Meet Irish rugby's secret weapon: nutritionist Daniel Davey wants to bring his philosophy to our kitchens

Tending his sheep on a small farm in the west of Ireland is not where you’d expect to find one of the country’s leading sports nutritionists. But nothing about Daniel Davey is typical. Before the term farm to fork was invented, the 36-year-old – who combines the role of performance nutritionist for Leinster Rugby and Dublin’s senior footballers – was living it.

While his job now is all about making sure his elite athletes can perform at optimum levels by maintaining a healthy and nutritious diet, his passion for food started long before he studied Agricultural Science at UCD or completed a master’s in nutrition and physical activity at Bristol University.

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It started at home on the family farm. And while he lives in Dublin’s Knocklyon with his girlfriend of five years Sandra Davey – “no relation,” he jokes – he gets back to walk the farm and see his 50 Texel and Belclare sheep, and of course his family, as often as he can.

Davey grew up in the townland of Chaffpool outside the Sligo town of Tubbercurry. His mother Eileen was an excellent cook – the homemade brown bread on the table of the family home where we meet is a testament to her skills in the kitchen.

His grandparents on both sides, with whom he spent a lot of time with growing up, were dairy farmers who also supplied the family kitchen with vegetables. Davey would collect eggs from the hens every morning. One of his favourite dinners to this day is still the bacon and cabbage that transports him back to childhood.

“If I go right back to the beginning, my grandparents cooked food, prepared food and baked bread, and I was exposed to that. Both sets of grandparents lived within three miles of the family home. They really encouraged good nutrition. It wasn’t until I got older that I realised the value of what they were bringing,” says Davey, who remembers telling his parents at the age of five that he would have a restaurant on his farm.

The other formative influence on his life was sport and playing Gaelic football for his local team, Coolaney/Mullinabreena. He also played for Sligo and also had success with Ballyboden St Enda’s in Dublin. It seems it was written in the stars that he would go on to combine the two big influences in his life and create a unique career path.

Growing up, Davey says, he wasn’t particularly academic and actually thought he’d failed maths in his Leaving Cert. But after a re-check, he was on his way to study at University College Dublin, where he says his brain exploded with what he was being exposed to. It was at UCD that he came into contact with the university’s high-performance unit and set his sights on sports nutrition.

Today, Davey’s work sits at the cutting edge of where science meets sport. He knows that eating good food can have extraordinary results because he’s lived it. Irish International Jamie Heaslip has called him one of the unsung heroes of Irish and Leinster rugby, saying he brought the nutrition game to another level.

But Davey is as comfortable walking the farm in his wellies and tending his sheep as he is explaining the science of nutrition to his stellar clients. His background played a big part in this. As a child, his mum Eileen and dad Peter, an actor with the Blue Raincoat theatre company who also worked in the local dairy, encouraged both him and his sister Marianne to follow their dreams and be true to themselves.

“We were in a house where creativity and imagination were really encouraged. It’s only as you get older, all the daft things you did when you were growing up, you were never punished for it. There was a real acceptance: ‘if that’s what you want to be or what you want to do, you go for it’. That brings enormous belief,” he says.

He says his first book, Eat Up Raise Your Game, is not simply another recipe book. It’s driven by his desire to add value to people’s daily lives by influencing their food choices and giving them practical advice for mealtimes.

“One of the things I’ve learned since doing the book is you have to be ready for it. Your actual maturity and where you are in your life – you have to be ready for it because you do feel a level of vulnerability with it. You’re putting yourself out there and in the nature of my field, I want to provide something that brings incredible value to people. When you put work into it, you want people to get a sense of that,” he says.

“You’ve got to be ready for that and you have to be at a stage where you believe in your concept. I never wanted to do a recipe book. I never wanted to provide people with recipes I cook – I wanted to give them a little bit of who I am, what my philosophies are, what I believe in and the framework to use the recipes. That’s what’s different about what I do – it’s the value added,” he says.

And there’s a lot of Davey in this book, from the importance of food provenance to physical activity.

“I really wanted to connect all elements, so that people understand there’s the quality of what you eat, the value in where you get your food and then there’s the context of how we must live active lives if we want to live full, healthy lives. I believe that if you make good food choices and you do enough physical activity, put it all together, then you perform at your physical and mental best. That’s the message I try to deliver because I’ve seen this first hand. I live it personally. My family lives it and, in my job, I see transformations,” he says.

“I work in a world of incredibly fine margins – everything is monitored, everything is progressed over time. When people buy into this process, this philosophy, it’s tingling what can be achieved and I’ve seen it.”

While the book will be a great resource for athletes and anyone hoping to take their sports performance to another level – it has recipes specifically tailored towards training days and rest days – it’s also full of ideas for tasty and healthy family dinners.

As a mum of two constantly hungry boys, I tell him that one quote from his book jumped out at me. Daveye writes that, when possible, “we need to slow down and embrace cooking and food preparation as a positive activity in the home. Rather than seeing cooking as a chore or an inconvenience, try to shift your focus to look at it as one of the key activities you use to invest in your health”.

In the fast-paced world we live in, cooking can feel like just another job to do before the washing up, a bit of downtime and then bed. But with focus, Davey says, it doesn’t have to be like this – meal times can be so much more.

“I talk about mindful eating and mindfulness. When people get to that place, everything makes so much sense. It’s that absolute connection between what you’re doing for your body and what you’re doing for your mind. By getting enough activity and then nourishing your body – that’s it for me,” he says.

