SA Rugby’s first full-time dietician, Zeenat Simjee, is on a mission to drive awareness on the importance of sports teams investing in dieticians for athlete development.
In 2019, the Springboks men’s team made history becoming the first national side to have a full-time dietician within their ranks.
Simjee played a vital role in ensuring players were well-taken care of off the field, resulting in the national team’s Rugby World Cup title victory in Japan.
The 27-year-old’s methods to sports nutrition is what makes her so successful as she provides individualised nutritional support, working hand-in-hand with her clients.
Speaking with Koketso Kgogome, Simjee reflects on her journey and addresses the common misconceptions about her profession.
Zeenat, thank you for chatting to us! Where does your passion nutrition come from?
I believe, we all have our passions, it is simply sparked when you’re exposed to it. For me, that was in high school. Today, that same passion is continually fueled from the experiences around dietetics, the results through efforts from those in my care, the encounters of individuals in the profession making strides, and each time I see research that grows the profession or seeing in practice, the impact nutrition has in health, during healing, growth as well as in disease management. My passion grows when I get that rewarding feeling from athlete feedback or when I see my vision for sports nutrition in South Africa manifesting in reality.
Have you always wanted to be a dietician for athletes?
“The more I realised how much I enjoyed combining my love for nutrition and love for sport, I become more aware that I wanted to be a dietician working in sport.” – Springboks Dietician, Zeenat Simjee
I have always loved sport, but the realisation that I wanted to be a dietician with a special interest in sport, came during University. I wanted another path for myself, but I was redirected and each time I look back, some of the negative experiences can become your greatest gifts. The more I realised how much I enjoyed combining my love for nutrition and love for sport, I become more aware that I wanted to be a dietician working in sport with goals to be a team’s dietician. Now I get to work with some of the greatest talent for some of our National Teams.
Please explain what exactly a dietician does …:
Dieticians are experts in nutrition which allows us to work in various fields that offer a large range of roles in nutrition, health and wellness. To explain what a dietician does depends on which roles. Private practicing dieticians consult patients from different ages on nutrition therapy for disease-specific conditions or nutrition education for healthy eating, these dieticians also work in sport or corporate wellness or in media consulting to magazines, newspapers, tv or radio. Academic dieticians work in research or at universities.
Clinical dieticians work in hospital wards and clinics as part of a patient care team implementing medical nutrition therapy from critical care through to paediatrics, oncology and so forth. Community dieticians work in the community with governmental and non-governmental projects. Consultant dieticians work for food, nutrition, healthcare and pharmaceutical organisations, as advisors to organisations for education purposes, policies or product re-development and more. Food service dieticians work in institutions managing kitchens providing specialised diets such as in hospitals.
How did you get into this field?
The role my mother played led me to choosing the dietetics field. In high school, I wanted to shadow a cardio-thoracic surgeon, unfortunately, I was unable to. He advised my mother that I should shadow his “right hand-man” (woman) whom was the dietician at the hospital. I spent several days with her observing what a dietician in that setting did. The way I felt after each day, made me want to do research on how to go about making it my career. I later applied to 3 universities that offered dietetics and got into the University the dietician advised me on.
What does a day in the life of a Springbok dietician look like?
During Covid, it is much different, The Springboks are not my only team so, out of season and during season differs. Currently, while there are no international competitions, my days begin with checking emails, planning and prioritising the tasks that needs to be completed, checking which players will be consulted or scheduling consults with others. Each day can differ, I can be found working on player meal plans, nutrition education infographics, nutrition related presentations, recalculating requirements for injured players and updating their management, team menus, policies/protocols, recipe analysis, BokSmart content, stock taking or orders for ergogenic aids, in meetings with other departments or reading research that influences evidence-based practice.
What do you find most rewarding about your career?
“It is rewarding to work with athletes who want to work with you and not against you.” – Simjee speaks on being a results-driven individual and working well with her clients.
As a results-driven person, I get focused on achieving the goals, this is why I especially love when team or individual players are sharing their feedback about nutrition. It is rewarding to work with athletes who want to work with you and not against you. When the athletes are performing well and the team is doing well and winning or when the teams are recognising the impact nutrition has, that is the highest level of reward for me.
What career advice would you give to those who aspire to be in this profession?
Any person that wants to be a registered diecitian has to identify their “true why”, for me, it was the way a person felt when they saw positive change, and this is part of the way I manage athletes and patients. Often your “true why” will remind you why it is worth growing through adversity. I recommend shadowing the way I did so you can ask the questions to guide you better, there are passionate dieticians that want to share that opportunity with the youth.
Work hard in school, it is competitive to dietetics and the work ethic you sow will serve you throughout your career. Be resilient, you may have to convince many people that they need your service, some do not know they need it because they do not know better. There aren’t as many opportunities to match the number of dieticians produced, so be innovative and business savvy, combine your expertise and create your own opportunities.
Practice what you advise to find your own appreciation to the effort, it helps you to also empathise with clients. People will not care how much you know until they know how much you care, so make that compassion part of your profession. Lastly, do everything you need to prepare for when an opportunity presents, always learn and always be open to updating, adaptability allows you to grow yourself and the profession.
What are the common misconceptions about your profession that you want to debunk?
