Editor's Note: This story talks about nutrition and mentions eating disorders
Matt Corn is in on the joke.
As a nutrition and dietetics graduate student, Corn works with athletes to help them understand food as fuel.
“I’ve had classmates mention how fitting it is that I am becoming a dietitian with my last name being Corn,” he said. “I haven’t come up with any good jokes, but I did present to a class of freshmen last week and kind of just said ‘My name is Matt Corn, yes that is actually my last name.’”
Corn interns with the Ball State University Athletics department and manages the fuel station at Worthen Arena. The fuel station, a dedicated space that supplies food and tips for athletes, is adjacent to the gym, so students can easily get nutrition help and refuel after their workout. Corn provides Gatorade, chocolate milk, protein bars, fruit and other foods designed to help them recharge.
His goal is to help athletes understand the role food plays in performance.
“Carb, protein, color is the idea of the athlete plate, and depending on the day, there’s portions changing around,” Corn said. “In general … that athlete plate is super important.”
He said snacking, having three big meals a day and drinking plenty of fluids are just as important as the specific foods chosen. Corn said it is key to give athletes the tools to make the right nutritional decisions on their own. The importance of nutrition is sometimes overlooked by athletes, but nutrition long term will benefit their health, whether they are athletes after college or not.
Common Nutritional Misconceptions
The National Library of Medicine said the number one misconception for nutrition management among college athletes in the United States is that they have a solid understanding of their nutritional needs.
“There's so much misinformation everywhere, and it's so loud, and I feel like it's so important to have educated professionals who have studied and done the research to tell people the right things because, in the end, nutrition is really not that complicated,” Kaitlyn Mathews, third-year nutrition and dietetics student and Ball State Softball player, said. “There's just so much that makes it so much more complicated than it is.”
Mathews said her major has helped her learn a lot about her sport. When practicing for a game or working out, Mathews said she learned it’s all about timing and deciding whether to have something higher in carbs or higher in fiber. She has to look at what is going to help her be active or what is going to help her last on the field longer.
“A lot of people think that … the dining halls have no healthy options, but the truth is, they do,” Mathews said. “People just don't know how to navigate that. They don't know how to build a plate that's going to fuel them for success.”
NetNutrition, a website students can use to calculate calories and see nutritional facts about Ball State’s dining hall food, can be a helpful tool for athletes in the dining halls.
Sometimes, the plate simply isn’t full enough. Mathews said under-eating does a lot more harm than good.
“Do you want to be a bodybuilder, or do you want to play a sport?” she said. “... It's a hard pill to swallow, but a six-pack doesn't mean that you are a good athlete and vice versa.”
Mathews said she struggled with this for a while, and social media has not helped. She said it’s easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to others, especially when social media shows people looking “smaller” or “shredded,” but deep down, aesthetics do not equal athletics.
She said students should be eating to fuel themselves, not restrict themselves.
“I've learned that a lot of people, or a lot of athletes, are eating a lot less than they should be without even realizing it,” she said.
Being healthy isn’t about eating clean all the time. She said it’s a spectrum, and athletes don’t have to be all or nothing.
Jamie Simko, professor at Ball State and licensed dietitian and nutritionist, said it is especially important for females to fuel their bodies appropriately.
“Female athletes can be at a greater risk of disordered eating and just not meeting their needs,” she said.
Not getting enough food can reduce women’s bone density and cause them to lose their menstrual cycle.
“A lot of people think you have to cut out carbohydrates to lose weight, and it's just not true,” Simko said. “Carbohydrates are your body's preferred source of energy, so you still want to have enough energy to do the activities and things that you enjoy and be able to perform adequately at your sport.”
Simko is well credentialed as she is also a certified nutrition support clinician, a registered dietitian nutritionist and more. For athletes looking to cut weight, she said it is more important to focus on increasing the volume of fruits, vegetables or protein rather than cutting other items from their plates. She said it is essential to make sure they are getting enough calories, so it won’t affect their performance.
Simko said being restrictive about food typically leads to binge eating.
“It's perfectly okay to incorporate things that you enjoy, even every day into your diet,” she said. “But a good rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule where 80 percent of the time you're really focusing on getting those healthy foods and your healthy proteins.”
Simko said all athletes should prioritize protein, but more than 2-3 grams per kilogram a day is not needed. She said there is a cap on how much protein will do for you, and too much can cause dehydration. According to UW Health, just a two percent drop in hydration levels can negatively impact performance.
She added that it’s not only important for an athlete’s performance but also to be able to concentrate in class. If a student isn’t getting a 2.0 GPA, then they will be put on academic probation, according to the Student-Athlete Handbook, and all of their hard work in the gym will be lost.
Habits and Help
Jordan Jennewine, performance dietitian for Ball State, said college is often the first time students are going grocery shopping and cooking on their own. Plus, athletes already have a busy schedule between school, practice and games.
“The foods that they're eating, the meals … get back loaded,” Jennewine said. “It just gets more concentrated in the afternoons and evenings, and that just doesn't fuel us as well, especially if we've got morning practice or something like that, … so consistently spreading meals and snacks about every three to four hours throughout the day, that's gonna get them really far.”
If an athlete wants to try a supplement or a specific diet to help them, Jennewine will work with them to decide whether it’s a good decision or not.
“There are a lot of regulations in terms of supplements and things like that,” she said. “There are some things that the university or team can provide, there are some things they can't and then, there are definitely certifications that we look for on supplements just to make sure that there's a lower risk of things being contaminated with something that could trigger a positive drug test.”
Jennewine also helps student-athletes through Instagram under the username @CardinalFuel. She runs the page and posts competitions and challenges revolving around nutrition. Recently, she said she has done grocery store tours to help students show how they can shop for performance while on a budget, especially for students who have allergies and dietary concerns.
“My goal, working with our graduate assistant, is to kind of become the resource for performance nutrition, so that we can take that off their plate, and they know that we're the resource to come to for that,” Jennewine said.
Corn gives educational talks to the athletes and said the department is also working on implementing cooking classes for different teams. He is currently doing a snack of the month where he teaches the students healthy, new recipes.
Mathews said the athletic department does a good job of keeping student-athletes updated and recognizing their needs.
“There's a saying, it's like ‘Some days, the best workout you ever have is the one you didn’t do,’” she said. “... They do a good job of letting us take care of our bodies and giving us rest when we need it.”