When Jamie Meeks was a high school senior, her Archbishop Rummel cheerleading coach suggested that she meet with a dietitian to learn about fueling her body properly to meet the physical demands of her workouts and performances. What she gained from that experience led directly to her role in the establishment of LSU’s college sports nutrition program and, more recently, to her being named the first-ever full-time sports dietitian for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans.
NFL teams employ only 11 sports dietitians, so this is a big deal in the nutrition world (and the type of news that, as a registered dietitian and Saints fan, I really get excited about).
Meeks, a registered dietitian and board certified sports dietitian, works with the football and basketball players on nutrition and performance fueling for everything from daily training meals and post-workout recovery to coordinating pre-game meals and nutrition on the road for away games.
After graduating from St. Mary’s Dominican High School, Meeks attended Louisiana State University, majored in dietetics, and was a member of the LSU cheerleading squad, where she cheered the Tigers on for four years that included a national title and final four appearances by the women’s and men’s basketball teams. After graduating, she completed her dietetic internship and became a registered dietitian.
Meeks knew that she wanted to work with athletes, but, at the time, there weren’t many jobs for sports dietitians, so she volunteered with the LSU athletic department as a registered dietitian, working for free to show them the benefits of having a sports nutritionist on staff. She was hired on as a graduate assistant while she worked toward her master’s degree in exercise physiology.
Her role as LSU’s sports nutritionist quickly expanded from just Meeks to a full-blown sports nutrition department that allowed her to work with players from every sport at the university.
Meeks submitted a proposal for a full-time sports dietitian, explaining why LSU needed one, and what this job would entail. When she graduated with her master’s degree in 2011, LSU hired her as a full-time sports dietitian, making her one of fewer than 20 full-time sports nutritionists in college-level athletics at the time.
Fast forward to spring 2015. When she learned that the Saints were looking to hire a full-time sports dietitian, it wasn’t an easy choice for her to leave LSU.
“I love LSU,” she said, “but I also love the Saints. And I knew I would love to be back in New Orleans.”
It’s been a smooth transition from college-level athletics to the National Football League, Meeks said. And, in some ways, it’s more streamlined. For one thing, she now has just two sports to focus on – football and basketball – not the full spectrum of all types of sports and athletes with vastly different nutritional needs and priorities that she worked with on the collegiate level.
3 workout tips for avid athletes
Jamie Meeks, director of Sports Nutrition for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, offers these three strategies for the avid, amateur athlete.
1. Snack healthfully, consistently and frequently throughout the day. This will ensure adequate calories to increase and maintain metabolism, help maintain level blood sugars, add energy and nutrients to muscles and discourage binging in the evening.
2. Focus on recovery nutrition, the most crucial aspect of sports nutrition. Follow the three Rs: Reload energy fuel stores with carbohydrates: about 50-75 grams within first hour. Repair and build new muscle with protein: about 15-30 grams within first hour. Rehydrate with water and electrolytes: 16-24 ounces for every pound lost during exercise
3. Remember, hydration is a process. Don’t wait until your workout or game time to hydrate. It’s too late, and can lead to cramping and fatigue. Aim for a minimum of half of your body weight in ounces as a baseline throughout the day. In the two hours before exercise, aim to drink 20 ounces of fluid. During exercise, try to sip 6 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes. After exercise, rehydrate with 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound of sweat lost..
The majority of her role with the Saints is centered on planning, developing, and managing the overall nutritional big picture for the players.
Daily training meals. Meeks works closely with the chef of the catering company that runs the cafeteria at the Saints facility in Metairie, providing nutritional guidance on what foods are served at breakfast and lunch to help maximize players’ performance and recovery.
“My philosophy is the power of choice. We want to make the menus as nutritious as possible, but we also want variety,” Meeks said. She surveyed the players about their favorite foods and what restaurants they go to, to find out what they actually want to eat. “If we put good, nutrient-rich food on the line and they don’t eat it, what’s the point?”
Post-workout recovery. Post-workout recovery fueling is essential for optimizing power and performance, reducing risk of injury, and minimizing fatigue, so Meeks has a system for incorporating recovery smoothies for the players immediately post-workout.
As soon as the players come into the weight room for their workouts, they fill out the order form for their post-workout recovery smoothie. Meeks has pre-made smoothie recipes that they can choose from, or they can choose the “build your own” option with the specific ingredients they want, from their choice of milk to protein powder to add-ins like peanut butter (or powdered peanut butter for those who need fewer calories), kale, or cherry juice.
“Players – especially those dealing with issues like cramping or trying to drop body fat – will ask what’s the best blend for them, so we’ll create a smoothie tailored to their individual needs,” she said. “That’s also a great opportunity to explain why certain key ingredients are beneficial.”
The players write their name and jersey number on the order form and Meeks’ team has the smoothies lined up and ready as soon as they’re finished working out, before they hit the showers.
