Grain Bowls! Grocery Tours! Texas Is One of the Many Programs Upping Its Nutrition Game
Back when Assistant Athletics Director/Sports Dietitian Amy Culp started full-time at the University of Texas in 2012, student athletes were provided one meal a day from the Longhorn Dining Hall. NCAA rules at the time were more stringent when it came to nutrition offerings for athletes, and, as Culp says, “this was our only opportunity to provide real food at the time.” The rest of the day, it was just fruit, nuts and bagels (without spreads). There were no wood-fired pizza ovens or individualized grain bowls in sight.
Fast-forward five years and Longhorn athletes now have a sparkling $7.5 million nutrition facility to themselves. The Texas Athletics Nutrition Center (TANC) opened in 2015, and is conveniently located in the football stadium, near the coach’s offices and workout facilities. Athletes can learn how to cook with hands-on classes, how to grocery shop with a sports dietician and how to budget so that they can avoid breaking the bank on healthy ingredients. They can create meal plans, long-term goals and their own personalized pasta dish.
“We like to use TANC as a learning lab of sorts,” says Culp. An athlete recovering from an injury, for example, can go through in-person plate coaching at the Center, where they’d be taught how to build a plate that “supports recovery as well as maintains lean mass and prevents unwanted weight gain during the rehab process,” according to Culp. On a grocery tour, students learn how to properly read labels and manage their purchases so that they’re getting maximum impact from their items on what is likely a limited budget. There are no mandated classes at the center, but Culp says they’re highly encouraged.
It's a new era for nutrition in the college sports world, and UT of Austin is hardly the only school that is devoting the resources to it. In 2014, the NCAA passed new feeding guidelines that allowed schools to provide unlimited snacks (which include sandwiches, yogurt and veggies/hummus) for Division I student athletes, as well as meals incidental to a student-athlete’s participation in athletics. Many of the big-time schools invested time and money into vastly upgrading their facilities. Purdue started a community garden where student athletes could grow their own produce. Auburn spent $6.6 million on a “wellness kitchen,” and Texas A&M offers its own 24/7 fuel station in its football team lounge. Nowadays, if you’re a big program and you’re not prioritizing the nutrition of your student athletes in big ways, you’re a step behind.
In the days of more ambitious athlete food trends—Kyrie Irving is on a 'plant-based diet', apparently?—it’s not a surprise that college athletics have caught up. TANC has a “win-win scenario set up now,” Culp says. She meets daily with 1883, TANC’s food service provider, to provide feedback and tweak the menus so that she is consistently comfortable with the wide variety of offerings presented. The most popular station of the many TANC offers? Culp says it’s the bowls, where students choose a grain and the toppings, including veggies, protein and a sauce, fresh to order.
“The staff is very personal,” says junior defensive end Charles Omenihu, who says the nutritionists helped him gain weight and lean muscle this offseason. “They don’t just give us broad guidelines, but they work with us one-on-one and take into account what we don’t like and what we do like.”
Even the picky eaters (and those indulging in their guilty pleasures) can find something at TANC. “One of the nice things is, if I want to have a cheat meal, if I eat it there, it will still be a lot healthier than eating a cheat meal somewhere else,” says junior volleyball player Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, who praises the Center’s help with portion sizing. “The nutrition staff takes the time to think about making it healthier and that really benefits us,” she says. “We really appreciate all they do.”