HHS alumna keeps Boilermaker student athletes running with proper nutrition

Lauren Link

Lauren LinkPhoto provided

The Purdue University men’s basketball team’s historic season is fueled by high-level offensive and defensive performance, expert coaching from Matt Painter, and an impassioned fan base cheering them on at Mackey Arena.

When it comes to literally fueling these student athletes — and dozens of others, Lauren Link’s work as director of sports nutrition for Purdue Athletics is of utmost importance. From menu planning to overseeing food service, Link supplies proper nutrition that drives slam dunks, workouts and studying. Pizza and ramen rarely lose to smoothies and vegetables for 20-year-olds, but Link knows when she makes breakthroughs to these young athletes.

“Sometimes they’ll send me a picture of something they’ve made at home like a healthy recipe or a meal prep,” said Link, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the Department of Nutrition Science in 2011 and is a registered dietitian. “They’ll send me pictures from the grocery store, showing me that they are starting to understand healthy eating on their own. Those are cool moments for me, when it finally clicks for them.”

Link looks after the nutrition of Purdue soccer, football and volleyball athletes’ nutrition as well. Her office oversees all 18 varsity sports in Purdue Athletics. She is being recognized with the Purdue HHS 2022 Early Career Achievement Award for her work in dietetics and nutrition.

Lauren Link talks nutrition with the Purdue volleyball team

Lauren Link, standing, talks nutrition with the Purdue volleyball team.Photo provided

Athletics helped bring Link to Purdue. The Bunker Hill, Indiana, native grew up watching and attending basketball and football games. It was her dream to play for Purdue someday. She joined a strong soccer program as a forward while exploring nutrition and dietetics methodology and research.

Now in her eighth year with Purdue Athletics, Link is thrilled to help new generations of student athletes keep their competitive edges through proper nutrition. It’s hectic and a lot of work, but it’s as important as a hitting free throws against a Big Ten rival in the waning seconds of a big game.

“I want people to know just how multi-faceted it is,” Link said. “We bring a unique expertise to athletics in terms of helping athletes with so many different components of nutrition, whether that’s weight, hydration, performance, injury recovery. We’ve come a long way since I was a student athlete.”

Then, her team only had a part-time nutritionist to lean on. Today, Link and her colleagues travel with teams to make sure they’re eating well on the road, and they engage with the players during practices in West Lafayette.

“We do a lot of one-on-one counseling with our athletes,” Link explained. “We plan on how we can get meals in, how can we work around their busy schedule, because in addition to class and tutors and things that all other students have, they also have practice and training and conditioning and weightlifting sessions. They’re traveling. They’re just all over the place.”

Over the years, Link noticed another stressor for student athletes — changing their nutrition habits once the final buzzer sounds for their collegiate athletic career. This phenomenon inspired her 2018 book, “The Healthy Former Athlete.”

“We do all this stuff to help them be a good athlete while they’re here, but are we doing enough for them afterwards?” Link asked. “When it’s over, it hits them like a brick wall. I think preparing for it, talking about it, thinking about it can go a long way.”

The book covers athletes such as football linemen who had to bulk up but also includes athletes such as wrestlers and cross-country runners who had to keep strictly lean bodies via low calorie counts. Each athlete has their journey, and Link explores the roads these young people make when their Division I playing days are over.

“There’s just so many components that make it a really tricky transition for a lot of people that I think it does take a lot of work,” Link said. “They go from working out three to four hours a day to working 8 to 5 in an office, trying to figure out ‘How do I work out on my own? I always had a coach write it for me. When do I work out? What is the calorie difference from working out really hard to maybe casually exercising for 30 to 60 minutes a day?’”