It’s the New Year, a time when many people rethink their diet. But for doctoral students in the University of Mississippi’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, rethinking diets is a year-round activity.
“A proper diet is important for everyone, but it is critical for athletes,” said Melinda Valliant, associate professor of nutrition and hospitality management and co-director of the university’s Center for Health and Sports Performance.
Faculty, staff and graduate students from the sports nutrition emphasis provide dietetics services to athletes across 16 different Ole Miss sports through the center.
“Usually we are helping athletes navigate fueling adequately around early morning workouts, tutoring, class, study hall, practices and games, so it’s really a lot,” Valliant said. “Most of them start at six in the morning, and they might finish at eight or nine at night.”
Prescribing individual meal plans based on an athlete’s physical output is just part of what the students, faculty and staff offer for athletes looking to retool their fuel.
“Sports dietetics is both food service and clinical work,” Valliant said. “They are prescribing meal plans, providing education, doing grocery store tours and hosting cooking classes.
“We work with a multidisciplinary team, including athletic trainers, strength coaches, sports medicine physicians, physical therapists and sports psychologists to help the athlete be the best they can be.”
Matthew Frakes, is a registered dietitian enrolled in the Ph.D. program, is working to meet the requisite hours he needs to obtain credentials as a certified specialist in sports dietetics. He works with athletes in baseball, track and field and golf.
“My favorite part of what I do is working with athletes and seeing the outcomes they want to see after helping them with the missing nutrition pieces to their performance puzzle,” Frakes said. “For instance, an athlete who complained of feeling tired and sluggish throughout the day was having trouble with putting on weight for their individual goal.
“We had a one-on-one consultation and discussed difficulties with schedule, timing and sleeping habits. After our consult and follow-up, they were able to reach their goal weight during off-season training, sleep better and perform a lot better in the classroom and during their practice and training times.”
Frakes stays busy, conducting group nutrition education talks; developing individual nutrition assessments; creating nutrition education material; preparing practice, training and competition refueling snacks and travel bags; executing BodPod body composition assessments and working with the coaching staff on individual and team health and performance goals.
His passion for sports nutrition began as an undergraduate student-athlete, playing football for Ohio University, then Bowling Green State University and studying nutrition.
“Learning nutrition while being a student-athlete help me connect the dots on why I was not playing at my best in the past, not able to recover as fast and why I was always tired in the classroom,” he said. “After I graduated and started my dietetic internship rotations, I couldn’t see myself doing anything but working with sports and helping athletes get the best out of their health and performance.”
Frakes is enrolled alongside Corbit Franks, an assistant athletic trainer who decided to enter the doctoral program when he started seeing the distinct advantages and disadvantages that food choices create in athletic competition.
“Dr. Valliant has been a phenomenal mentor,” Frakes said. “She challenges us to think outside the box and allows many opportunities to learn. The education and my experience working with her on a daily basis will provide opportunities to expand myself as an educator and professional.
“Each athlete that I have who undergoes a surgery is required to meet with Dr. Valliant to ensure that they are fueling properly and taking in the adequate nutrients to promote healing. This is invaluable.”
While Ole Miss athletes get world-class nutrition counseling, the department has a pool of athletes for case study to develop injury protocol and add to a growing body of peer-reviewed sports nutrition research. Similar programs at other universities allow students to work only with intramural athletes, but the unique relationship with athletics affords UM doctoral students full access to all athletes in their cafeteria, weight rooms and training rooms.
The job market for sports dieticians has increased dramatically in recent years, Valliant said.
“There are a lot more colleges and professional sports organizations hiring sports dietitians, but there aren’t enough qualified practitioners to fill the jobs,” Valliant said. “What I want to do is get students ready to take these jobs that are opening up.”
She has seen a shift in perception of sports nutrition on campus.
“Attitudes in the athletics department around nutrition have certainly changed,” she said. “I think people see the value in sports nutrition – that dietitians are valuable team members. I also think having this program has allowed us to have more numbers.
“When there was just me working 10 hours a week, there was the same number of student-athletes. Clearly, I only had time to work with those athletes with problems. We weren’t proactive. Now that there are more people, there is more opportunity for athletes, but also the ancillary staff, coaches, everybody to see what dietitians can do.”
Teresa Carithers, School of Applied Sciences interim dean, sees the potential for the center to draw national attention as it improves clinical outcomes and contributes critical research.
“Dr. Valliant was the driving force in developing our sports nutrition program and has provided the critical leadership in consistently helping us keep our program on the cutting edge,” Carithers said. “Applied Sciences recognizes the great future potential this center has to offer and is assisting with positioning and resource acquisition to help increase their overall impact and national visibility.”
Approved by the IHL in October 2013, the center began as a partnership between the departments of Nutrition and Hospitality Management and Intercollegiate Athletics and continues to grow its staff and student support. Shannon Singletary, senior associate athletics director for health and sports performance, co-directs the center, and Kate Callaway, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, joined the staff in 2016.
By Sarah Sapp and Ole Miss Communications
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