Anthony Minichiello’s feats on the rugby league field are the stuff of legend, but in the age of sports science he’s determined to dispel some of the myths around health and fitness.
As ambassador for Australian Organic Awareness Month 2023 (AOAM), the former Sydney Roosters, New South Wales Origin and Kangaroos star is encouraging a ‘back-to-basics’ approach to food.
AOAM is Australia’s largest campaign promoting the certified organic industry, running throughout September and raising awareness of the benefits of certified organic products for human health and environmental sustainability, and the importance of checking for organic certification marks on labels.
It’s a cause close to Minichiello’s heart. Aged just in his twenties, he faced the prospect of being forced into an early NRL retirement due to a string of injuries before a diet shakeup changed his life.
“I’m excited to be getting involved with Australian Organic Awareness Month because I have a very personal connection to it, and the more I share my story hopefully more people start to transition to better quality food because it makes such a difference,” he said.
“After I moved out of home at 18, I fell into this cycle that most of us were in as professional footy players – eating out every night, drinking frequently and using prescription medications like anti-inflammatories and sleeping pills to get through the bumps and bruises.
“I started getting flare-ups in my back around 2005 which I tried to mask with more medication, but in 2006 I got my first serious back injury which required an operation. That was the first of a string of neck, back and leg injuries which lasted around four years and left me desperately searching for answers.
“I found a really good mentor who reconnected me with the right training and the right nutrition. I realised that so much of an optimal diet is going back to how our ancestors used to eat – good whole fresh foods like grass-fed organic protein, seasonal fruits and vegetables, bone broth and fermented foods.
“My body started to repair itself, I had more mental clarity and was sleeping better. 2010 was my first full season back since I was 26, and I played the next five years with no injuries well into my 30s and just felt on top of the world.”
Taking the reins as captain for 2013, Minichiello worked with new Roosters coach Trent Robinson to implement more clean eating across the club.
“We all made a conscious decision to cut out the grains, the processed food, the soft drinks and take a more professional approach to nutrition, including getting an organic food truck in to cook us nutrient-dense lunches with quality proteins and vegetables,” Mr Minichiello said.
“The boys were disciplined away from the club as well with their diets, recovery, hydration and sleep. It’s pretty simple: you consume good quality food then your body’s not fighting against it and your gut microbiome is healthy. That means you’re sleeping better and recovering quicker so you can train harder with less injuries.”
The approach paid off, with Minichiello leading the side to the 2013 minor premiership and a grand final victory over the Sea Eagles – a remarkable turnaround from their 13th-place finish the previous season.
Minichiello’s sustained high performance despite his injury history drew questions from other players.
“I had people asking, ‘Mate, I had one back operation and can barely move, how are you back in the NRL after two?’”, he said.
“As I kept learning more about nutrition, I started sharing my knowledge with others, telling them I’d switched to organic produce and nutrient-dense foods. There were definitely people who weren’t thinking much about what they put in their mouths who thought it was a bit out there, but the results spoke for themselves when I was playing injury-free into my 30s.
“A lot of people, particularly when they’re young and fit, aren’t motivated to change their diet until they become sick or injured – and that was me too! Then they change their diet and feel so much better. I want to share my story to help people understand that even if you think you’re healthy, you’ve got so many opportunities every day to make better nutrition choices.”
Now a qualified nutritionist, Minichiello advocates for certified organic farming practices as a key element of a nutrient-dense diet.
“Healthy soil is the most important element of any farm,” he said.
“It’s all a cycle – healthy soil, healthy plant, healthy animal, healthy human. Being certified organic means the farmer treats the soil as the number one priority and doesn’t put those harmful toxins into the ground or on the plant.
“There’s a lot of misleading marketing claims and fake studies out there that confuse people, and they end up thinking certified organic is some new-age thing. It’s back to basics essentially – pure farming free of harmful inputs that gives you the most nutrient-dense produce.”
Returning to the diet of our ancestors mirrors a return to childhood habits for Minichiello, who grew up on a family farm in Prestons outside of Liverpool, NSW.
“We had our own cows, chickens, eggs, fruit trees, veggie patches – it was a very healthy and active upbringing,” he said.
“Mum was a damn good cook too, so she used to make us really nutritious meals with whole foods and fresh produce. You don’t think about it as a kid, but I never got sick or injured despite playing a lot of different sports. Looking back, I realise how important my diet was in that.”
The 43-year-old is now inspiring kids to make healthier choices through his MiniFit platform, delivering online and in-school programs around nutrition and fitness.
“I started MiniFit back when I was still playing, but it really took off after I retired,” he said.
“My Year 6 teacher from primary school recently returned from Hong Kong and has come onboard. So now we deliver in-school programs with an accredited PE teacher and a former professional athlete – all aligned to the curriculum.
“We teach the kids about our five foundations to growing up healthy and strong – hydration, nutrition, physical activity, sleep and screen time. Getting the kids to try new vegetables is a core focus of the nutrition element.”
“A common issue you see these days is chronic low levels of inflammation constantly bubbling away under the surface of our bodies, which manifests in different forms like colds and flus, fatigue and mental fog.
“The body gives you signs when something isn’t right. It’s important to listen to them and start nourishing yourself with more nutrient-dense food which helps give you more energy, sharper mental focus, better sleep, and better all-round wellbeing.
“For fitness-minded people, eating better builds stronger connective tissues, which means less injuries and a leaner, stronger physique due to lower inflammation.”
Minichiello returned to the Roosters as dietician this season to help the club return to its clean-eating ways. Certified organic practices are at the heart of much of the new dietary plans for players, including grass-finished meats, pasture-fed chicken and toxin-free fruits and vegetables.
“It’s all about balance. I’m a big advocate for the 80/20 rule – having that strong foundation of fresh, nutrient dense food so you can occasionally go out and enjoy yourself without disrupting that foundation,” he said.
“When you wake up every day feeling great why would you switch back to low-quality food?”
Australian Organic Awareness Month is run by Australian Organic Limited in September each year, promoting the certified organic industry across all categories including fresh produce, packaged food and beverages, cosmetics and skincare, home and garden products and textiles. To learn more about Australian Organic Awareness Month, click here.