By Barrett Snyder
Cat Hammer, MS earned her bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from West Chester University in Pennsylvania where she was a 4-year NCAA DII softball player. She recently received her master’s degree in Exercise and Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. While in Florida, Cat worked two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a minor league sports nutrition assistant for the class-A Bradenton Marauders. Cat is currently completing her dietetic internship at Virginia Tech and is working remotely as a sports nutrition consultant for middle school, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes at Maplezone Sports Institute in Garnet Valley, PA.
IP: How have you evolved as a nutritionist?
CH: During my time with the Pirates and currently during my dietetic internship I learned that you have to meet people where they are at. While you are in school, you are reading about various research studies performed in laboratories and other ideal, controlled settings. However, when you get out in the real world, you begin to recognize this not how things work. You need to be able to translate your knowledge to people who have very little awareness of nutrition.
Almost all individuals learn their eating habits from their parents or from the environment they grew up in. If an athlete was never taught how to structure a pre- or post-workout meal or snack (which almost no one is taught before college) or how to build a balanced plate, how could you expect them to be experts from the start? You have to get to know what their baseline knowledge is based on their habits, relationship with food, cultural beliefs and values, etc. and then build up their knowledge from there. Beliefs and relationships with food can have a positive or negative impact on the way an athlete develops. The human body and fueling is like the gas you put in a car: the higher quality the gas is, the better the car is going to run. Athletes who are taught earlier about how to properly fuel their bodies are at a unique advantage to maximize their potential and achieve optimal performance.
IP: Please talk about your experience as a nutritionist with the Pittsburgh Pirates…
CH: During my role with the Marauders, I had to provide, within the team’s budget, the players with their pre- and post-game meals both at home and on the road. I had 500 dollars per-day to buy two meals for 50 people. It can prove challenging to find a catering company that can provide a healthy spread that will fuel the players in the best way possible, while staying within the budget’s guidelines.
What made my experience with the Pirates so special was during my time there, we were the only organization in Major League Baseball who had a nutritionist travel with each of the team’s affiliates. Everyone had a nutritionist on staff and everything we did as nutritionists was overseen by a head dietician and assistant dietician. We were trained specifically to know how to order the most nutrient-dense and fuel-efficient spreads to maximize our players’ abilities on the field.
My goal was to educate the players on the role nutrition plays in their life and the carry-over it has to their performance. I want what I am teaching to be sustainable, because nutrition will always play a role in these players’ lives. I made it a point to always talk about the importance eating food that is nutrient dense, not necessarily just high in calories.
I constantly found myself hammering home to our players that they needed to eat more. We were playing in Florida during the summertime where players were sweating profusely and burning thousands and thousands of calories a day. If they didn’t replace those calories, they were doing a huge disservice to their bodies. Their recovery period will be prolonged, muscle soreness won’t go away as quickly, and fatigue levels will remain elevated.
IP: Did you have any difficulty convincing the players how significant of a role nutrition played in their on the field performance?
CH: I had a ton of difficulty. Food is something that is so personal- it’s part of your culture, your tradition, it reminds you of home, and it can aid in your comfort level. These players are far from home for long stretches, so in a way, food is one of the few things they can hold on to. So trying to take some of those unhealthy foods away can be uncomfortable.
One of the best indicators I could use to convince players of the importance of nutrition was their weight loss throughout the season. When their weight began to drop, I would explain to them the negative impact this could have on their on the field performance and the significance of adding a shake or extra meal throughout the day to get the necessary calories they required.
In most instances, the players have to fail before they begin to trust you. It’s not until they begin losing weight or seeing a deficit in their performance, that they begin to buy into what you are telling them about the importance of proper nutrition. It’s a lot like coaching in that regard.
IP: When you talk about “nutrient dense” food, what type of foods are you referencing? What food choices are an ideal in your mind?
CH: Whole, fresh foods are always the best options. The less the food is processed, the better. Ideal choices would include fresh meats either baked, broiled, or grilled in olive or other heart healthy oils, starches such as rice, pasta, potatoes or sweet potatoes and vegetables cooked in heart healthy oils (olive or canola). Smoothies are also a great addition to one’s nutrition plan in order to get in those additional calories with healthy ingredients such as fruit, protein powder, yogurt, healthy fats like peanut and almond butter, and milk or almond milk.
IP: Where do most baseball and strength coaches miss the boat when it comes to nutrition? What is the biggest misconception you hear when it comes to nutrition within the athletic community?
CH: There are a ton of great strength coaches out there who have a pretty decent nutrition background but what I believe nutritionists and dieticians have a better grasp on is how to build a plate. With the Pirates we would call these “performance plates” and I really liked this idea because your plate is going to look different based upon your personal level of activity.
I have found strength coaches tend to focus on protein and may neglect other important aspects of nutrition such as micronutrients or carbohydrates, which happen to be the main source of fuel for your body. We do need protein to help rebuild muscles, but there are many other important aspects when it comes to proper nutrition that we need to keep in mind.
IP: Your field of focus is nutrition, but you also have a background in strength and conditioning. How has that made you a better nutritionist?
CH: It is critical for strength coaches to have a background in nutrition and for nutritionists to have a background in strength training. When it comes to exercising, there are many variables at play during the workout such as climate, frequency, intensity and/or duration. These variables are constantly changing and when these variables change, your energy needs change as well; ultimately impacting your nutritional needs.
For example, a starting pitcher pitches every five days and on days he is not pitching, he is likely lifting weights or on the field running. Pitching, lifting and running are three different activities that require a different means of refuel because each activity expends a different number of calories and a different level of energy. By having an understanding of how each specific activity affect the player’s body, it allows me to be in a better position to prescribe the proper nutritional needs they require at that moment in time.
IP: As players get older, how do their nutritional needs differ?
CH: Throughout a career, a player’s energy needs will drastically change. High school players find themselves in the same boat when it comes to nutritional needs. Their goal is often to increase their weight and muscle mass, and they may find it necessary to consume upwards of 3000 calories a day.
College can be a tricky scenario. Many teams will routinely run really intense 6am lifts, 3-4hour practices, double headers regularly during the season, not to mention the added stress of school and the lack of sleep. All of these factors would dramatically increase energy needs, meaning the athlete needs to be consuming calories to match the caloric output to maximize performance and to decrease the risk of injury.
IP: What would you say is the most important thing youth players must be aware of to help their performance through nutrition?
CH: Understand why you need to eat healthy. Take the opportunity to go to the grocery store with your parents so you can get in the habit of picking out your own foods. Learn what is healthy and what is not healthy. Learn how to cook so you have a chance to eat healthy if mom and dad aren’t home to fix dinner. Athletes are very habit-oriented individuals, so when you educate them early about the importance of proper nutrition, they will carry these habits with them for the rest of their lives.
Follow Catherine on Instagram at @hammer_fuel or contact her via email at email@example.com