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Drexel Helping Philadelphia Union Academy Meet Its Goal -- Nutrition Education for Students

September 22, 2015

The Philadelphia Union professional soccer organization has a new recruit – Drexel’s Nutrition Sciences Services. Nyree Dardarian, director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition & Performance, recently met with the organization about providing comprehensive nutrition services for the students at the Philadelphia Union Academy, and eventually for the professional team.

The Academy is a training center for student players who are anywhere from 8-18 years old.  “The facility is state-of-the-art, and they meet the requirements of the athletes as if they are professional sports players.  It’s really remarkable the lengths they go to ensure that they’re going to be healthy, successful, athletes and students,” said Dardarian.  “They have sports psychologists, strength and conditioning coaches, but there is a clear need for nutrition.”

The students come from all over the world, and those who aren’t local are placed in houses not far from the school.  They live with house parents who are dedicated to supervising them at home, providing their transportation to and from training, as well as regular parents’ responsibilities like taking them places to have fun, and making sure they keep up with their school work. 

One of their major roles is to ensure their meal intakes. “The issue here is that it’s a little bit more complicated than your normal family because these kids are going to school, but they’re also on the field training up to 6 hours a day. The double whammy is that they’re adolescents, so they’re also growing.  They need a lot of calories and nutrients to meet the demands of training and adolescence in order to reduce the risk of injury and maintain adequate growth patterns,” said Dardarian. Dardarian and her team put together an educational piece for the house parents so that they understand what the athletes’ needs are and why they’re so important. 

The first step in counseling the athletes will be to do information sessions with the house parents to discuss how to pack a lunch and snacks for the day, and what a good breakfast and a healthy dinner should look like.  The parents and counselors will also keep in mind that the athletes are young.  “We don’t want them to feel like they have to be eating kale chips because we’re dietitians telling them to do this.  You can’t just push what is perceived as healthy foods, we try to follow the 80/20 rule – 80% what we consider healthy and 20% what we consider fun food,” said Dardarian. “One of the questions we were asked was ‘Is Captain Crunch okay?’ and they giggled, thinking I’d say absolutely not.  But the truth is, Captain Crunch is okay as long as you couple it skim milk and add fruit.”

The next step will be one-on-one interviews with the house parents and also with the athletes to see what their likes and dislikes are.  Because the athletes come from all over the world, they each eat different foods and their meals will need to be culturally appropriate.  From there, the counselors will work on menu development and provide the house parents with recipes and grocery shopping lists so that they not only have an easy reference for preparing meals, but so they also have some sort of standardization among the houses.

The organization hopes to eventually provide nutrition counseling services to the professional team.  They will first target their travel menus to ensure the team can find the right foods while travelling between time zones and on long road trips.  They also plan to incorporate one-on-one nutrition counseling for anyone in the organization.

A Drexel co-op is credited with making the connection.  “One of our students is a co-op at the Philadelphia Union, and she was in my Nutrition 101 class.  She made the connection between myself and the Director of Exercise Science at the Union.  We are very grateful to her for pulling this all together and being so resourceful, really integrating our entire community with theirs,” said Dardarian.