“Right now they’re grabbing food, going to a meeting, it’s going to digest and once they get on that (practice) field, all that digestion is going to be absorbed to energy,” Meeks said.
Even the cheerleaders.
“They’re going to be able to access this as well,” she said with a smile. “So they’re very thankful.”