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Betsy Towner Levine
Liz Applegate, Biochemistry '78
UC Davis’s nationally renowned nutrition expert Liz Applegate didn’t start her career on this path.
The professor, who is also a triathlete and sports nutrition columnist for Runner’s World Magazine, came to Davis as an undergrad to become a veterinarian.
“It was kind of random,” Applegate admits. “I loved animals and went in as a biochemistry major without fully understanding what it meant. And although I stayed on track with the coursework, I realized that vet medicine wasn’t what I wanted to pursue.”
As luck would have it, her then-husband couldn’t finish an internship in Developmental Nutrition so Applegate stepped in. And she found her fit.
“I was an intercollegiate athlete in field hockey and track and field, and that was right when sports nutrition was starting,” Applegate says. “I was very interested in what athletes need to eat for maximum performance and nutrition.”
So after earning her degree in biochemistry, Applegate went on to earn a Ph.D. in nutrition science (now nutritional biology), with an emphasis in exercise physiology, in 1983.
She also began a stint as a pro triathlete. Applegate was picked up by Nike from 1982 to 1984, and then continued to race as part of National Triathlon Training Camp team for several years.
Although she loved competing professionally, Applegate says that her family and new career as a UC Davis lecturer took precedence.
“I had two kids in the midst of all that and was a lecturer teaching Nutrition 10 and 11,” Applegate laughs. “I didn’t want that to take away from my family and professional life.”
Applegate continued training and she still does high-level athletic events such as the Davis double-century and open water swims today. But her primary focus is sharing her knowledge about athleticism and nutrition with her students.
“Physically active people need more calories, more protein, more carbohydrates. My field studies the ideal timing of eating such foods both before workouts and after to help recovery, in addition to researching hydration, nutritional supplements, and legal performance enhancements,” Applegate says.
At UC Davis, Applegate speaks with each of the sports teams and athletes, designing diets for them and providing advice as to how to perform and recover. She also designs regimens for people with special health needs such as diabetes and heart disease.
“Nutrition is one of those funny fields where everyone’s an expert,” she adds, “so some of what I do is combating misinformation. I just point out what is it that your body needs and what foods will provide it for you.”
Currently, Applegate is very involved with Team Davis, a group of athletes (from young to old) with developmental disabilities. She gives educational presentations such as “Eat Like a Champion,” in which the athletes compare their own diets to the Sacramento Kings.
In addition to the lessons, Applegate supervises more than 20 nutrition students who serve as interns and volunteers with Team Davis giving healthy eating and gardening lessons.
When teaching her UC Davis courses, Applegate emphasizes life skills as much as nutrition skills.
“I want my students to have success. I try to offer myself in a friendly, professional way, to help students think critically and develop skills they will use for their entire lives,” Applegate says.
One such skill, Applegate says, is something she herself tried to skirt around in college: communication.
“When I was in school, I avoided writing classes and speaking. If you had to give an oral report, I was out of there,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d need those skills, but actually all I really do is talk in front of people and write.”
So now Applegate teaches writing skills in her classes, stressing the importance of professional and polite communication. She also employs a creative technique for raising the caliber of her students' correspondence.
“I let them know I save their emails for five years, something I started doing about three years ago. It has cleaned up the quality and cleanliness of their emails drastically.”
In addition to her work with Team Davis, Applegate is currently conducting research with UC Davis Professor Lisa Miller on food labeling. The team is studying both how adults interpret the labels and how purchasing decisions are influenced by them.
And as for Applegate’s own nutritional choices? What are three things always in her refrigerator?
“Kefir!” she replies immediately. “This cultured milk has live, healthy bacteria in it and is one of my recipes for health. In addition, I always have green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, chard and kale.”
“Oh, and eggs, which are a wonderful complete protein source full of nutrients. And I eat the whole thing, not just the whites.”