Sports dietitian Jessica Rothwell champions a healthy life and career

Alumna Jessica Rothwell, sports dietitian and former Australian race walking champion, helps elite athletes get nutrition right. In this interview, she reflects on finding balance in work & shares her top tips for healthy eating.

Nutrition has always been an essential ingredient in alumna Jessica Rothwell’s life. Growing up on a dairy farm in Katunga, regional Victoria, she learnt about dairy’s benefits for human health as well as the importance of nutrition for livestock at a young age.

‘I always had a clear understanding of the ‘paddock to plate’ phenomenon. Dad often had animal nutritionists on the farm, and as kids we were involved a lot in cooking, using our milk to make things like pancakes,’ she says.

Rothwell’s early exposure to the synergies between food and health became more profound as she developed her athletic career. Having learnt to race walk at Shepparton Little Athletics Club, she won her school championships, was awarded Athletics Australia’s Junior (2009) and Emerging (2010) Athlete of the Year, and went on to represent Australia in the sport.

It was while training at the Australian Institute of Sport that Rothwell met Professor Louise Burke, who Rothwell describes as ‘the godmother of sports nutrition’. And when a series of hamstring surgeries forced her out of the Commonwealth and Olympic Games and into recovery, the role of nutrition in Rothwell’s rehabilitation process really rang home.

‘I learnt a lot from that. It was a hard, disappointing time. Despite my biomechanics playing a large role in my hamstring injury, due to the technicalities associated with race walking, I’ve since reflected a lot on sports nutrition and other strategies I could have applied when I was competing,’ she says.

The experience also highlighted to Rothwell the value of having a professional ‘plan B’.

‘It’s important for elite athletes to have that balance, to have other interests, hobbies and to not overdo it. But it’s tricky: you have to ensure you’re getting appropriate rest and recovery, managing your university commitments, while supporting yourself financially, too.’

Stepping into postgraduate study

For Rothwell, creating that balance meant returning to study a Master of Dietetic Practice at La Trobe. The course built on her existing qualifications in human nutrition and set her on the path to working as a sports dietitian with professional athletes.

‘I had a really positive experience through La Trobe University. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and it’s given me a great foundation to advance my career,’ she says.

Clinical placements were a highlight and led to strong professional relationships later on.

‘Through La Trobe, my placement at Alfred Health put me in a stimulating and fascinating environment. I held the dietitians I met in high regard and their research was really, really inspiring,’ she says.

‘During clinical placements, you’re there to support your fellow staff and student colleagues. And you maintain those strong relationships throughout your career – at conferences, sharing knowledge and articles, and collaborating on different projects.’

As well as providing a strong clinical background, Rothwell credits La Trobe with teaching hands-on cooking skills that are critical to her work with athletes.

‘The food cooking classes we did with Emma Stirling at La Trobe gave us practical skills we can pass on. Many athletes relocate from the country, may not have learnt to cook much at home or have long stints training and competing overseas, so it’s important we can share this knowledge with respect to their dietary requirements and preferences.’

Nutrition advice for all ages and sports

Soon after completing the course, Rothwell says her career ‘fell into place’. She now works as a sports dietitian at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre; for Sports Dieticians Australia; and also at the Victorian Institute of Sport, where she consults with athletics and hockey teams. She values the variety in her work.

‘Having variety is a great way to learn. You’re being exposed to different situations and circumstances, so you get to see nutrition and health from different perspectives.’

As well, there’s the variety that comes with customising nutrition strategies for different athletes across a range of sports.

‘You tailor sports nutrition principles depending on the individual athlete, their event and what they’re trying to achieve in terms of their physique goals. There’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all model.’

Rothwell rounds out her clinical work by working casually with Northern Health hospitals and giving nutrition presentations to sporting clubs and schools. For our adolescent and active junior population, she says, cutting through messaging about restrictive dietary fads is important.

‘Young, active adolescents are in a huge stage of growth and development, yet they’re often receiving nutritional messages through social media or their parents that are very confused.’

‘They’re getting ‘no sugar’ messages when, actually, they need a bit of extra energy. Occasionally, having foods that are less nutrient dense, in addition to a well-balanced nutritious intake, is not at all a bad thing.’

Presenting also gives Rothwell the chance to meet the next generation of sports dietitians. When they ask for her career advice, she emphasises the importance of hard work, coupled with a passion for learning.

‘Be proactive and persistent. Seek as many opportunities as you can, and further your knowledge by immersing yourself in work environments where there’s greater expertise and good mentors,’ she says.

Rothwell also instils the role of communication in helping new graduates find that all-important first job.

‘One of the most important things on the job front is that, if people don’t know you’re looking, they won’t know to reach out. So, don’t be afraid to send an email or call someone. At the end of the day, they’ll probably be honoured you got in touch.’

Five tips for healthy eating

While Rothwell’s dietary expertise focuses on those in the sporting arena, she’s quick to point out that the principles underpinning her work can apply to everyone.

‘Sometimes people forget that elite athletes are human beings, too!’ she laughs.

So what does Rothwell see as the essentials of healthy eating? Here’s her advice, so you can get the best nutrition – and the most enjoyment – out of every meal.

1. Eat colour and variety

Foods of different types and colours contain a range of nutrients in different amounts. Eating from all food groups ensures a balance of essential carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, and helps to optimise your health, as well as prevent chronic disease.

2. Be aware of diet trends and fads

Most diets aren’t sustainable long-term, nor appropriate to all ages. One exception, Rothwell notes, is the modified Mediterranean, or ‘ModiMed’, diet. Designed by La Trobe’s Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos, it’s proven to prevent chronic disease and improve mental health.

3. Understand how to fuel your training and performance

If you’re keen to step up your exercise program, be proactive by seeking expert knowledge. Make the investment to see an accredited sports dietitian, to learn how to fuel and optimise your training, competition and performances.

4. Try new recipes

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring! Search food blogs or cookbooks for something that piques your palate. Along the way, you’ll discover new ingredients and cooking methods, and build your cooking confidence. Don’t be afraid to use old recipes too!

5. Shop locally

Take the time to understand where your food comes from. Shorter food production chains make for better quality, fresher and more sustainable produce. Wherever possible, buy direct from food producers, such as at your closest Farmers’ Market.

Find an expert

Search our experts database.