A dietitian's deliciously diverse nutrition career | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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A dietitian's deliciously diverse nutrition career

From working as a nutritionist for the Wiggles, to managing the dietary needs of top-level athletes for the National Rugby League as well as the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games, Professor Fiona Pelly has firsthand experience of what a deliciously diverse career dietetics can be.

Now, with a brand new dietetics program on offer at the University of the Sunshine Coast's Moreton Bay campus, focussing specifically on sports nutrition, we asked Dr Pelly to share some of her unique professional insights into the career feast that is working as a modern nutritionist.

Q: In your 30+ years working as a dietitian, you've worked with some high-profile clients from the NRL to the Wiggles to the Olympics. What were the similarities and differences in working with such diverse clientele? 

Professor Fiona Pelly:

There are definite similarities in the work I have done with entertainers and athletes – just a different population!

My role with the Wiggles started with individual dietary advice, then as the Wiggles went on tour across the USA, my role expanded into advising on their travel menu. I also designed menus for the Wiggles’ play centres in Sydney, with the aim to create criteria for suitable packaged food for young children. This is one of my areas of interest, influencing food choices and food labelling.

Before the Wiggles, I worked with the National Rugby League (NRL) for over ten years, advising a number of well-known past players (mainly for the Penrith team). I started just before the start of Super League in 1995 which created a major change in the sport. Prior to this, players had day jobs and trained at night, but once the sport became professional, the expectation increased and players trained and performed at a much higher level. I helped with the kitchen design for the new Penrith NRL training facility.

For the Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games, my role has predominantly been guaranteeing safe and suitable food is delivered to athletes from around the world. I started working with food provision for athletes at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, which I got to attend.

I work with caterers, teams and organisers to ensure the food caters for all cultures, sporting needs and dietary requirements, and is suitably labelled so athletes know what they are eating.

During the big events, like the Olympics, I've also been part of a team of sports dietitians who work from a nutrition kiosk in the dining hall of the athletes’ village (housing approx. 4,000-12,000 people) where athletes and teams can seek help with the menu, request specific items, get individualised meal plans and are educated on nutrition for performance.

I took a number of dietetic students with me to the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast as part of their research placement, which was a fantastic real life experience for them.

Fiona with the Wiggles and Dorothy the Dinosaur
"I also once recorded a video with Dorothy the Dinosaur on healthy eating!"
Dr Fiona Pelly with the Wiggles and Captain Feathersword
"I got the job with the Wiggles purely because I was a sports dietitian."
Nutrition and Dietetics students and staff at the 2018 Commonwealth Games
Nutrition and Dietetics students and staff at the 2018 Commonwealth Games

Dr Pelly has led the review of the athlete village menu for every Olympic and Paralympic Games since Beijing 2008 for the International Olympic Committee. Photo: Fiona with athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games

Q: Is nutrition still an emerging field with lots of new discoveries being made, or is it pretty established? 

Dr Pelly:

Nutrition is an emerging science so there is always something new to learn. Traditionally, clinical dietitians work in hospitals, though there are many emerging roles in Australia and overseas, particularly in public health nutrition working with government, in the agricultural sector, with food industry, schools and many other businesses.

The online environment (ie working as a nutrition blogger or influencer) is also important for providing accurate and evidence-based information on nutrition, as there are many misleading messages from those without any expertise.

Sports nutrition can involve working with athletes at all levels, but it can also involve working with people in highly-physical occupations, such as the defence forces or like in my role with the Wiggles.

Many of our nutrition and dietetics team at UniSC work in the Pacific region, promoting healthy food which can reduce non-communicable diseases. This can cross into sport, as athletes are role models in the community and can help promote messages about healthy eating.

Q: Describe UniSC's new Masters of Dietetics (Sports Nutrition) program, and why it's unique in Australia.

Dr Pelly: 

It's the only dietetics program to focus specifically on sports nutrition. Graduates will exit as an Accredited Practising Dietitian recognised by Dietitians Australia (subject to accreditation) but also be recognised by Sports Dietitians Australia.

This can lead to many job opportunities, not only working with high performance sport, but more broadly as a dietitian. There are likely to be many new opportunities in sport nutrition in the lead up to the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Our UniSC Bachelor of Nutrition provides the perfect pathway into the new Masters of Dietetics (sports nutrition), which will allow students to graduate with the Masters in 4.5 years if studying full time.

We understand the need for flexible delivery, so a number of courses are offered online with intensives onsite for students to immerse in the practical component.

Fiona at the 2017 Sports Nutrition Forum in Taipei
Fiona at the 2017 Sports Nutrition Forum in Taipei
"There are many global opportunities in sports nutrition – in my role as President of Professionals in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport (PINES), it's clear that many countries are not as advanced as Australia – we are leading the way."
Q: In a nutshell, tell us about the experts on your team, and the brand new facilities at UniSC's Moreton Bay campus.

We have a number of expert sports dietitians on our team with local, national and global recognition… and we’re expanding!

Just some of these include Professor Gary Slater who works with the Australian Institute of Sport as the National Nutrition Lead and is the dietitian appointed to the Australian team for Paris 2024. Zara Nance works as the sports dietitian with the Dolphins NRL team and is establishing our state-of-the-art sports nutrition clinic at our Moreton Bay campus.

Amy Bowler works with many Olympic athletes though the Queensland Academy of Sport, while Dr Rachael Thurecht has experience with major competition events including the Commonwealth Games and World Uni games. We also have several research students investigating aspects of performance nutrition, including one who works for the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Our new facilities at Moreton Bay includes the sports nutrition clinic with cutting-edge equipment and a teaching kitchen so students can get hands-on experience understanding food science, modification to meet dietary needs and menu design.
Bachelor of Nutrition

Learn about the fascinating new science of nutrition, food and healthy eating from registered nutritionists and accredited practising dietitians in our specialised teaching kitchen.

Master of Dietetics (Sports Nutrition)

Program requirements for the Master of Dietetics (Sports Nutrition)

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