Calories in, out: That’s just a start for UF nutrition team

University of Florida sophomore offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor admits he didn’t pay close attention to his diet in high school.

Taylor, a Cocoa native, shed close to 50 pounds to earn a scholarship offer to play at UF. But to maintain his 334-pound playing weight, the 6-foot-5 Taylor consults on a regular basis with Collier Perno, the Head of Football Nutrition at Florida.

“When I got here, she pretty much put me on the right plan to be successful, the right proteins, the right carbs,” Taylor said.

UF has expanded its sports nutrition staff to serve all 526 athletes in 19 sports, including Taylor. Since 2014, Florida’s sports nutrition budget has increased by roughly $700,000, with a staff of nine full-time and hourly employees. While Perno is embedded with the football program, Liz Fox serves as Director of Nutrition at the $25 million Hawkins Center, overseeing men’s and women’s basketball, track and field, cross country and tennis.

“We’re very lucky here because we have five dietitians,” Fox said. “Some programs may only have one or two dietitians that have to cover all 500 athletes and that’s hard to do. But when you have five, it’s very nice because each dietitian here has about one to three sports, so (athletes) get the individualized care that they need.”

Fox and Perno take a hands-on approach that includes leading cooking clinics for athletes at the Hawkins Center teaching kitchen.

“I did three or four,” Taylor said. “They’re a lot of fun. You learn a lot.”

Perno grew up playing soccer and running track and suffered six broken bones during competition. She became curious about nutrition’s role in injury prevention and pursued sports nutrition in college, first as an undergraduate at Alabama and then as a graduate student, earning a master’s degree at Georgia State. After working in sports nutrition with the NFL combine training program for IMG, Perno accepted the position at Florida. She’s turned down overtures from other college and NFL teams to stay with the Gators, overseeing the nutrition goals of 105 scholarship athletes and walk-ons during fall camp.

“They see the importance of it, and the best part is that once they do see changes, they kind of get into it and they see how it affects their performance,” Perno said.

Since the NCAA changed its rules in 2014 allowing athletes to receive unlimited meals and snacks, Florida made meals and snacks readily available for athletes in different locations, including fuel bars at the Hawkins Center, in the basketball and Southeast End Zone weight rooms and at each facility’s locker room/players lounge areas.

During football camp, Perno monitors breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks each day. Each meal’s balance depends on each player’s goals.

“Each plate I want protein, carbs, fruit and veggies,” Perno said. “It’s just going to be different portion sizes. (If) you are (losing weight) you want half a plate of fruits and vegetables, quarter protein, quarter carbs. If maintaining, you want to do it more like thirds, so third fruit veggie, third carb, third protein. Then if it’s gaining, half carbs, quarter protein, quarter fruit and vegetables.”

Perno said she plans most of her weight gain and loss goals with players during the offseason, due to the high number of calories burned during training camp and the regular season. She said she’s received unwavering support from Florida football coach Jim McElwain, who understands the value of nutrition.

“There’s a lot of really good science behind it,” McElwain said. “Not only the science behind the recovery of what it can help do to fuel your body, but also what helps fuel your mind. I just can’t tell you how excited I am about Collier and their staff and what they’ve done, really from the education piece for our guys, but more so being there to help them.”

Fox, a former soccer player at Saint Louis University, said the athletes she encounters at the Hawkins Center are supportive.

“We have very high-level athletes, very high-level coaches, and they want their athletes to have access to any resource they can,” Fox said. “Our goal is to just give these athletes that nutritional edge, so whatever we can do to help them, from a nutritional perspective to help their performance, whether it’s hydration or recovery or whatever it may be.”

Of course, 18- to 22-year-old athletes, like most college students, are occasionally going to want to order pizza or go out for chicken wings. Fox and Perno say they both allow their athletes “cheat meals” once a week, but the timing of those meals are important.

“They can do it once in a week, and not a day that is going to throw you off,” Fox said. “But if they go out for chicken wings and fries just once, just make sure it’s not a recovery meal, make sure it’s not the night before they perform, that’s not going to ruin everything that they’ve worked for the rest of the week. It has to be a balance.”

Florida’s commitment to sports nutrition will be further enhanced when the school completes construction of a proposed dining hall that will serve all of UF’s athletes. The dining hall will be built next to UF’s standalone football facility as part of a $100 million master plan for facility upgrades.

“The emphasis of the total nutrition center is something that we’re really looking forward to and is going to help Gator athletics,” McElwain said.