While Davey says there are times when you want to eat something quick that’s easily prepared with fresh ingredients, there have to be occasions when you take the time to savour the process of preparing and cooking a meal.

“There are periods in your life when you should absolutely take your time to prepare your meals and sit down and enjoy them. It really hit me this year when I was over in Seville with my girlfriend Sandra and we went to a cooking class. They made dishes in front of us and it was this entire creative experience and they viewed it as an art. I could feel this wave come over me where I felt it shouldn’t always be quick. It should be an experience. We’re missing the value and the fun. Our mindset is not in the right place when we look at chopping and we look at cleaning and we say ‘ah no, it’s a chore’.”

“One of the first things I did to help change my mind-set was the introduction of music. I started to listen to music and I love jazz when I’m preparing food. During the winter months, I’ll light candles, I’ll have music, I’ll lower the light and it creates this experience you’re having when you’re cooking. During the summer and spring months, I’ll open the back door. I’ll let nature come in the door. What you’re doing all the time is you’re forming a habit and your brain consciously starts to connect to that. Unless we start making those connections, it’s difficult and it has to be positive. It has to be an enjoyment,” he says.

One of the things that brings Davey great pleasure is when parents who have introduced his recipes to their families contact him to tell him their kids cleaned their plates after they told them these were the same meals that Ireland rugby stars like Johnny Sexton eat.

However, he is all too aware that while we have a community interested in the minutiae of nutrition, eating well and staying active, rising obesity levels are still a major problem.

“It’s very concerning. When you talk about the reasons for it, it’s multifactorial. It isn’t just exercise, it isn’t just screen time. Every part of our environment has changed. If you were to ask me where does it start, and it sounds simplistic, it has to start at a much younger age,” he says.

Davey advocates schools not only doing better when it comes to teaching Physical Education and Home Economics, but also developing policies around healthy eating. He says parents need to lead the charge at home too in exposing their kids to healthy food choices.

“Children will imitate what their parents or people in their environment do. If you eat a good diet as a parent, you are much more likely to see a child eat a better diet. If fruit and vegetables are very accessible, they’re in the fridge and they’re prepared well, they’re more likely to eat them. The exposure element is critical. The role model aspect is fundamental.

“The next really important thing is that there’s no drama. There cannot be a negative association with food. Even if a child doesn’t want to eat something, it’s fine, but it’s always persisted with. We’re not going to cause any drama, but the meal will remain the same.”

Davey says encouraging children to have a role in planning meals can go some way to happier meal times.

“It’s critical that the child is part of the process. I very often do this with my athletes. I get their input on what they want. You ask the child or your children: ‘What do you like? It’s not going to be fish fingers and it’s not going to be goujons and it’s not going to be sausages and chips. What healthy foods do you like?’

“Then there’s an agreement. They’ve been involved in the process. They might say: ‘I don’t like broccoli or carrots.’ You say: ‘That’s fine – it’s going to be on your plate. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine, but we agreed that this was the dish you wanted.’ It’s not an easy thing to do, but they eat what they like and they continue to be exposed to the right type of foods,” he says.

Over time, Davey says the process works and as children grow, their palate changes and the vegetables that were once cast aside will be eaten.

While Davey’s busy work life is in Dublin, in recent years, he says the pull of home has become stronger. His girlfriend Sandra is also a Sligo native – she grew up just over the hill from his family farm. They went to school together and even made their Holy Communion together, but only became a couple five years ago.

Down-time is golf, farming and getting home when he can. He jokes that he’s a distance farmer and says his dad Peter, who looks after his sheep, sends him videos and photos on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

“If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I would’ve said home would be somewhere I’d always visit. But as time goes on, walking through the fields and being here with the animals, nowhere makes me feel like this place. Who knows in 15 years’ time where I’ll be,” he says.

On top of his day-job with Dublin football and Leinster rugby, Davey is working on a post-graduate in sports nutrition and will submit his thesis in September. He also has many projects with his own company, Food Flicker, does a lot of cooking on social media, and is about to rebrand under his own name, Daniel Davey Nutrition.

The only time he goes quiet is when I ask him about what the future holds. He stops and thinks for a short while. Having achieved the dream of working with Dublin and Leinster, he knows he will always work in sport, but where that will take him, he’s not sure.

As for five-year-old Davey’s dream of having his own restaurant on the farm, he hasn’t totally written that off.”The aim is to one day actually have some type of food experience that people can enjoy. I don’t know what that will be. I don’t think it will be a restaurant, but it may be a cafe,” he says.

His enthusiasm for what he’s talking about is infectious and his passion for what he does is evident. I tell him I can’t wait to try some of the recipes in his book, starting with what he has called ‘Run down the stairs overnight oats’. The recipe got its name when Dublin footballer Paul Flynn told Davey he literally runs down the stairs for this chocolate-flavoured oats breakfast.

Back home, and with the school year back in full swing, I decide to put some of Davey’s philosophy into action. I pick the freshest ingredients for a spaghetti Bolognese, sneaking vegetables in by blitzing them in the food processor.

I put on some music. I focus on the chopping and the preparation and I don’t rush the cooking process. I’m calm and we all eat a delicious and harmonious family meal. I text Davey to let him know how it went. He texts back to say that this is exactly what makes his job so enjoyable.

While food fads come and go, Davey’s philosophy of nourishing your body through healthy food is far from faddish. He’s got the science to back up everything he says, but doesn’t blind you with it. Most of all, you realise Davey lives what he says and his philosophy, which had its beginnings on a farm in the west of Ireland, is simply about the game-changing effects of good food.

Photography by Julia Dunin

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