As Sports Evolve, Nutrition Follows


It’s difficult to quantify the changes in sports nutrition over the past decades, but today’s athletes are bigger, stronger and faster partially as a result of improvements in their fuel intake.

For those who closely follow collegiate or professional sports, tracking favorite athletes also means watching their diet and eating rituals. In recent years, nutrition has exploded in the world of elite sports, driven by changing regulations within governing bodies like the NCAA and by advances in food and beverage research.

The findings that keep piling up tell us what many sports dietitians have been preaching for years- nutrition is not just important for general health, but it can also make a direct impact on an athlete's performance.

The days of strength coaches doubling as nutritionists and making (often questionable) recommendations are over. Long gone is the era when gorging on pizza and cheeseburgers was the sportsman’s path to gaining weight.

The number of full time sports dietitians nationwide rose from single digits in the early 2000's to the hundreds, and that figure keeps growing. Programs that historically budgeted a few hundred thousand dollars on their nutrition, or in many cases nothing, are now spending millions.

In the past, designated nutrition facilities were few and far between. Fueling stations, mobile nutrition setups, and performance kitchens and dining halls are now part of the athletic infrastructure at top institutions.

In terms of day-to-day practice, the profession of sports dietitians has also evolved to include more than just general diet recommendations. For example, nutritionists will include ways that an athlete can reduce inflammation by adding foods like nuts, nut butters, seeds, and tart cherry juice. They may seek to optimize the sportsperson’s oxygen utilization by including foods high in nitrates, like beets or beetroot juice.

In most cases, food recommendation is individualized. A football player’s diet is much different from that of a cross country runner, or a swimmer. The customization usually involves assessing the individual’s macro and micronutrient needs based on his or her goals, training, and lab work.

Not surprisingly, sports dietitians are euphoric about these changes and the positive impact their specialty is bringing to young athletes. Though, one noticeable drawback is the dependency it creates for those active in college sports.

With enormous budgets available to provide meals and snacks on campus, it's absolutely realistic that athletes can spend their entire college careers without ever needing to learn the life skills of grocery shopping, budgeting and cooking.

While their student peers are honing these skills in college, or at least attempting to do so, athletes are being fed practically around the clock. Providing our sports men and women with the proper nutrition has tremendous benefits during their athletic career, but are we putting them at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives?

This realization also highlights the importance of the educational component associated with sports dieticians. Administration officials should make sure that their sports nutrition staff have the tools and resources available to provide ancillary education such as food demos, cooking sessions, grocery store tours, etc.

After all, student athletes are not athletes forever and building nutrition knowledge should be part of their college education.

Lauren Varnau Link, RD, CSSD, is the Director of Sports Nutrition at Purdue University. She is the author of “From Athlete To Normal Human”, available for sale on our site. Twitter LinktoNutrition


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