Interview: Melissa Morris, Nutrition Educator [Tips + Science]
Schimri Yoyo: I am Schimri Yoyo. I’m with exercise.com and we’re continuing our series with exercise and fitness experts. Today we have the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Morris, a Certified Physiologist and Nutrition Educator in Tampa, Florida. Melissa, thank you again for agreeing to participate in our interview today.
Melissa Morris: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Schimri Yoyo: What sparked your interest in nutrition and fitness?
Melissa Morris: Growing up, my father suffered a heart attack. And you know, me being a teenager, I had heard of a heart attack, but I didn’t really know exactly what it was. So, while he was in the hospital, I broke out the encyclopedia—there was no Google back then—and started doing a little bit of research on, you know, what happens, what are the causes? So that kind of sparked my interest there.
And then following his coming home, my parents made some lifestyle changes. He started exercising a little bit more, started eating healthier. And I knew that, based on my research, lifestyle plays a big factor. So, healthy eating, physical activity, as well as genetics. So, you know, we can’t change our genes, right? We can’t pick our parents, we can’t choose our parents. I knew that I had this kind of cardiovascular risk factor in my genetics, so it was up to me to do what I could do with my lifestyle.
And so I became more interested then and started kind of exercising on my own then and have continued throughout the years and constantly trying to improve my own nutrition and eat healthier. So that was really what sparked me when I went to college. My first major was athletic training. Physical therapy was what I was really interested in. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. But I definitely wanted to stay within health.
And so I changed my major, got into my coursework and just really loved learning as much as I could about exercise and physical activity and nutrition and really how that affects the body. So, I just continued on my career path and have been fortunate enough to work in the industry and learn as much as possible and continue working in education, helping students develop so that they can get out into their careers and be successful.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, great. Kudos to you for taking a personal, a traumatic event and using it as fuel to feed your professional passion. So being a nutritionist or someone who is involved in nutrition education, what would you say is the difference between going on a diet and active nutrition? Or is there one?
Melissa Morris: Yeah, I think there is a difference when I think of, you know, when people say, “I’m going on a diet,” they kind of have this “I can eat whatever I want today because I’m starting my diet tomorrow and it’s a 30-day diet or a 60-day diet or whatever.” And they have some pretty big changes to what they’re eating or even eliminate some food groups or just focus on specific foods. So that’s really temporary to me.
And I like to think of healthy eating and nutrition as something we’re going to do for our life. Right? We have to eat every day, multiple times a day. And you know, it’s more important about thinking about changes you can make to eat healthier things that you’re going to do for the rest of your life.
So a 30-day diet is probably not something you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Cutting out specific food groups or never eating sugar again is probably not something you’re going to do for the rest of your life, so those drastic changes, really to me, are more about dieting and they’re temporary.
But eating should be fun. We eat when we’re celebrating, we eat for many different reasons. We have different foods that we enjoy and eating should really be fun and part of our lifestyle.
I think there are no bad foods, right? There are just foods. Maybe we should eat some foods a little less often and some foods we should eat a little bit more often. I think it’s more of an opportunity to eat healthier and take care of yourself [in a way that is] sustainable over time.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, that makes sense. So one’s more of a temporary behavior modification versus lifestyle habits or lifestyle change.
Melissa Morris: Yeah, definitely.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, Melissa. I know this about you, that you are a runner and you’re an athlete yourself. So, what is a favorite meal or snack either before a race or post-race?
Melissa Morris: Okay, so most of the races that I do are shorter distance. My workouts are usually anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. That’s my time commitment as far as regular workouts as well as any races. I do 5Ks, 10Ks, so if it’s a morning workout or a morning race, I don’t eat a lot before. I really try to focus on what I’m eating the days leading up to the event.
So two or three days prior, [I’m] making sure I’m hydrated, making sure I have a good balance of carbohydrates, of protein, of some fats. I don’t do anything super different just to make sure I am getting all of that in there. But before a workout or before a race, I may eat just a little bit, something really easily digestible with carbohydrates for fuels. So a banana, some applesauce, even a small granola bar.
I also like to have some coffee, definitely for a morning workout, a little caffeine. And also, you know, coffee has a lot of good antioxidants in it, and plus, it’s fluid. So it’s helping contribute to your hydration overall.
I don’t eat a lot before. If it’s an evening workout or an evening race, I’ll just eat my normal meals. I just want to make sure I don’t have anything too filling an hour or two before the event: nothing with a lot of fiber, a lot of fat, just because those tend to stay in your stomach, [they] make you feel a little fuller.
