Deja McClendon eats three packs of M&M’s a day.
In the morning when McClendon — the 6-foot-1 starting outside hitter on the Penn State women’s volleyball team — spreads a layer of butter on her bagel, she follows it with a layer of cream cheese.
When eating mashed potatoes at the dining commons, the freshman is instructed to mix in an extra two tablespoons of olive oil.
And it’s all under the doctor’s orders.
McClendon’s diet may seem bizarre — as it is surely envied by any college student — but it is regimented. And it points to the incredible importance of proper nutrition for Division I athletes.
“Attention to nutrition is critical because calories in food is energy,” said Dr. Kristine Clark, the director of sports nutrition for the Penn State athletic department. “Every single athlete we have is asking their body to do a lot of physical work. And that requires energy.”
Dr. Clark works with more than 800 Nittany Lions, including McClendon and players on the women’s volleyball team. Her job description is simple: Broadcast similar nutrition messages about eating for optimal performance.
The task, though, is not that easy, Dr. Clark said. The athletes she works with all have different needs, ranging from some trying to gain weight to some working on cutting down muscle fat.
“The ultimate outcome is for that athlete to perform the best they can and to be healthy as they can,” Dr. Clark said. “So it’s crucial that college athletes pay attention to nutrition.”
Sophomore Kristin Carpenter illustrates that. Last year, Carpenter was a reserve for the Lions. This year, she’s the regular starting setter.
With the increased workload, Carpenter was noticing a drastic change in her health. She is also hyperglycemic, meaning she has an abnormally high concentration of glucose in her blood. The condition makes her burn calories faster than an average person.
Dr. Clark said Carpenter burns 10 to 15 calories every minute she plays volleyball.
“I was losing a ton of weight, just burning so much off,” Carpenter said. “I was eating the same I was last year, so now I have to eat even more.”
Now, Carpenter is on a 4,500 calorie-a-day diet. She jokes that she often goes up for fifth servings when she goes to the dining commons for dinner.
“It’s as much as I can, whatever I want,” Carpenter said. “Chocolate milk to the max. You name it, I have to eat it.”
Packing in all of those calories in a one-day period is difficult, Dr. Clark said.
It’s not natural for a body to consume that much in such a short span, and the individual is often full and doesn’t want to consume any more. So Carpenter is instructed to eat as many small meals as possible.
Dr. Clark said an athlete like Carpenter should eat six to seven meals a day — snacks before and after each meal.
At timeouts or between sets of a match, Carpenter will eat calorie-enriched Powerbars that the team’s trainer specially orders online. At practices, she is not supposed to drink water — just Gatorade, because she needs the calories and electrolytes. And she is told to snack whenever she has a chance.
“It’s hard and it sucks sometimes,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes you just don’t want to eat. You’re just so full. But you have to, because it’s for your health.”
The Lions usually have a team pre-game meal about three hours before a match. Carpenter said she needs to eat again 30 minutes before a match to be able to maximize her performance. That secondary pre-game snack is often something such as three chocolate chip cookies, Carpenter said.
McClendon, who is on a similar diet, is often seen walking into the Lions’ practice gym snacking on a candy bar — because she needs to.
Compared to her senior year of high school, the amount of time McClendon is playing volleyball in college is doubled if not tripled, and thus she needs to monitor her nutrition more, Dr. Clark said.
McClendon and Carpenter check in with Dr. Clark to do the “BodPod,” a full-body machine that checks metabolism, percentage of body fat and metabolic rate. Athletes sit in the chamber for about five minutes, which then produces a computerized statistical analysis of the athlete’s body composition.
Carpenter has done the BodPod four times since last spring break.
“We’re working out a lot, and we sweat a lot, but we still need to gain muscle,” McClendon said. “So it’s important we follow the guidelines to stay at a good level.”
Dr. Clark said McClendon’s metabolism works in a way that she gets full very easily. Healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables or whole grains, fill her up quickly. So instead, McClendon is encouraged to consume calorie-dense foods such as peanut butter or high-fatty foods like butter.
“It probably sounds silly because the average person is told they shouldn’t have that,” Dr. Clark said. “But it’s actually beneficial for a player like Deja. It will help her maximize her performance.”