Tania Lee, an Iowa State alumna in dietetics and nutritional science, served as lead dietitian for Malaysian athletes during the Rio Olympics. Contributed photo.

Iowa State alumna serves as lead dietitian at Rio Olympics

Tania Lee applied everything she learned at Iowa State University during the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

The 2013 alumna in dietetics and nutritional science was chosen to be lead dietitian of the 32-member Malaysian Olympics team this year.tania4

“It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” she said.

Lee works as a sports dietitian for the Malaysian diving, karate, sailing, and lawn bowl teams at the Sports Nutrition Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This experience, which she held prior to the Olympics, led The National Sports Institute of Malaysia to select Lee from among 13 colleagues to lead a
 team of three dietitians providing nutritional support for Malaysian athletes at the summer Olympics.

“I was very lucky to have been selected among my colleagues, who are also very competent,” she said.

As lead dietitian, Lee oversaw the nutritional needs for all athletes and solved nutrition-related issues during the games. Her priority was to ensure that athletes maintained proper hydration, dietary intake, and body weight. She also helped increase the availability of green vegetables and championed better food quality and dining hall conditions for athletes.

Overcoming challenges

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Lee faced several challenges during her first Olympics, including poor food quality and disorganized dining halls.

She met with nutritionists and dietitians from other countries to brainstorm and solve food issues at the main dining halls. Other challenges included safety and security concerns, as well as a language barrier, and adapting to differences between the local culture and her own.

Lee and other dietitians advocated to have an international chef brought in to improve the taste and quality of the food. She and her cohorts also helped to increase the number of inspection rounds by managers to ensure safety and organization within the dining halls.  

“It was really exciting and great seeing our athletes train, prepare, and overcome these issues professionally and compete,” she said.

From Iowa State to the Olympics

Lee’s passion for proper nutrition stemmed from her time at Iowa State. In 2011, she co-founded the student-run campus food pantry SHOP (Students Helping Our Peers). It began as a class project and materialized into much more.

“It started with the idea of giving back to the community and helping our peers,” Lee said. “Most full-time students have to work in addition to studying. Some students even have a few jobs to make ends meet.”

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Before the pantry, Lee said there were no on-campus resources for students with food insecurity. Thanks to help from the SHOP, Iowa State student volunteers and staff last year supplied 60 to 110 students with food each month.

Along with Lee’s involvement with the pantry, she interned for 200 hours in Ghana through the ISU Dietetics Internship, a four-week service-learning experience. Iowa State interns work with dietetic interns in Ghana to help enhance their cultural understanding. Interns also increase their professional skills by practicing nutritional assessment, diagnosis, intervention, monitoring, and evaluation.

“I was able to witness what nutritional deficiency actually means in that country,” Lee said.

Lee credits her Iowa State experience with preparing her for a career in dietetics. She said it provided her an opportunity to learn and grow.

“I think the nutrition and dietetics program is well-designed to equip students to excel in the real world,” she said. “I was also very fortunate to have great advisers, knowledgeable lecturers, and supervisors.”

When it comes to her favorite memory at Iowa State, Lee said she has too many. But if she had to choose, the extra time her professors and supervisors spent with her is her favorite.


“Being at Iowa State provided me with the freedom and guidance to explore other options and interests,” she said. “I think that’s the key thing that not everyone can get at just any university.”

A passion for helping others

tania2Helping others drives Lee. She chose to major in dietetics because she could apply science and help to make a difference in people’s lives.

“I want to be a role model or make a difference in the field of sports nutrition,” she said. “I do hope to inspire more dietitians to reach their goals and to be their very best.”

Back home in Malaysia, she provides opportunities for future dietitians and nutritionists who are passionate about sports to shadow her — and gives them resources. When she is not working, she volunteers at local swimming clubs by providing educational talks. The talks are Lee’s way of giving back to the community.

“My passion is about helping,” she said. “It can be helping someone achieve their goals or making the world a happier place to live.”