Serving the Community with the Athlete Nutrition Advising Program

When Melissa Brown, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of Nutrition and Public Health, joined USJ in 2016, she recognized the chance for collaboration between her department and the University’s athletic teams. With an interest in Performance Nutrition, Brown worked with Jackie Piscitelli, associate athletic director; Elizabeth Tenison, M.S., R.D., USJ Dietetic Internship director; and Margery Lawrence, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of Nutrition, to begin the Athlete Nutrition Advising Program.

Designed to help student athletes enhance their performance through optimal fuel and hydration, the program contains both full-length and miniature presentations on topics ranging from general sports nutrition to eating for injury recovery. For many of the student athletes, these presentations mark their first exposure to proper sports nutrition information.

“I’m a very picky eater in general and very judgmental about the look of food, but it’s been nice to be encouraged to try foods I wouldn’t,” said soccer player Abigail Horner ’21. “It’s helpful to know what I can do, what I can’t do, and just get knowledge that you don’t have on a normal, daily basis. This is definitely – especially at the college level – essential to athletes, sports teams, and success.”

The presentations not only prove beneficial for the student athletes, but also for the USJ Nutrition students who present the information. Students from both the undergraduate program and the graduate Dietetic Internship program can participate and, as a result, gain hands-on experience assessing, monitoring, and educating athletes.

“My vision for the program was to simultaneously educate athletes on nutrition to optimize their performance, at the same time as providing a platform for hands-on training in Performance Nutrition for our interested students,” explained Brown. “The students not only gain experience in Performance Nutrition, but they also develop their oral and written communication skills and their counseling skills.”

For students like Kaneen Gomez-Hixson ’17, a dietetic intern, the Athlete Nutrition Advising Program helps her develop the skills integral to her future career. As a two-time Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Runner of the Year while earning her bachelor’s degree at USJ, Gomez-Hixson is no stranger to the importance of performance nutrition.

“Getting to implement my passion for performance nutrition during my dietetic internship has been a rare and wonderful opportunity – especially since I get to work within an athletic department that was a huge part of my undergraduate life,” she stated. “Having this type of program is almost unheard of during most dietetic internships and, since I see performance nutrition in my future career as a registered dietitian, it has helped me gain the experience I need to be successful.”

The popularity of the Athlete Nutrition Advising Program, which extends beyond the USJ campus with students presenting at other institutions, shows the true benefit of making this educational opportunity available.

“Access to performance nutrition educators is unfortunately uncommon for Division III athletic departments, indicating an exciting opportunity for USJ to set the bar for other Division III universities,” Gomez-Hixson shared.

For Brown, making this difference in students’ lives makes the hours of dedication worth it. “We love working with student athletes and are invested in seeing them not only succeed in their sport, but also in watching them transition to better overall health,” said Brown. “Nothing makes me happier than hearing one of the athletes come and tell me that making small changes in their fueling strategy is making a difference.”