But for me personally, I like to focus more on what I’m eating after [the race]. So my favorite post-workout or post-run fuel is 1% chocolate milk because it’s got the perfect mix of carbohydrates and protein to recover.
So recovering from your exercise, replenishing your fuel stores, it’s got some fluids in it, so it’s hydrating and some calcium and vitamin D, some potassium, which are all important nutrients. So it’s kind of like a lot of bang for your buck. So I like to consume that post-workout or post-race. That’s probably my favorite kind of post-workout snack.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, you’re in good company. You have Al Horford of the Boston Celtics, or by the time this is probably up, he probably will have signed with another team, but he’s a big fan of the chocolate milk, as well as Klay Thompson, of the Golden State Warriors, he’s also a big fan of chocolate milk.
Melissa Morris: I got the right idea.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, okay, we’re switching gears a little bit. Let’s talk about your work as an educator. You’ve earned multiple advanced degrees in the field of nutrition and physiology. How important is continuing education to practicing nutrition and physiology?
Melissa Morris: I think anyone who works in this industry, it’s super important to stay updated. You know, there are different ways to do that. It may just be reading and researching on your own, whether it’s new research that comes out, scientific articles, journal publications, that sort of thing. I like to go to conferences.
I usually go to one or two minimum a year. And that’s a good way just to hear a lot of kind of what’s trendy or what’s new or what we’ve learned over the last year or two related to exercise, nutrition, fitness, any of those. So I like conferences to really try to stay updated. Things change over time or we will learn newer things.
For example, years ago, we thought that lactic acid was bad; it was a bad guy. But what we’ve learned, in recent years, is that it’s actually a fuel. It’s not such a bad guy, and it doesn’t necessarily contribute to fatigue or the soreness that we feel beyond a day or two after exercising.
And so those sorts of things either change or we learn a little bit more, so it’s always good to stay updated so that you are current, whether you’re working with clients or in the classroom or sharing your knowledge with others. It’s always good to have the most updated information that we know.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Well, which do you prefer? Designing our college course or developing a nutrition plan?
Melissa Morris: So, I am not a registered dietician, so meal planning is a little bit outside of the scope of what I do. I mostly use my sports nutrition certification more so in the classroom, in an educational setting. I don’t do any real kind of one-on-one counseling. I just use it to really inform what I’m teaching with my students.
Designing a new course, however, is definitely exciting for me, and I’m actually going to be working—here in the next couple of weeks—on designing an undergraduate sports nutrition course. We don’t have one at the university where I teach, so I think that’s something that a lot of our students would benefit from.
A lot of them have told me they would be interested in it, so I’m going to use what I’ve learned from the conference I just attended a few weeks ago. So I will combine some of that new information with what we’re already teaching in other similar courses and then build it out from there. So that’s exciting to me and I can’t wait to roll that out for the students. I think they’ll really enjoy that and benefit personally and professionally from that information too.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, great. Oh, what course did you take personally or are you currently teaching, do you believe has been the most relevant to you and to the general public today?
Melissa Morris: I mean, I’m going to go back to the nutrition because I think there’s so much information out there that’s really not true or not completely true. You know, you can Google things and find a wealth of information, but whether it’s based on science and [sound] research is always another question.
I think everybody should take a basic nutrition class: just learning what your plate should look like, Learning how to calculate calories, learning what nutrition does for you. I think there’s so much personally that you can benefit from [taking such a class].
I have my students do an activity where they actually track four days of their intake and they put it into a diet analysis software like MyFitnessPal. And they get kind of a comparison of what they should be eating versus what they are eating. It’s really eye-opening when you do that.
So I encourage anyone who’s interested, you know, just do that and kind of see where you’re at because that’s eye-opening for a lot of people. But I think in a basic nutrition class, you can learn so much that can be immediately applied to your life and just even some subtle changes that you can make to your plate or to your overall intake to be healthier and feel better.
Schimri Yoyo: You spoke about some of the misconceptions that are out there. How do you combat some of the bad information that may be floating around on social media or other avenues? What do you do to help your students combat that?
Melissa Morris: At the beginning of the semester I tell them that everything we’re going to talk about in class is based on research and is factual information. I try to [direct] them to websites and resources that have factual and scientific information.
And I just encourage them to bring those things with them to class. If they find something out there that they’re curious about or that they want to know more about or something that just seems outlandish, I like to have discussions about those things in class. So I encourage them to ask me [those questions] or bring them [to class].
And if one student talks to me outside of class, I’ll even bring it up for class discussion and say, “Here’s some information that is new out there. Here are what the facts are.” So it’s just trying to discuss that as much as possible and encouraging them to be critical so that they can use their knowledge to say, “Does this sound right? Is this too good to be true? Is this really factual?” Because that’s what they’re going to be doing outside of the classroom: relying on their own knowledge. So that critical thinking is really important too.
