Nutritionists Knudsen and Clark piece together dietary puzzle for Tufts athletics

Molly Knudsen, a student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, serves as a dietitian for members of the Tufts athletics community. Here, she poses for a portrait in the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center on Feb. 24. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

Among Tufts’ graduate schools, often overshadowed by the Tufts School of Medicine and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy is the lesser-known gem that is the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Ranked second in the nation and fourth in the world for Nutrition and Dietetics by the Center for World University Rankings, the Friedman School is staffed by respected biologists, epidemiologists, economists and political scientists. Also acclaimed is the Tufts athletics program, which achieved its highest-ever Div. III Learfield Directors’ Cup ranking in the 2016–17 academic year, placing third behind Williams and Washington–St. Louis. With numerous cutting-edge nutritionists and high-caliber athletes condensed into one institution, it seems natural that Tufts athletes would be treated with information from knowledgeable sources in the field of sports nutrition.

This semester, Tufts athletics welcomed Molly Knudsen as its new nutritionist after previous nutritionist Hannah Meier finished her year-long internship with Tufts. Knudsen is a first-year M.S. candidate in the Nutrition Interventions, Communications and Behavior Change Program at the Friedman School. She graduated summa cum laude from Texas Christian University in 2017, where she earned her B.S. in Nutrition, along with the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. For Knudsen, switching from a major in biology to nutrition during her undergraduate years was a spontaneous choice.

“I had always meshed well with biology and chemistry, but sitting at biology orientation in college, I just realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Knudsen said. “Changing course the way I did was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but as soon as I attended my first nutrition class, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. I love the mixture of both science and helping people.”

Tufts athletes can reserve 30-minute consultations with Knudsen to gain dietary wisdom and optimize their performance. Knudsen deals with students from a broad range of backgrounds, activity levels and dietary limits and needs, and personalizes advice for each. For this reason, she describes her job as a “jigsaw puzzle.”

As her first step to solve the puzzle, she asks each athlete about a typical day: What they eat, when they eat and how much they eat. From there, she makes adjustments and carefully constructs a game plan that fits with the student’s schedule. Although she is only available for consultations on Tuesdays — meaning she is just two days into the job so far — Knudsen has already made an impact on the football program.

“Some of the football players have been coming to see me because they’re looking to lean up,” Knudsen said. “I’ve been helping them through small changes — just saving a couple hundred calories a day by paying more attention to the portion sizes of some sneaky foods, like nut butters and trail mix, which may be nutritious but are also very calorically dense.”

In addition to their one-on-one consultations with Knudsen, many Tufts athletes have taken part in team-wide meetings with internationally recognized nutritionist, weight coach and author Nancy Clark. In addition to working with a variety of Tufts teams — including field hockey, sailing, tennis, hockey, cross country, track and soccer — Clark was a team nutritionist for the Boston Red Sox for three years and has consulted the Boston Celtics and Olympic athletes. The Simmons College graduate has published food guides for runners, marathoners, cyclists and soccer players, and her book, “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook” (2013)has sold over 600,000 copies.

Both Knudsen and Clark highlight the key roles that glycogen (the major storage form of carbohydrates in humans) and protein play in an athlete’s diet.

“There’s a misconception that, for athletes, protein is a cure-all, but protein is surely not the only nutrient you need,” Knudsen said.

Clark agreed, noting that athletes tend to glorify protein-packed shakes, bars and supplements but shy away from carbs.

“You deplete your glycogen levels when you work out. Protein helps repair and rebuild muscle, but it doesn’t refuel your body. After a hard practice, it’s important to have a combination of protein and carbohydrates,” Clark said.

For this reason, Clark believes in the holy grail of post-workout snacks: chocolate milk. With a combination of protein and carbohydrates in addition to calcium and vitamin D, Clark swears by it (and for lactose-intolerant athletes, she assures that chocolate soy milk is a sound substitute).

When it comes to working with students who balance a heavy academic workload in addition to their hours spent on the field, court, track and in the weight room, one of the biggest struggles they face is fueling on the right schedule.

“One of the most common mistakes that my clients make is that they often don’t eat before morning practice because they don’t have the time, or they’ll be so rushed to get to class after practice that they don’t take the time to refuel,” Knudsen said.

Similarly, Clark is a huge proponent of encouraging athletes to eat more during the day, a practice she calls “front-loading.” Because athletes are busy or hesitant to practice on a full stomach, they tend to undereat during the day, which she says hurts their performance and causes them to overeat at dinner and crave sweets and junk food.

Clark speaks to college athletes to convey the idea that food is not to be feared, but enjoyed. Among female athletes, there is a disconcerting prevalence of low energy availability (often caused by eating disorders), amenorrhea (i.e. the absence of a menstrual period) and osteoporosis (decreased bone density), called the female athlete triad. Depending on the sport, age group and screening methods, the rate of clinical eating disorders among female athletes can range between 16 and 47 percent — much higher than the national average, which lies somewhere between 0.5 and 10 percent among the nonathletic population. These rates tend to be even higher in sports that emphasize physical appearance and leanness, such as ballet and running. Because of this alarming epidemic, Clark stresses self-acceptance and body positivity.

“Your body is your best calorie counter, so why not listen to it?” she said. “Athletes look like athletes; they don’t look like models.”

Dan Kopcso, the head strength and conditioning coach for Tufts athletics, notes that an unhealthy body image is not an issue for solely female athletes.

“So many men in sports have this misconception that they have to fit the image of the extremely ripped, Olympian-like bodies they see on television. In reality, it’s often beneficial to have a build that is a little softer, meaning a diet with more carbohydrates, to improve performance,” Kopcso said. “The cycle of the female athlete triad and eating disorders among all athletes can be hard to break.”

Kopsco agrees that seeing a sports nutritionist can help steer athletes in the right direction, whether they’re undereating or simply looking to clean up their diets to improve their performance. Although many athletes tend to forget it, diet plays a sizable role in execution, whether it’s championship season or the offseason. With the guidance of a budding nutritionist in Knudsen and the veteran Clark, the Jumbos can learn how to navigate the jungle of options in Dewick and piece together meals that propel them to the top of the NESCAC.