2017-03-01 / Dishing

Field of Greens

Retiring Penn State sports nutritionist Kristine Clark shares the power of food as a game changer
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

If lunch consists of whatever you find in your office fridge or salvage from your kid’s plate, you may want to take a few tips from Kristine Clark.

As director of sports nutrition for Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics and assistant professor of nutritional science, College of Health and Human Development, Clark, 63, has spent the past two and a half decades teaching student athletes, coaches, faculty and staff simple hacks for eating well. As she looks toward retirement and a professional second act, she reflects on an eating philosophy that starts with a deep reverence for food.

“Nutrition should not be a random thing,” Clark says. “It should be a purposeful decision to eat healthier because food is medicine.”

A lover of potato chips, Clark is no purist. And she has no desire to make people feel bad about their choices.  She just happens to have a lot of experience improving them.

When Joe Paterno and the then chair of the nutrition department created Clark’s position in 1991, Clark was a trailblazer. “There were no sports nutritionists at major universities,” she says. Meeting by meeting, she engendered cooperation among the coaches of more than two dozen teams. In the process, she’s developed a food ethos that values nutrition as one of the greatest tools for training high level athletes and a brown bag of tricks that includes encouraging those athletes to add broccoli or spinach to their mac and cheese or kale to their smoothies (an admittedly harder sell.) “If I’ve made any strides in helping a new generation of kids think more about a plant-based diet,” she says, “I’d be proud of that.”

Clark’s own eating habits double as a curriculum for eating well. She starts with ingredients, not recipes, then creates meals in her head. She has a wide variety of veggies in her fridge, five different kinds of fruit and local, organic meat. She and her husband, Craig Weidemann, aim for three meatless meals weekly, substituting with a variety of beans and vegetables and combining them with Indian spices. “I’ll take chickpeas, a whole bag of spinach, onions, garlic and carrots, put them in a big skillet, and sauté them all together with spices.”

She limits meat, a category of food that studies show can contribute to inflammation, “a catalyst for disease.” Conversely, a plant-based diet has anti-inflammatory benefits. Her top picks include kefir, kale, beans, whole grains, beets and cranberries (add the frozen ones to muffins). “No one food prevents disease,” she says, “but a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables has been shown to contribute to improved blood lipids, reduction in total calories, and improved inflammatory markers.”

With a little planning, Clark says anyone can balance a hectic schedule with a healthy lunch. That may be last night’s leftovers, along with a grapefruit Clark cut and wedged and stuck in a plastic bag. It’s a stark contrast to the eating habits of many of the people she interacts with on campus. “People have told me many times that if they could simply take a pill, knowing it had all the nutritional benefits of food, they would choose that over taking the time to prepare and eat whole food.”

Clark concedes that these are “first-world problems” and is acutely aware of a demographic that would consider the question of what to eat a luxury. In the late ’70s, after getting a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Viterbo College, she entered a career in public health, directing a county WIC program in Wisconsin. After she retires from Penn State June 30, she plans to return to those public health roots.

While she hasn’t made any definitive plans, she hopes to serve as an advocate for people in the Centre Region who don’t have access to quality nutrition information, helping them modify their nutrition habits to reduce their cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer risk.  

To that end, in mid-May, she’ll travel to Guatemala, where she’s enrolling in an intensive, immersive Spanish course, with the goal of becoming more proficient in Spanish. For three weeks, she’ll be in school in the mornings and working in a hospital nutrition center in the afternoons. She expects the experience to serve her well back home.

According to a housing report on the State College Borough website, between 2000 and 2010, the minority population in the borough with the largest percentage increase was the Hispanic population, which increased 40.5 percent. Research from Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks, suggests these households are prime candidates for food assistance programs. In 2015, 19 percent of Hispanic households nationwide were food insecure, compared to a national average of 13 percent.

Clark’s public health passion, along with a career working with college kids who often lack the time, money and knowledge to shop and eat well, informs a deep gratitude for her own meals. Clark loves all aspects of food, from the shopping and preparing to the serving and eating. Whether she and her husband are experimenting with a new veggie like rutabagas, indulging in something more expensive like wild salmon, or simply enjoying a good meal, they always pause to appreciate their good fortune.

In Clark’s world, there are plenty of these moments, and plenty of opportunities to stop and savor the kale-powered smoothie.  •SCM

Chana Palak Gosht Masala
(Chickpeas, spinach and beef dish with spices)

1 lb. lean ground beef
1 can chickpeas, drained
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bag fresh spinach
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1-1.5 c. beef stock/broth
2 Tbsp. garam masala
1 tsp. black pepper
Salt to taste
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. dried fenugreek leaves

Brown the ground beef on medium heat, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Add chickpeas, onion, garlic, sweet potato and about ¾ c. beef stock. Then add garam masala, turmeric, cinnamon, fenugreek and cumin; stir to combine. Cook until vegetables are tender.

Before serving, fold fresh spinach into the entire dish, cooking the spinach slightly with the heat of the dish. Add additional broth as needed.  Serve with basmati rice or lentils.

Kale, Apple and Walnut Tabbouleh
(adapted from the cookbook Zahav by Chef Michael Solomonov)

2 c. fresh kale, stemmed, shredded and tightly packed
¾ c. walnuts, chopped
1 apple, diced (keep peeling on for added fiber)
½ c. pomegranate seeds
3 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 Tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp. kosher salt

In a large salad bowl add each ingredient and gently toss. Whisk lemon juice, olive oil and salt; add to salad ingredients and toss to dress.

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