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Leslie Bonci, Steelers Dietitian

November 11, 2011

Leslie Bonci, Steelers Dietitian:

First what drove you to become a dietitian and what advice would you give those who would like to follow in your footsteps?

I started out as a biopsychology major, got a master’s in Public health with a nutrition emphasis and decided that to stay well and live well, eating plays a critical role.

My first job had co-directors who were marathoners so to keep up, I needed to be active, so then not only does nutrition have a role in staying well, but also playing well, and I believe in the philosophy of SHOP- Safeguard Health Optimize Performance.

When I started in sports, it was because I made a call to the Pitt Athletics Department suggesting that they use my services to help the athletes, luckily, they said yes and I have never looked back since. So my advice? Love working with people, be willing to work hard, be willing to take chances, know food, and above all, have a sense of humor and be persistent!

How did I come to work with the Steelers?

When Coach Cowher was hired, he brought in John Norwig as the head athletic trainer and also Chet Fuhrman as the strength coach. Both of them had worked with a sports dietitian at their previous jobs and asked him if he would be open to bringing someone on board. John contacted a former student who was working as an athletic trainer at Pitt, and she passed on my name. I had a chance to work with a player in the off season, and then got hired by the team. 18 years ago and have cherished every moment!

What exactly is involved in being a dietician for the team? What do you do for the players?

Working closely with the training staff and strength and conditioning staff. Working with our Chefs at the Southside facility as well as at St Vincent’s. Working with individual players, their families, the coaches and front office with regards to nutrition needs related to health and/or performance.

What are your biggest challenges in working with football players and other athletes?

Time- athletes are busy people and sports nutrition is not just about the food choices but when the food is consumed.

Food likes/dislikes
Eating out all the time
Eating is not always a priority
Eating the right amount of calories daily

What are the most common issues you face and how do you approach them?

Increasing mass
Decreasing body fat
Maintaining energy
Muscle cramps
What are the best supplements to use
Hydration issues
Nutrition related health concerns: diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure
Food choices when eating out or at home

How do you tailor your approach to each athlete’s specific position and sport?

Each player is different depending upon his goals, calorie requirements, energy expenditure, food likes/dislike, ability to cook or eating out all the time.

I don’t do rigid meal plans- who wants to follow those? But I do make recommendations on best choices for eating out, shopping lists, procuring a personal chef if desired, recommending particular foods to help with nutrition-related health issues.

While you can create a regimen for the players, you can’t force them to accept it and carry it out. How do you work with the team to ensure your regimens are followed by the players?

No we can’t make our players do what they don’t want to do, BUT I am blessed to work with individuals who also believe nutrition is critically important to performance and health so our strength and conditioning personnel: Garrett, Marcel and Ray as well as John, Ryan and the rest of the training staff, and the coaches too, reinforce the message and our talented food service staff provides the food that helps the players achieve their goals

What other sports besides football are you involved with, and how?

The Penguins
The Pirates
Pitt Panthers all sports
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

What would surprise people most about your work with the team?

Some of the guys call me Lil’ Mama- I love that

The guys really do ask questions, and want to know what they can do to get better, does that mean they eat perfectly, NO, but more carefully- YES.

The first year I went to training camp, there was a thunderstorm, so I got there late. It was rib night and as soon as I walked in, I hear a voice saying OH No, here’s the nutritionist, and everyone was clearing plates. However the sauce around mouths and on fingers was a giveaway! You can run, but you can’t hide when Lil Mama is around!

Any last words:

I always tell my athletes that their food and fluid is part of their internal equipment, helmets and pads are your external equipment but if you don’t fuel and hydrate you won’t be strong, fast, last or recover well. Their bodies are their business and for them as well as for all of us, paying attention to the what, when, how and how much one eats and drinks helps one to play well and stay well!

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