Our featured dietitian for the month of February is Monica Salafia MS, RD, CPT. Monica is a fitness dietitian within her own business, Mind on Nutrition. Within her business, she has the opportunity to work with NFL combine athletes. She is also a Group Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer for Denver Parks and Recreation.
What is your educational background and how long have you been an RD? Do you have any additional credentials relevant to your position?
I have both a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition Science and a Master’s in Applied Nutrition from the Sage Colleges in New York. I have been an RD since August 2016. Additionally, I also am a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and a Certified Diabetes Prevention Lifestyle Coach.
How did you achieve your position/ how did you get started with your current position?
I created my own private practice in Denver, CO, working virtually with clients using the Healthie online platform. My client case load began to grow as I networked within Denver fitness community. This led to consulting with four fitness studios as their dietitian. Along the way, I crossed paths with the head coach at a performance training gym that also performs physiology testing. The head coach was also looking for a dietitian, and I began working with NFL combine athletes in addition to aforementioned members of Denver gyms and fitness studios.
What key areas of knowledge/experiences did you need to have before this job?
Networking experiences have been critical in my dietetics career. During my internship, I felt my networking in fitness nutrition was lacking, and I asked if I could find my own fitness nutrition preceptor, and I did. I just had to move to Denver to work with him!
From there, it was an easy transition into the gyms and fitness studios where the topic of nutrition would come up, and I could introduce myself as an RD. I get pummeled with questions about every fad diet, so knowledge of physiology is key. I think having a strong understanding of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and medical nutrition therapy plus interpreting research. These are the areas all RD’s need to master before they specialize.
I work to keep up to date in sports nutrition practices by using the Sports Nutrition Handbook, The Journal of International Sports Nutrition, and referencing other sports and weight management specific articles.
Lastly, I feel it is important in my role to have a passion to work out and understand the practical application of what you are teaching. I don’t think one needs to do every kind of workout out there. I haven’t played on a football team after all, but having a true passion for fitness and “walking the walk” is important to be able to connect with this audience.
What are the highs and lows of your position?
I love that I am creating my own path, which certainly has its challenges but I also find it thrilling. There aren’t many dietitians working in private boutique gyms and fitness studios. I also enjoy that I have had dietitians reach out to me and ask how I have gotten into this position, so this says to me that dietitians in gyms and fitness studios is unexplored territory.
A challenge that I encounter is I have to consider my pay rate accordingly. If a member is paying less than $200 for a month of unlimited access to group fitness classes, paying for weekly personal nutrition coaching sessions can be expensive to them. I also have to study my competition. In Colorado, there are “nutritionists” everywhere. I once met a “gut health nutrition expert” at a yoga studio. I set my own rates that clients pay out of pocket, and because not many RDs fill this type of role, there isn’t a large pool of data to know “what’s fair”. One of the biggest challenges for RD’s wanting to enter this space is not knowing what to charge.
All this said, it is this entrepreneurial path that makes what I do so rewarding. I’m happy to navigate this territory because I know this is where dietitians need to be working. Gym and fitness studio owners need to see that hiring Registered Dietitians is just as important as hiring fitness instructors.
What is a typical day for you?
A typical day doesn’t really exist but a typical week does. I might have scheduled anywhere from 5-10 individual coaching clients whom I meet with virtually or in-person. I will exercise at some point and also use this as a networking or marketing opportunity.
I use Instagram as my marketing tool so I spend time creating content for @monicasalafia.rd and my website www.mindonnutrition.com . I also create nutrition education materials and distribute them to gyms and sell them online to other dietitians interested in the fitness space via a digital marketplace.
I also revise menus with the chef who works alongside me and the NFL combine athletes. My job is to make sure that the menu is nutritionally adequate but also food the players will eat. I have weekly check-ins with the players to make sure they are meeting their weekly nutrition goals: not skipping meals, not overdoing sweets and eating most of the meals the chef has provided.
On weekends, I host a nutrition workshop at a gym or a healthy eating establishment to talk about fitness and nutrition goals.
There is some brand work involved in between as well. I like to connect with local brands and share their products with my clients. When I run group nutrition programs I often use these brand items as incentive for completing a certain task like submitting a food journal.
Lastly, because I am such an advocate for Registered Dietitians and my mission is to get more dietitians in gyms and fitness studios, I carve out time to mentor dietitians and/or RD2BEs who are interested in this space. I work with them on projects I have, meet with them on Zoom, and create digital courses for aspiring fitness dietitians to learn how to get stared.
What advice would you share with an RD (or RD2be) that is interested in a similar career path?
It’s all about who you know, so get to know everyone who think you want to work with and share your skills with them. I think that my extroverted personality has naturally led me to building connections that got me to where I am today. I’m not any more intelligent or had a better schooling opportunity. I just talked to people and took on a “Yes I’ll Do It” …but figure out how later approach.