Schimri Yoyo: So you encourage them to be critical thinkers-
Melissa Morris: Hopefully.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah. And to examine the data and then also, you emphasize research. So that’s good. As an educator and a writer, how do you promote healthy methods of weight loss and exercise to your students?
Melissa Morris: Well, I think one thing that we know is, weight loss really comes down to caloric deficits. So whatever method you [are using to reach] that caloric deficit, whatever type of diet it may be, whatever works for people—the research has really shown that there’s not really one type of diet that is superior to others. It all comes down to are you eating fewer calories or are you burning more calories than your required daily recommendation?
And so you have to think about your lifestyle. What works for what works best for you? What foods do you enjoy? Do you workout, do you exercise? So it’s really personalized.
What we all know is that there’s no magic bullet, there’s no magic pill. It takes hard work. It takes time. It’s not—if somebody wants to lose 25 pounds, they probably didn’t gain 25 pounds in a week. So expecting that weight to come off really quickly is also not going to happen. It’s also not safe.
So safe, effective weight loss through making, again, those lifestyle changes and it really comes down to what you’re eating and if you want to diet or if you want to try a fad diet, that’s fine. But it really comes down to that caloric deficit and that’s what we’ve learned and we know it takes hard work.
Schimri Yoyo: How would you describe your teaching style? Are you more of a lecturer or do you use interactive group discussions?
Melissa Morris: I probably, you know, I try to do a mixture. So when I look at my course overall through the entire semester, I try to have a mixture of different methods in there. I try to have discussions.
I try to have students doing presentations. I try to use videos, but I do rely on lecturing and just talking with my students a lot about things. I try to have somewhat of a plan but also some open times when we can discuss various topics or ask if they have a specific question or something they want to learn more about. I try to tailor it to that a little bit.
I like it to be a conversation. Although I think sometimes students rely on me to talk a little too much. But I like to use various methods in teaching and hopefully I’m meeting the needs of my students so that they’re learning as much as possible. I utilize group projects where students are working in groups about a specific question.
Sometimes I use little stand-up-and-move-around activities. I just try to break it up and have a variety of different things where you know they’re learning as much as possible about either nutrition or kinesiology throughout the semester. So overall, I like to have a mixture of different methods throughout the semester.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Now if I’ve enrolled in your Applied Kinesiology class, what would be my most exciting assignment? What would be my most challenging assignment?
Melissa Morris: I think the most exciting and the one that I get more feedback from students that they enjoy—and I can see it as they’re doing it as well—is what’s called a functional movement screening. So we use a tool that’s been developed, it’s a reliable and valid tool that’s used across the world, and the students learn all the basics about that functional movement screening and how to do it, how to score, and the basics about it. We spend some time on that.
They get to practice and then they will actually choose a partner and run their partner through that screening just as if they were working at a clinic or a fitness facility screening one of their clients. And then they write up a report that includes terminology that they learned in class, concepts and movements that they’ve learned in class, and combine that with their results and then they make some exercise recommendations.
The good thing about is they’re getting some good experience because they may very well come into contact with this assessment sometime in the future. So they’re getting some good practice and it really shows them how to apply what we’re learning in the classroom as well.
And they’re up moving around and they’re doing some things that they may do in an internship or a job. So it’s always fun to read their papers too because they have to include the same information, but they all go about it a little bit different way. So for me, it’s exciting to see that and also to see how creative they are on their exercise recommendations. I enjoy reading those papers for sure.
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Probably the most challenging [assignment] comes at the end of the semester and it’s a movement and analysis project. So the students work together in groups and they choose a movement. It can be a sports movement, like a basketball free throw, it can be a yoga pose, it can be an exercise, a plyometrics jump that they can do.
They choose and then they analyze that movement, upper body and lower body. They look at what muscles are working and what they’re doing. They look at the joints and then how this applies to their future career as well.
So it’s good to see the creativity again because they all have kind of the same requirements, but they all go about it just a little bit differently. It’s exciting to see my students putting into practice what they’re actually learning in the classroom. So I think it’s challenging for them because they really have to think critically and think about completing the project. But again, it’s putting a lot together that we’ve learned over the entire semester. So it’s a great end of semester project for that course.
Schimri Yoyo: Sounds like a thorough and comprehensive assessment.
Melissa Morris: Yeah, it’s fun. And they present their findings at the last week of class. So it’s a good way to cap off the end of the semester and I get to hear their presentations and see what they’ve learned through the process too.
