The St. Louis Rams’ roster is composed of players representing diverse cities, neighborhoods and cultures that extend beyond the walls of the United States. So understandably when it comes to food, no two players have the same taste buds, let alone nutritional needs. In comes Shawn Zell – the National Football League’s first duel dietitian and chef – who merges health and nutrition into delectable food options for the team.
“With 60-plus players, it is a challenge, especially because they come from all over the United States and they all have different backgrounds,” Zell said. “We try to do as much variety as we can. Obviously, there’s a battle in the beginning with some of the younger guys with healthy versus not as healthy, but we try to meet them halfway to make the healthy food taste good.”
The St. Louis native regularly puts on his chef hat and prepares some of the team’s favorite dishes. According to Zell, the team’s top three requests are his crab cakes, scallops and Jamaican jerk bison meatballs. He has also been known to make personalized smoothies and shakes for every player and commits each unique recipe to memory.
“I’m always trying to keep it fresh and new,” he said. “I’m always looking for new things, new recipes and restaurants, and talking with people to find out what’s the latest.”
Zell also helps players with their nutritional plans, ranging from instructional grocery store visits, recovery nutrition and individualized meal plans, to meet their performance needs.
“There’s also a lot of the science aspect that we put into the food aspect here – implementing good recovery nutrition, implementing meal builders and caloric intake with players – to really hone in on what their individual specific needs are.”
In addition to empowering and educating the team on nutrition, a key component of Zell’s job is to translate nutritional science into a competitive advantage for the team.
“If you look at it from a standpoint of fueling,” Zell explained, “we try to give our guys the best fuel we can. We have some functionality and science and a thought process behind it so that we’re able to keep the guys healthy, not only in the games, but off the field, recovery wise, and try to lighten the load as much as possible with injuries and those types of things.”
Prior to every game, he is responsible for making sure that the team receives the fuel they need before they go out and play. Zell also maintains a serious focus on player hydration.
“During the game, they’re constantly eating,” he said. “I’ll work a lot with guys that are high-risk crampers, so we have some special techniques that we use with them. If a player is cramping, they’re not able to play and that’s time off the field, which is a direct impact on the overall performance of the team.”
Additionally, Zell relies heavily on his involvement within the network of collegiate dietitians and the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) in order to garner new ideas that will enhance the Rams’ nutrition protocol.
“This is a growing industry,” Zell said. “I think this is the new edge that teams are adding to their arsenal of things. Collegiate programs are investing millions of dollars into their eating programs and food programs, and professional sports are beginning to follow suit.”
When Zell joined the Rams in 2012, there were less than four NFL teams with a sports registered dietitian on their staff. Today there are seven sports registered dietitians employed across six teams – Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Washington Redskins.
“You wear many hats when you’re in a position like this,” Zell said. “In this role, you work closely with the coaching staff, athletic training staff, and the strength staff and operations. Luckily, this is a great organization that it all works.”
Before joining the NFL ranks, Zell spent 10 years working in a variety of food service outlets. He attributes his love for cooking to his dad – his original teacher.
“I started cooking when I was 10 years old,” Zell recalled. “On Saturday nights we’d cook dinner for my parents. By the age of 12, I knew that I wanted to work in food and started working in restaurants when I was 14.”
He earned his associate’s degree in culinary arts and bachelor’s in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Co. Soon after, he completed his dietetic internship at St. Louis University and became a registered dietitian.
Zell is the son of Stephen and PJ Zell and has one younger brother, Ben.