The fitness nutrition field isn’t for every dietitian. I have been able to successfully blend both a macronutrient-approach and mindful and intuitive eating approach when coaching clients. People in this space come to me because they want to change their body composition and reach their fitness goals. I am in full support of that and help them figure out how to do that without instilling a diet mentality. Since this is a gym and fitness space, I’d advise those interested in a similar career path to not enter this field and tell people weight loss in unethical. Understanding weight management, motivational interviewing, and knowledge on sports nutrition is critical.
What is your greatest strength/weakness as a dietitian?
I am futuristic and visionary so I see amazing things happening for dietitians in the future which, given the nature of nutrition in the media I would say is pretty important. It feels like anyone and everyone is the nutrition expert, but I never let that keep me from believing in our work as RDs, and that’s instrumental in my progress. Also, gym owners and fitness studios sense the passion I have too, and that makes them want to hire a dietitian.
Since I am so enthusiastic about my work and the future of dietetics, I have a tough time setting boundaries. For example, I was assessing a DXA scan with a physiologist and we got to talking about the field and so much time passed I ran out of time to do my own workout!
What are some of your interests outside of work?
I enjoy listening to non-nutrition or health related podcasts while taking my dog Belinda for a walk. I also enjoy being creative; although, that usually means I’m creating something for my work.
Other than that, I like working out, mostly just weightlifting on my own with headphones in and a sweet playlist I made. I really love music, live music especially. My favorites are Bassnectar, Griz, and other electronic dance music artists.
What aspect of sports nutrition (or any other area of dietetics) interested you to pursue it as a career?
I’m personally interested in fitness and how nutrition can fuel the body to achieve certain goals. Anatomy and physiology are my favorite subjects, and having an understanding of nutrition and how it applies to physiology amplifies that for me. When I first started powerlifting with my brothers, I ate a salad before a workout (whoops!) and nearly passed out underneath a barbell bench press. Not only was that terrifying, but I was embarrassed because those were my big brothers I just did that in front of! That day I decided I’m going to learn how to fuel my body right because clearly that fitness magazine I was reading was a not a great resource!
Why have you decided to work with athletes or similar groups?
There is a need that must be fulfilled. Who gets more nutrition questions than a personal trainer? No one. I did an Instagram poll, and almost 89% of people said that an RD was more like a doctor than a personal trainer, and while yes, academically we’re closer, I think the public needs to see us more like they view personal trainers! Don’t just come see us when you’re sick, see us to help you become and stay healthy!
Because I’m naturally in gyms and fitness studios because of my own interests in exercising, I can connect with the members. I decided to work with the NFL Combine athletes because that was an opportunity that I absolutely had to experience.
How do you deal with the daily stresses presented to you in your career?
I remember that life is something beautiful, and nothing in life is permanent. I’m not always cheerful; I for sure have my moments, but I’ve been working on adopting those two mentalities and being grateful. When all else fails, I call my mom or my sister.
Prior to getting your credentials, did you have any experience in nutrition (ie. food service, volunteering, etc.)?
When I was 15, I knew I was pursuing dietetics so my experiences have always been in pursuit of the dietetic licensure. I worked at a hospital in food service (for about 4 weeks) and did a lot of volunteering. My pre-RD experiences were typical of a dietetic student.
What do you love about your career/job?
Everything! I love creating my work day, making discovery calls, and listening to clients tell me their health histories. I love being able to empathize with clients about all of the conflicting information about nutrition, which also helps build rapport!
Everyone has their minds on nutrition these days, so I love being a resource for members, gym owners, and other dietitians. I love when a client texts me a video of her doing pull ups or eating a sweet potato after having some “diet mentality” fears around that food. Being able to watch people learn that food is fuel and they don’t have to be afraid of it and helping people reach their fitness goals with food is my passion.
Is there a course you took in undergrad or grad school that has helped you in your current role?
Nutrition Communications and Exercise Physiology have helped me tremendously! We need more exercise sciences in our curriculum. I also took a Weight Management course in grad school, which really helped me get an understanding of what we know about current evidence-based guidelines on weight management. Since most people want to change their body composition when they step into a gym, that class was very helpful. However, my communication skills have been invaluable in helping clients see we are working towards body confidence, not weight loss.
What are some of the unique nutritional considerations you must consider for the group(s) you work with?
Immediately I’m thinking of the NFL Combine players and how I am teaching the chef that nutritional considerations for football players who exercise twice daily and need to build muscle mass are not similar to the general population.
I pay attention to make sure that the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all adequately meeting the players needs but also that sodium is pretty liberal, considering they will sweat a lot and they may not eat 100% of their meals.
In the gyms and fitness studios, I consider the energy and carbohydrate needs of mostly women with whom I work. For the most part, I focus on them eating enough food in general and foods that do not irritate their guts. I focus on calorie and nutrient density principles when I educate clients.