Schimri Yoyo: Nice. More intimidating: grading papers and projects or reading through the end of semester course evaluations.
Melissa Morris: I really enjoy grading papers and projects. I mean, sometimes, you know, grading 90 papers gets a little much, but I just have to take breaks here and there. But I really enjoy reading their papers and projects because, again, there’s creativity in there.
I feel like I get to know the students a little bit better too, because their papers and projects, while they have specific information they have to include, they are writing it on their own and incorporating their individual creativity in there. I try to leave enough open-ended so they can add their own touches in as well. So that’s always fun for me to grade those and see their progress over the semester.
Reading the end of course evaluations can be a little intimidating, but I try to take out of it enough feedback so that I am improving my courses. If my students are telling me this project just did not work, then I’m definitely willing to change that or look at adapting that or looking at another option.
I like to get that feedback because it helps me improve the course and make sure that my students are getting the most benefit. It can be a little intimidating, but constructive feedback is definitely helpful for improving my future courses.
Schimri Yoyo: In your opinion, how are nutrition and exercise and physical and mental wellness related? How do they compliment each other?
Melissa Morris: Yeah, they are definitely [related]. Physical fitness, physical activity, exercise, and nutrition definitely are interrelated and impact our physical health. We know this, but there’s also a lot that we know about our mental health as well.
They’re obviously not the only things. There are other things that are important for your physical health. Things like sleeping enough, which is very important for our physical health and mental health, making sure that we’re getting health screenings, vaccinations—all those things are important for taking care of our physical health along with, obviously, eating right and exercising. But we also know the effects [these things have] on our mental health too.
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As Americans we are tired, we’re stressed, we’re busy all the time. You know, we don’t get enough sleep. So, making sure that you’re taking care of yourself and taking time out to be active, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes a day, even if it’s just standing up every so often and moving around a little bit—it has some real benefits to your overall health. And that’s one way we can take care of ourselves in this busy, stressful, sleep-deprived world that we live.
If you can exercise for 60 minutes, that’s one hour. There are 24 hours in a day. So take that one hour for yourself and you can definitely feel the immediate short-term benefits of that, but also the long-term benefits as well.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, how, if at all, does proper nutrition vary by age and by gender? Is there any difference between like male nutrition versus female nutrition or adult nutrition versus adolescent nutrition?
Melissa Morris: So for age, some of the main things to remember about kind of aging is, as we get older we need fewer calories. Our metabolism slows as we age. And so you know, teenagers and young adults definitely can eat more, but as you get older, your metabolism just slows. It’s a part of aging. We also tend to lose muscle mass as we get older. Again, just a natural part of aging.
So resistance training is very important for keeping our muscle mass as we get older as well. Metabolism slows muscle mass, so protein is one really important nutrient for older adults to make sure they’re getting plenty of [in order to] help with that diminishing muscle mass.
As we get older as far as vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates and fats, there’s really not a lot of differences young to old, just making sure that you have plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, those are important.
Otherwise, when we look at vitamins and minerals for younger children to adolescents and also for older adults, we need to make sure they’re getting plenty of calcium and vitamin D because those are very important for bone health. So for younger kids, if they’re not drinking their milk and their yogurt and their cheese, which are really good sources of calcium, the bad news is they’re not getting the benefit of that.
Because when you’re in your teens and twenties, you’re building your bone mass. So, kids that are replacing milk with sports drinks or soda—it’s really not a good thing. Same thing with older adults. Older adults just really need to maintain their bone mass. So getting enough calcium and vitamin D is very important as we get older.
So those are a couple of things that vary by age. Those are some of the main ones. Otherwise, you just need to be making sure that you’re drinking plenty of fluids, getting enough protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fruits and vegetables all across the board.
As far as differences between male to female, there are not huge differences, but there are a few things to be aware of. For one, men tend to have more muscle mass, just a natural difference, [generally,] between our males and females. So, males typically get more calories because of that [greater] muscle mass. They also need a little bit more protein to help maintain that muscle mass.
Otherwise, the only other nutrient that really is different male to female is iron. And that’s because women are, women tend to also be lower in iron and are more at risk for things like anemia, which is a deficiency of iron. And also women lose iron monthly through their menstrual cycle.
So, women do need a little bit more iron than men, but otherwise, [their nutrition is] pretty similar. So, if you were to look at a male multivitamin versus a female multivitamin, there are probably not many differences. The iron is probably one of the main differences. Otherwise, they’re going to be very similar across the board.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, thank you very much for doing a bit of myth-busting for me. I’m going to go back to GNC and get my money back for all the male nutrition supplements they sold me over the years.