Fueling stations around the facility: In addition to water and sports drink coolers throughout the facility, Meeks works with the staff to be sure the locker rooms are stocked with protein- and electrolyte-rich options, such as Gatorade’s ready-to-drink protein recovery shakes. And in addition to the recovery smoothie bar, she makes sure that the snacks in the weight room include grab-and-go fuel sources like KIND bars and trail mix packets. And then there’s PB&J: “There’s always a supply of (Smucker’s) Uncrustables available,” she said. “Admittedly, they’re not the best, nutritionally speaking. But they guys love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And at least they can use the extra carbs and sugars for energy and recovery.”
Pre-game meals. Pre-game meals are usually about three to four hours before kick-off, and consist of a build-your-own pasta station and potato bar, along with lean proteins, such as sirloin steak, grilled chicken, and salmon. Chicken and rice soup is a common staple, providing carbs and essential electrolytes. Vegetables are typically the easier-to-digest varieties, such as green beans, carrots, and asparagus.
If the pre-game meal is a brunch-style event, the foods are still pretty similar, with the addition of foods like eggs, hashbrowns, turkey sausage, grits, oatmeal, breads, and cereals.
Meeks is present at all team pre-game meals to ensure that the food is prepared as planned. “Nothing is left to chance,” she said.
Half-time fueling. Meeks coordinates the food and drink for mid-game refueling and rehydration. Some of her go-to snacks for a half-time energy boost: Rice Krispie treats, Nutrigrain bars, and Fig Newtons. “They’re easy to eat and quick to digest, providing that carb and sugar boost to carry them through the fourth quarter.”
Travel nutrition. No matter where the Saints are playing, she makes sure that they’ll be surrounded with foods that will help to promote optimum energy and performance, and food that’s familiar and consistent with what they’ve been eating.
She works with hotels (home and away) to coordinate team meals and snacks, including the night before, morning of, and pre-game meal. She also coordinates with the airlines to plan the menus for all in-flight meals and snacks. And just to be sure all runs smoothly, Meeks will travel with the team to away games.
So what does a typical day look like for the new Saints RD?
“If we put good, nutrient-rich food on the line and they don’t eat it, what’s the point?”
During the season and off-season workouts, her days start as early as 6 a.m., when the players arrive for breakfast before their morning workouts.
Breakfast includes protein-rich foods, such as scrambled eggs and egg whites, hard boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and customizable omelets and “Champion Burritos” made to order by chef Brad Ronquille of Pigeon Catering. Since carbohydrates play a key role in performance fueling, the morning meal also includes carbs, such as sweet potato pancakes, fresh-cut fruit, fresh berries, whole grain cereals, whole grain breads and bagels, and oatmeal.
Following breakfast, Meeks observes players’ workouts on the practice field and in the weight room throughout most of the morning. She talks with individual players about their particular nutritional needs and concerns, and consults with the coaches and athletic trainers about specific players’ weight and body composition goals. And seeing the players first-hand during practice helps her in the process of calculating nutrient requirements when meeting with individual players.
After the players’ workouts and the post-workout smoothie prep, she heads over to the cafeteria during lunchtime. “I like to see what people are choosing to eat—and this also helps chef Brad and me in planning the menus.”
In between scheduled practices, team meetings, and team meals, Meeks coordinates the pre-game meals for home and away games (these are planned months in advance), meeting with the athletic trainers and strength coaches about individual players, and preparing educational materials for the team.
Meeks also consults with players one-on-one as needed, especially those looking to shed excess body fat or gain lean mass, as well as players with issues like muscle cramping.
She reviews players’ body fat composition, finds out about their typical dietary habits and lifestyle, and works with them to develop an individually-tailored nutrition plan with strategic steps to help them reach their goals.
For the rookies, one of her main concerns is ensuring that they understand the importance of nutrition – and how much better their bodies will respond, perform, and recover when it’s optimally fueled. And especially when players are new to New Orleans and all of its amazing food, it’s important for players to learn the art of balancing the occasional splurge and indulgences with their otherwise rigorous nutrition and training program.
So when does she find time to squeeze in her own workouts and food prep? Any time she can.
She’s always been an early-morning exerciser, but with the early hours of the new job, after-work gym sessions are more her speed. She’s has a gym membership, and she squeezes in a workout in the Saints weight room when the team isn’t using it.
On weekends, she prepares meals for the week, making it easy to for her and her husband to have a quick, healthful dinner with minimal prep time. She is expecting her first child in September, which will make healthful, plan-ahead-meals even more essential.
She has a takeaway message when it comes to being the Saints’ sports nutrition expert is that nutrition and performance fueling is absolutely a team effort.
“There is constant communication between all parts of the team. The head and position coaches, strength coaches, athletic trainers, chefs, equipment managers, and administrative staff – everyone plays a role, everyone is 100 percent hands-on,” she said.
“Being a sports dietitian is more than simply telling someone what to eat. You have to be in the mix, get your hands dirty, and be willing to put in the long hours. But at the end of the day, it’s more than worth it.”