Woman in a red shirt points in front of class
Registered Dietitian Leslie Bonci speaks with students during her Lunch and Learn talk in Olscamp Hall on Friday, Feb. 23. (BGSU photo/Keira Ellenberger)

BGSU students gain firsthand knowledge of sports nutrition from Kansas City Chiefs dietitian

Estimated Reading Time:  

Food and nutrition and exercise science students experience talk by Leslie Bonci, nutrition consultant for the Super Bowl champions

Exemplifying the depth of experiences BGSU provides to students through interactions with experts in their fields, the College of Health and Human Services' Food and Nutrition Program welcomed Leslie Bonci, nutrition consultant for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs as she spoke with food and nutrition and exercise science students.

Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a celebrity in the field of nutrition and in addition to her high-profile work with the Chiefs she has had a very full plate throughout her career as a registered dietitian. Previously, she worked as a nutrition consultant for several sports teams including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays and the WNBA as well as serving as the sports dietitian for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 21 years and the company nutritionist for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

In her role with the Kansas City Chiefs, Bonci played a crucial role in ensuring players’ nutritional needs were met to aid peak physical performance on the field.

Bonci shared her expertise in sports nutrition and her commitment to culturally competent nutrition care with students during a Lunch and Learn event in Olscamp Hall on Friday, Feb. 23, emphasizing to the dozens of students in attendance that it is critical to establish rapport with clients and to meet them where they are in their health and nutrition path.

"Talking about eating is a very personal and intimate experience," Bonci said. "I don't have to agree with the person about everything, but I do have to find the common ground. Being in this field is about negotiation, 100% of the time. It's their agenda, not ours. Are we eating and moving for someone else? Of course not."

Bonci shared with the students the importance of knowing their field inside and out and being able to communicate the science of nutrition in easily understandable ways, and in some cases very quickly. She related an experience when she was with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Coach Bill Cowher asked her to address the team about nutrition for half an hour during training camp – making her the first woman to ever address the team at camp. As the day wore on, she said, her time allotted dwindled until she had to distill her presentation into just five minutes.

"You have to take the knowledge you have and drill it down. You have to gain their trust," she said. "You need to know food. You don't talk about figures, percentages, macros and grams – nobody knows what that is. You talk food."

The importance of having conversations with athletes and clients – talking with them, not at them – was a recurring theme that students heard and embraced. Bonci reinforced lessons of broadening cultural awareness to fully reach clients where they are.

"It is critically important to meet people where they are as far as cultural background. You have to know what the culture is ahead of time and have familiar food for athletes. Food is supposed to be nurturing," she said. "What does that mean for you? You have to learn about different cultures, and it's not one-size-fits-all. That's not just about athletes - that's for everyone. That's why you have to say to people, 'Tell me about what you eat.'"

Brooke Sugg, dietetic intern and a graduate student in the masters of food and nutrition program, said Bonci’s presentation resonated with her as someone who is aspiring to become a professional sports dietitian.  

“She had so many key takeaways, especially regarding correct practices for speaking with athletes and how to listen and then give them correct, appropriate advice,” Sugg said. “I personally would love to work with athletes after graduation, either collegiate or professional, and learning about her background was so inspirational.”  

Bonci also advised students who are interested in pursuing careers in sports nutrition or working with athletic clients to be active and knowledgeable themselves.

"If somebody wants to work with active people, you better walk that walk. You better know how to sweat. You have to be able to relate to your clients," she said. "Know the energy demand of the sport and the sport."

Carrie Hamady, also a registered dietitian and chair of the Department of Public and Allied Health, said having Bonci on campus to share her experiences with students reinforced one of the pillars of the College of Health and Human Services to provide opportunities to engage with and learn from the professional community.

"We started providing 'Lunch and Learns' in the fall of 2019 as a way to connect our Food and Nutrition students with professionals in the field. We chose topics that our students are interested in, and also those areas that could use more attention, such as sports nutrition because they are niche areas," Hamady said. "We have had folks from all over the country speak either in person or over Zoom on topics such as eating disorders, nutrition communication, ICU nutrition for patients with COVID, nutrition for patients with burns, body positivity, concussion nutrition and owning your own business. We try to bring in alumni from our programs, or like today, experts that we know in the field." 

Bonci’s nutrition advocacy extends beyond sports nutrition, as she also develops programs with chefs and master gardeners to promote cooking and gardening appreciation among kids and adults through initiatives like Camp Delicious and Root Camp. She invited students to be mindful of their audiences, no matter what aspect of the field they enter, and especially to have perspective when giving advice and posting on social media.

"Think about who is on the receiving end of what you are putting out there. If a dietitian is posting, 'You must only buy organic,' and your audience doesn't have money, is that a fair thing to say?" she posited. "I encourage all of you to think about your audience. Go to a dollar store and shoot a video in there. There are a lot of people shopping for food in there. Are we really thinking about everybody with our messages?"

Bonci said she hopes experiences like her Lunch and Learn talk give students an inside track to what the application of their education looks like in real life.  

“Part of being a student is you learn the didactic, you learn the coursework, you have to have the background. But then it's also about the application and it's very different when you're sitting in a classroom than when you're out there on the field,” she said. “These talks mean being able to bring that experience to the conversation, to say, ‘This is how you apply everything that you've learned in a practical way.’  

“Today, that involved all the things we talked about – that consideration for somebody's background, that consideration for somebody's income, that consideration for somebody's culinary competency; all of those things are critically important to know.” 

Hamady said she is pleased to be able to bring experts such as Bonci to speak to students regularly, noting the experience of hearing from people active in the field inspires further and deeper learning.

"When I first became a registered dietitian, I worked in sports nutrition and employee wellness. Leslie was a prominent name at that time, so I have always known who she is and the passion and professionalism she brings to the field. Now that I have gotten to know her personally, I am thrilled that we were able to bring her to BGSU, so that she can inspire another generation of future registered dietitians," Hamady said. "Her message today was motivating and affirming to our students; not only those who are interested in sports nutrition, but in the field in general. Her energy and knowledge are limitless."

Related Stories

Media Contact | Michael Bratton | mbratto@bgsu.edu | 419-372-6349

Updated: 02/24/2024 09:19AM