There are so many, this could be an entire article. Not just any person can give you individual nutrition advice. By HPCSA scope of practice guidelines, dieticians are the only health care professionals able to give individualised nutrition support. This is to protect the public from false nutrition information and dangerous food practices, but also to hold professionals accountable. You wouldn’t go to a plumber for your teeth, so why go to an unqualified professional for nutrition advice.
Dieticians don’t just do “diets”, in fact not all dieticians give meal plans and this route is not always the most feasible intervention for everyone, each person’s management differs because no two people are the same.
“Dieticians are not the food police, we teach you tools and skills to make sustainable changes.” – Simjee gives insight into the misconceptions about dieticians.
Dieticians are not the food police, we teach you tools and skills to make sustainable changes. It is not just about short-term results but long-term lifestyle changes.
Having a meal plan doesn’t guarantee you results, most of dietary compliance is psychological and that’s why follow up support is so important, especially when developing lifelong, sustainable habits.
Carbohydrates are the body and brain’s primary energy source, if you cut it out, it has impacts on brain activity and body functions. At the same time, every person has their own carbohydrate needs and if you exceed this over a period of time, you will see weight gain, as you will if you’re exceeding the amount of protein or fat you should be having.
You do not need to be an athlete or diagnosed with a chronic health condition to seek a dietician. As experts of nutrition, any person can go to a dietician.
What do you find most challenging about your career?
The most challenging part is to create opportunities for yourself when there are so many misperceptions about nutrition and so many that don’t recognise the need for your role. It is to rewire thinking of those that have been misled by the incorrect nutrition propaganda and get them to value their health enough to invest in seeking the appropriate professional.
How did your come across gsport4girls?
From social media. I follow some incredible women in sport like Motshidisi Mohono, Zinhle Ndawonde and Rene Naylor who have been recognized for their contributions in sport at the 2020 Momentum gsport Awards. Since encountering this initiative, I have come to admire the vision of gsport4girls to celebrate, honour and bridge the gap of women in sport to empower other females and shine light to their efforts.
What else can we do to elevate women in sport?
Support through action. Support in all areas. The public supporting the women in sport by engaging and talking about it more, building a deeper respect for the female talent and expertise we have in South Africa. Financial support allows these female athletes to gain access to resources to support their athletic development, to support their income, to support them in receiving the opportunities men in sport receive so they can excel.
Supporting the empowerment of female staff in sport through mentorship or exposing the youth to those in the industry making strides. There is so much that can be done but by recognizing women in sport, it gives them a platform to empower others, to showcase the progression of females in the sporting industry.
Outside of professional athletes, what advice would you give people who would give to people who want to have a healthy diet?
Invest in your health the way you would invest in your future, ultimately without good health you impact on your future. A healthy diet means a healthy relationship with food, instead of demonizing foods respect your portions and be conscious of your consumption, practice mindfulness with your food choices. Seek a dietician to learn about the tools for a healthy sustainable diet, those tools can be taught to the family and instilled into your children. Choose small changes that are long-term, for most, the smallest habit changes make the biggest impact. In making these changes, affirm your efforts so you can build on the habits and sustain the lifestyle.
Nutrition is important for injury prevention and recovery, what can one implement in their diet to prevent injury and if someone is already injured what can they add to their diet to help them recover better?
Without meeting total daily energy requirements and meeting your macronutrient needs (protein, carbohydrates and fats), injury nutrition guidelines will not do much. If you are chronically not meeting your daily energy requirements you are putting yourself at risk for relative energy deficiency syndrome (RED-s) which increases your risk for injury. Hence, nutrition should be a priority throughout the athlete’s development.
Which women in sport inspire you and why?
This is very tough because there are so many women I draw inspiration from. In my profession, Louise Burke, an Australian dietician that has had a remarkable career in sports nutrition as a sports dietician, in academic research and as an author. She is a true icon in her own rights.
While I also look up to other sports nutritionists like Mona Nemmer (Liverpool F.C’s Head nutritionist) and Jamie Meeks (Director of Sports Nutrition for New Orleans Saints), I hope to represent South Africa and be recognised along the ranks of these astounding women working in professional sport.
Penny Heyns is a childhood inspiration that has also stood out for me, her journey and now as motivational speaker is remarkable. I also look up to sports presenters standing out in their industry like Thato Moeng and Motshidisi Mohono, so you can imagine how composed I had to be when I had interviews with these remarkable women. When it comes to athletes the list is too long.
What do you want people to remember you for?
SA Rugby gave me the opportunity to be the first full-time dietician for a sports organisation. They recognised the need for a dietician in an athlete development structure. I would like to create awareness and the demand for more sports team to invest in dieticians and follow in their direction.
I want to be remembered as a passionate individual that promoted the profession and encouraged other dieticians to take leaps into an industry that under-represents dieticians. I hope to make strides in all the teams I get the opportunity to work with and collaborate with dieticians for academic research in sports nutrition specific to the South African demographic. If anything, I hope my presence in sport helps future and current athletes and coaches to recognise that a dietician is there to work with them to fuel greatness for success.
Photo 1 Caption: 2019 Springboks Rugby World Cup winning dietician, Zeenat Simjee, is on a mission to drive awareness on the importance of sports teams investing in dieticians for athlete development. Photo: Springboks (Twitter)