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How One Woman’s Passion Paved the Way for a New Field of Science

Photo: Courtesy of CBS Sports

You don’t have to look further than Instagram, Amazon, or an online article with a celebrity interview to know sports nutrition has hit the mainstream. But if you leapt back in time by about 50 years, you’d find a totally different reality.

Dr. Susan Kleiner, a registered dietitian and certified sports nutritionist, lived in that world, and without her, sports nutrition would not exist as it does today.

“In those first years, we were all creating a path for all the people who came after us,” said Kleiner, a researcher, author, and nutrition counselor who works with world-class athletes.

Fueling her goal

Kleiner grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, before the passage of Title IX — a policy that forbade exclusion from federally funded educational programs, including sports, on the basis of sex. (U.S. Congress passed the law in June 1972.)

“There were no sports for girls at all at my high school,” Kleiner said. “We had a boys’ pool — a large, beautiful Olympic-size pool — and on the door it said, ‘Boys’ Pool.’”

Despite the limitations she faced, Kleiner practiced modern dance from a young age and even thought she’d pursue a career in the art. Yet, after studying at a dance program in New York at age 15, she realized she had an even stronger love for biology and decided she wanted to attend college instead. At Hiram College — a small liberal arts school in rural Ohio — she competed on the school’s tennis, track, and swim teams.

Eventually, she’d go on to receive her master’s from Case Western University’s department of nutrition — a feat she accomplished after persuading the department to allow her to focus on nutrition and exercise as a combined science.

She recalled one of her professors saying, “There’s no such thing as nutrition and exercise as a field of study.” The stack of books Kleiner read from acclaimed authors, including early nutritionist Adelle Davis and scientist Rachel Carson, and seeing budding programs at other schools in the United States, persuaded her otherwise.

The department heard her out, and Kleiner went on to receive her Ph.D. in nutrition and human performance.

“Around 1982 or ’83 is, I believe, when we started to call that sports nutrition,” Kleiner said.

Pioneering a new field

While pursuing her Ph.D., Kleiner conducted the first ever study that looked at nutrition’s effect on muscle strength and power. In her research, she analyzed how steroid use and dietary patterns affected heart disease risk and body composition in 35 male bodybuilders.

“All the research had been on aerobic exercise and endurance exercise — people were jogging and bicycling — and I became fascinated with building muscle,” she said.

Kleiner is considered one of the first people to work in sports nutrition. Now, as jobs in the field have become more lucrative, more men have entered it. In fact, more people in general have taken an interest.

Getting involved

Those interested in sports nutrition have many paths to take, such as exercise science, and nutrition and exercise physiology. There are also many certifications available, like a sports dietitian certificate from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Yet academic study, not to mention practicing good nutrition and fitness in one’s own life, is key.

“Higher education is essential,” Kleiner said. “Having a bachelor’s degree in nutrition does not give you the specialty training you need.”

Among her many professional successes is pioneering the first full-time nutrition program for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Her current approach to nutrition, which is detailed in her book “The New Power of Eating,” emphasizes food variety and encourages individual nutrition for goal fueling. Yet, continuing to propel the field she helped create, and benefit women along the way, remains the most exciting of accomplishments.

“It has been wonderful to mentor young women,” Kleiner said, “and it has also been profoundly impactful for me to do research on female athletes, and be able to work with and validate the needs of female athletes to themselves.”

Melinda Carter, [email protected]

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