Melissa Morris: Yeah, just get a general, if you take a Multivitamin, a general one is just fine. No special things in the male versus female.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, what’s the best way to be proactive in daily fitness?
Melissa Morris: I think you’ve just got to do it, so schedule your time in there. If you feel like you do better with exercising in the morning because you do it first thing and it’s done, do it. Then, if you feel like you want to go right after work and you drive right by the gym or you go home and change clothes and immediately go into your exercise room at home, do it. Whatever works.
If it’s later in the evening after the kids have settled down and you have a few minutes to yourself, whatever time of day works.
The research does not show that there’s any difference in time of day. There’s no benefit to exercising more so in the morning. So whatever works for you.
If it means that you have to schedule a class or meet a workout buddy at a certain time so that you stay committed to that and motivated, go for that.
Whatever works best for you I think is what’s important. Some people like the accountability of having a workout partner because you can’t skip out as easy, you know?
[Because] I think [lack of] motivation is something that all of us tend to suffer from. Sometimes we might feel a little less motivated. I know I do sometimes. So for me sometimes I just have to put my workout clothes on, put my shoes on, not talk myself out of it and just say I’m going for 10 minutes and if I get past the 10 minutes and I still really want to quit, I’ll quit then.
But 99% of the time I’m going to stay and do most or all of my workout just because, “Hey, I’m here, why not? I blocked out this time.” So I think whatever works best for you to get it done is what you should stick with.
Schimri Yoyo: What’s your favorite part about being an educator?
Melissa Morris: I like the one-on-one that I have with students on occasion. Because my classes are usually anywhere from 20 to 30 students, I sometimes don’t get to know them as well, so I like when they stick around after class and ask questions or come to my office hours because I get to know them a little bit better.
But I really love when I can see that they really understand something. When the light bulb clicks on, you know, you can either see it in their eyes or see it on their face that it clicks. They really understand it. I like when they ask challenging questions because it shows that they’re thinking beyond just what the textbook says or what their homework says, that they’re really kind of thinking beyond that.
And I really like when my students keep in touch with me beyond finishing their undergraduate degrees. So if they’re in graduate school or they’re doing an internship and they say, “Hey, remember when we talked about this in kinesiology? Remember when we talked about this in nutrition? Now, I’m using that” or “Now it makes sense to me on why this is important.”
All of that makes me smile. It makes my day when I hear those things from students and when I get to chat with them more one-on-one and get to know them. That’s really the great part about my job: interacting with the students.
Schimri Yoyo: Last question for you, Melissa. Thank you again for your time.
Melissa Morris: Yeah, thank you.
Schimri Yoyo: You mentioned creativity a couple of different times throughout our interview. It seems to be like one of the core values that you stress in both the classroom and also in fitness. What’s one way that you’re creative outside of the classroom or that you display your creativity outside of the classroom?
Melissa Morris: Gosh, that’s a tough question I got think about that. I don’t always consider myself a very creative person, but then when I sit down and think about it, you know, you got to be creative and think on your feet to be an educator and to be successful. So we do it all the time in our lives.
I think for me, the creativity kind of comes in the classroom when I have a plan for something and my students, and then somebody asks a question that’s really off-topic and the creativity is, “Okay, let’s just go with this topic. We’ll come back to what I had planned originally.” I’m a planner by nature, so I like to kind of stay on that plan. But sometimes, you know, you got to go off track and see what [is driving those questions] and address those things for students.
Or sometimes, something will come across my desk and I’ll say that I really have to talk about this today. We’ve really got to have a discussion around this because it’s something new or something exciting or something trendy.
For example, keto diets [see video below] are kind of all the rage and one of the fads now. And I used to not talk much about ketogenic diets years ago because they weren’t really as popular. So now, I will talk about them and students always have really good questions or they’ll have stories and we’ll have added topics that we talk about from that.
And so that discussion might go a little bit longer and it’s kind of like, “Well, I’ll just scrap what I planned for the rest of class. Let’s talk about this because this is more important.” So I think that creativity comes in the classroom when you sometimes aren’t expecting it.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, that was a great answer. Thank you again, Melissa, for your time.
Melissa Morris: You’re welcome.
Schimri Yoyo: And we are looking forward to hearing from you in the future.
Melissa Morris: Alright, great. Great to talk with you. Thanks.
Schimri Yoyo: Take care.
Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. In a past life, he covered Villanova Men’s Basketball and Big East Football for Examiner.com. Schimri has also produced freelance copywriting, editing, and proofreading for various websites and online publications for over a decade. He is an avid sports fan, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, and San Francisco 49ers. Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.