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Jake Blattner, MS, RD, CSSD, LMNT, has a passion for optimizing athletes’ performance that began with his own. Originally a high school wrestler, Blattner now works as an associate registered dietitian nutritionist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He works with the Husker men’s and women’s basketball and track and field programs. 

When he was a teenager, his diet was not perfect. Blattner knew nutrition helped with performance, but he had no idea how to get there. Thus sparked his interest in dietetics. He’s since honed his expertise in tailoring nutritional plans to meet the unique demands of athletes. 

“A lot of people see athletes on the covers of magazines and think they’re perfect,” he said. “They don’t realize it’s a person, that this is an 18-year-old. The reality is they still eat Oreos and Pop Tarts. I tell these athletes that you can live off of Pop Tarts in high school, but you can’t do that at the college level!”  

(Of course, there’s some room for fun foods in the D1 athletes’ diet, but Oreos can’t be the base.) 

This exclusive Q&A with Blattner offers a unique perspective on the intersection of dietetics and athletics, shedding light on the challenges, triumphs and evolving landscape of sports nutrition. 

Q. Describe your role. 

A. As an associate sports dietitian, I’m second in command after our director. We have a crazy amount of RDs on staff — 12 RDs and 30 student workers aspiring to be RDs — for 500 student athletes. The ratio is awesome since the NCAA standard is one RD to 100 student athletes. 

My day-to-day work life consists of making sure there’s food and breakfast items for a quick grab and go, making sure there’s water in the fridges and then going right to the weight room. We then do a review of looking at fatigue factors. Athletes jump and land on a force plate. We track the fatigue and any asymmetries, if they’re putting more pressure on the right or left side or if they’re at risk for injuries. We also watch for overtraining. We have GPS-like devices that athletes wear on a sports bra that tracks heart rate and movement patterns. We also use DEXA (dual X-ray absorptiometry) to track lean muscle mass and bone health markers.  

I, along with the sports nutrition staff, might do blood work and nutrient status or grab smoothies for the students. We then recommend hydration. We’re able to track that through smart toilets or urinals. They track urine-specific gravity of the urine. It’s pretty advanced stuff.  

I’ve been doing this for close to 10 years. I do team talks and grocery store tours, giving students the education and meal recommendations. They can take a picture of their meal and I can analyze it – utilizing a training table, watching the calories and allergens by using a dietitian-specific software. 

Q. What’s the story behind your experience in dietetics? 

A. At age 15 or 16, I knew I wanted to work with athletes, but I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I was a wrestler, but I didn’t know what to eat. I knew nutrition helped me with performance, but I had no clue how to make whey properly. No one told me. 

By the time I got to Viterbo University for my undergraduate degree in 2011, sports nutrition was kind of niche. It wasn’t a thing. I was an outlier of the class as the only sports dietitian. No one knew what the heck it was. My professors told me, “No, you’re going to be a clinical dietitian or work in a nursing home.” But I got lucky, I made it through. 

Q. What do you like about working at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln? 

A. The people are awesome. At some institutions, if you don’t have support from your administration, you’re going to have a difficult time. My bosses are great, the people I work with are great. I have great support from my coaches as well. Fred Hoiberg came from the Chicago Bulls and has been a great coach and advocate for nutrition here. Justin St. Clair is also an amazing coach and understands the importance of nutrition for a D1 track and field athlete. 

Q. What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the industry?  

A. Sometimes my work/life balance suffers. We work 100-hour weeks; we don’t have a family life. It’s hard. You have to manage that work/life balance to the best of your ability, when most of the time there is none. That’s the reality. I’ve gotten better at setting some semi-boundaries, but it’s still a seven-days-a-week job. You’re chronically connected to your phone. For me it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. With some programs, you can have a 9 to 5, but not this one. You are part of the organization and team. 

It’s rewarding, but no one tells you, “Good job.” You have to have internal motivators. It’s long hours, it’s hard work and you have to be committed to it. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Reach out to dietitians and bug the crap out of them. 

Q. What is one thing you wish you had known before starting your career in dietetics?  

A. The biggest thing has been the networking. The one thing I didn’t do when I was in undergraduate classes was ask enough questions. Ask questions. Network. Shake hands. Do an internship at a big organization. Those are the best things you can do. It wasn’t until I was in my master’s program, but I had Googled the Minnesota Vikings dietitian Rasa Troup, University of Wisconsin-Madison dietitian Nick Aures as well as some others. I spent time with them and picked their brains. I was able to geek out and learn from them. 

You also can’t initially expect a big paycheck. It’s not instant. You do have to work a year or two. In early 2014, we worked for peanuts and slept on the floor. Luckily, it has gotten better. 

Q. Has there been anything specific that helped you move forward in your role? 

A. Victoria Lambert at Princeton University was a huge push for me, she’s one of the best dietitians. Dave Ellis with MLB and MLB players association really pushed me as well. Katy Meassick, the Cleveland Browns dietitian, and Karen Gibson at Viterbo University really pushed me to get me to the next level. Florida State was a great start for me. And Nebraska, I owe my whole career to them. 

Q. Is there a program or initiative that you are most proud of?  

A. We check out biofluids through a sweat analysis from the Gatorade Sports Institute. We also are always evolving our policies and procedures of what we can do better. We’re kind of nerds and we have book clubs where we get through issues. We kind of geek out. 

Q. How has Food as Medicine impacted your role? 

A. Food is always first. Everyone wants to grab a pill, a potion, a powder. Nutritional supplements are marketed as gold, but no one markets apples or bananas. It’s hard to convince athletes that food is kind of that foundation or pyramid. There are nutrients that we’re going to push, or certain foods that we’re going to push for certain situations, such as tart cherry juice for inflammation. There’s nitrates in beets, which can aid in nitric oxide production. There’s great literature around it, and things are definitely evolving around sports nutrition. We’re always seeing what food can provide to our athletes. It moves pretty quickly. 

Bio: 

Jake Blattner, MS, RD, CSSD, LMNT, is an associate registered dietitian nutritionist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s in his sixth season in his role for the Husker program and works extensively with the Nebraska men’s basketball, women’s basketball and track and field programs. Prior to joining the Nebraska staff, he served as a sports dietitian at Florida State University for three years. There, he provided personalized medical and performance nutritional therapy and managed individual athlete cases. Blattner also developed individual nutritional performance plans, which educated athletes and optimized performance based on specific goals. He oversaw daily operations in FSU’s Sports Nutrition unit and designed a recovery card system allowing athletes to interact directly with sports nutritionists. Before that, Blattner served internships at BiPro-Agropur Ingredients and Princeton University and worked with the La Crosse Loggers in the Summer Collegiate Baseball League. Originally from Rochester, Minnesota, Blattner earned his bachelor’s degree in community and medical dietetics from Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and his master’s degree in exercise physiology. He and his fiancée Natalie reside in Lincoln and plan to wed this summer. They have two cats.

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