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Leslie Bonci: Nutritionist To The Pros Says Parents Need To Be Nutrition Coach

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As Sports Nutrition Month at MomsTEAM moves towards the finish line on Halloween (yes, we will even have healthy eating tips for a traditionally unhealthy holiday!), today we hear from University of Pittsburgh sports dietitian Leslie Bonci:

MomsTEAM: Tell us a little about yourself and why you wanted to get into sports nutrition?

Leslie Bonci

Bonci: My first job was at a Cardiac and Wellness center with co-directors who were marathoners. Eating well and moving more was and is something I do, and wanted my patients to do as well. After that great experience, I moved back to Pittsburgh and contacted the U of Pittsburgh athletic department to see if they wanted someone to work with their athletes. They said yes, and from there I went on to working with all three of the city's professional sports teams (Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins), two other Major League Baseball teams (Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals) and the Pittsburgh Ballet!

MomsTEAM: What do recommend sports-active kids eat for breakfast?

Bonci: I think active kids need to energize, muscle up and hydrate in the morning.

So, I recommend meals like:

  • Oatmeal with milk, almonds and fruit 
  • Smoothie with Greek yogurt, milk, fruit and granola 
  • Breakfast wrap of eggs, ham, salsa in a whole wheat tortilla
  • Grab-and-go low-fat chocolate milk and a small bag of cereal, nuts, and dried fruit, or 
  • Banana muffin with peanut butter or other nut butter and a glass of low-fat milk, or soy milk. 

MomsTEAM: What are your top five foods for sports nutrition?


  1. Greek yogurt: it is a great source of protein and is an eat-alone, or add-to food.
  2. Almonds: protein, healthy fats, calcium, some fiber; good as they are, or added to cereal, rice, or salads.
  3. Dried fruit and nutsOatmeal: whole grains, energy source and you can add your own flavorings, fruit, nuts, or sweetener.  
  4. Fruit: I really like dried fruit such as apricots, plums, cherries, or raisins because they are convenient, a great source of energy, and are sweet, so they are easy to eat!
  5. Beans: protein, fiber, in soups, as a dip, added to a stew/chili, eaten as a side dish.



MomsTEAM: Do you think youth and high school athletes need supplements? If yes, which ones?

Bonci: I think the most important item is FOOD! Food provides energy, as well as vitamins, mineral and nutrients such as protein, carbohydrate and fat. That being said, some athletes may need iron, or Vitamin D, or calcium, or sometimes a protein isolate, BUT never in place of food.

MomsTEAM: What is the best snack to pack in a sports-active kid's school backpack or gym bag?


  • Trail mix
  • Individual packets of nut butters and crackers
  • A whole grain muffin, jerky and some pretzels
  • Dried fruit

MomsTEAM: What is a quick and easy dinner to make for a family meal after an afternoon practice or game?

Bonci: I love the idea of bowls:

  1. Start with a layer of brown rice or noodles
  2. Add a layer of salad greens
  3. Add a layer of chicken breast, meat, tofu, fish or shrimp
  4. Add a layer of fruit (pineapple) and sprinkle on some almonds and an Asian sesame dressing. 

MomsTEAM:  What is the most important thing about nutrition that every sports parent should know? Any tips?

Bonci: Food is more than what is on the plate or in the glass, it is when, where and how much you eat! I view sports nutrition as the internal equipment. If there is inadequate fuel or fluid, it doesn't matter what you wear, or what sport you play, you won't do well! Be your child's nutrition coach:

If you resist, don't expect your kids to care about what they eat. 

If you insist, your kids will start to make healthy eating a priority

If you persist, your kids will perform well in the classroom as well as the playing field, and they'll be healthier too!

MomsTEAM: How have you helped a young athlete?

Bonci: I work with young athletes all the time. It may be recommendations for decreasing muscle cramps, or settling an upset stomach, or boosting energy levels throughout the season. I always stress how good can you be doing it right, and eating can be the deal maker or breaker, so training the guts to eat enough at the right time, and of the right items, can optimize strength, speed, stamina and recovery as well as decrease the risk of injuries. 

Leslie Bonci with sons Gregory and Cary

Leslie J. Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, is registered dietitian, a Pennsylvania licensed dietitian/nutritionistm, board certified specialist in sports dietetics, and the director of sports medicine nutrition in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). She also serves as the sports dietitian for the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Athletics, and is nutrition consultant for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Toronto Blue Jays, and the Washington Nationals.  Leslie also works with Olympic, high school and master's athletes. 

Leslie was formerely a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She currently serves on the editorial advisory board of Fitness magazine, is a member of the advisory board of the Journal of Athletic Training, appears in her own weekly segment, "The Winning Plate," on Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV's Pittsburgh Today Live, and writes a weekly blog for Runners World, Ask the Sports Dietitian.

Sports Nutrition for Coaches by Leslie Bonci book coverShe is the author of several articles on sports nutrition and of the American Dietetic Association's Guide to Better Digestion andand Sport Nutrition for Coaches, co-author ofTotal Fitness for WomenRun Your Butt Off,  and The Active Calorie Diet and  Walk Your Butt Off ( Rodale, 2012) and Bike Your Butt Off (Rodale 2013).

Leslie holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biopsychology from Vassar College and earned a master's degree in public health from the University of Pittsburgh. 

You can follow Leslie on Twitter @lesliebonci.