5 Myths about Nutrition for Sport that Can Undermine an Athlete’s Performance
Athletes are often looking for strategic training and fueling tactics to gain the competitive edge, with no shortage of influences. Coaches, strength coaches, athletic trainers and teammates are readily accessible and highly trusted sources of wisdom, experience and advice that athletes rely on. Others seek out training or nutrition advice online or adopt the latest trending fad on social media. And, of course, there’s the billion dollar food industry targeting athletes with functional foods, protein shakes, energy bars, vitamin supplements, diet plans and workout programs.
Athletes can easily find themselves confused by mixed messages and empty promises of products or regimens that simply don’t deliver. Here, we tackle some common misperceptions that can actually undermine an athletes’ performance when myths are not challenged by facts.
The degree of discipline I devote to nutrition and “clean eating” is an indication of my commitment to sport.
Proper nutrition is one component of an athlete’s commitment to training and performance in sport. But it is only one component; not something that “defines” one’s level of commitment. Athletes must also commit to practice, competition, workouts, strength training, adequate sleep, rest days, treatment for injury, teambuilding and psychological well-being. When athletes or coaches place a disproportionate emphasis on nutrition or on diets to change their body weight or shape to achieve what they perceive as the “ideal” body for their sport, they can actually undermine sports performance if highly disciplined nutrition leads to disordered eating habits and the tremendous cognitive, emotional, social and physical distress that ensues. For many athletes, there is a very fine line between discipline and disorder. Interpersonal or environmental factors can easily tip the balance.
To experience peak performance and an enduring career, elite athletes need to fuel their bodies with an adequate amount and balanced variety of foods that provide sufficient energy to meet the demands of sport, in addition to daily needs for body maintenance, repair and growth (especially in the case of child and adolescent athletes). Athletes also need the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, electrolytes and water. Food fads like gluten-free diets (without a documented allergy) and pop culture phrases like “clean eating” cause confusion about what “healthy eating” means and what is actually recommended for athletes. This confusion can lead to overly restrictive diets, chronic under fueling, disordered eating behaviors such as orthorexia or full-blown eating disorders.
Athletes have needs for food and nutrition that far exceed those of the general population. So when certain foods or entire food groups are removed from the diet, athletes become particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and injury. Vegetarian or vegan athletes, for example, need purposeful planning to meet their protein, energy and micronutrient needs when food choices are limited by this pattern of eating. There is space for all kinds of foods in an athlete’s diet. You don’t have to restrict in order to be committed.
Foods are either good (and must be eaten) or bad (and must be avoided).
Foods are often labeled as “good” and “bad.” Everyone does it – parents, coaches, teammates, friends. Media and social media does it best with catchy headlines and soundbites. Worse than the misbranding of foods – based, quite often on someone’s opinion or uneducated assumption – is the social judgement passed on the individual caught indulging in a “bad food.” Food shaming is something that’s all too common in our society these days. Athletes talk about the watchful eye of their coach during a team meal, or the scolding of a teammate over a choice they made in the dining hall. Athletes who are highly disciplined eaters are particularly vulnerable to the “good food/bad food” mentality, another contributor to restrictive eating and disordered eating behaviors.
A generalized fear of foods containing fat, carbohydrates or sugar can cause some individuals to refuse anything that is not fat-free, low-carb or sugar-free. In reality, some amount of sugar is not inherently harmful in the setting of a balanced diet for an athlete, where sufficient energy intake, nutrient timing and fast refueling are keys for recovery from long hours of training and competing. While excessive sugar intake is never endorsed, fast absorbing sugar-rich foods such as Gatorade, Powerade and gels can help athletes fuel their bodies before, during and after training, particularly in the setting of sustained endurance exercise like long-distance running or triathlons. The same goes for fat and carbs.
There are plenty of nutritious carb-rich foods that need to be part of an athlete’s fueling strategy – whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables and starchy foods like pasta and sweet potatoes. The body also needs a source of essential fatty acids, so a diet completely devoid of fat has serious health consequences. Plant-based sources of fats like nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado, olive oil and other vegetable oils offer plenty of nutritious sources of dietary fat to help athletes meet their energy needs.
So ditch the food rules! Instead, let the principles of variety (different kinds of foods each day), balance (the right amounts and combinations of foods) and moderation (not too much added fat, sugar, sodium or alcohol) guide you! And don’t forget – food is meant to be enjoyed. Eat what you love and love what you eat!
When it comes to training and exercise, more is always better.
Like with food, society tells us that exercise is “good” and physical inactivity is “bad.” And as with food, the best advice is to be physically active in a variety of ways, balance aerobic exercise with strength training workouts and other active pursuits that simply add joy to your life (like hiking), and practice moderation so that you don’t run yourself into the ground with excessive or compulsive exercise.
To be successful in sport, long, hard hours of training help athletes get to the next level. While athletes may assume that more training is better for their performance, overtraining and inadequate recovery results in decreased athletic performance and increased risk for injury.
The ability to train hard is determined by how effectively one fuels, rests and recovers. Thus, a well-planned training schedule that incorporates varied intensities – and is tailored to recovery needs – is endorsed for athletes looking to enhance their performance in sport. Since recovery is often related to adequacy of overall energy intake, a calorie deficit caused by restrictive eating and/or overtraining can actually become a recovery deficit. These recovery deficits eventually build up and put the athlete at greater risk for recurrent injuries and negative health consequences. If you, or an athlete you know, is struggling to modify training due to fears of weight gain or increased emotional distress, help is available.
If I am injured and unable to train, I need to dramatically cut back my food intake.
Injuries require time off from training to recover and heal. This can be incredibly stressful for athletes, for many reasons. They are physically hurt and in pain, may need surgery and may lose their ability to return to sport. They may recover, only to find that they’ve lost their spot in the starting lineup or positon on the team. In the case of the collegiate athletes, scholarships may be in jeopardy and they may fall behind academically. At a time of emotional distress when athletes need support to cope, they may become isolated from their teammates due to injury and an inability to attend practice or to travel for competition. Those who are weight conscious fear weight gain associated with curtailed training.
All of these factors can prompt an injured athlete to intentionally or unintentionally cut back on their food intake. Yet injured athletes have increased nutritional needs to heal from surgery, participate in physical therapy and reintroduce low intensity physical activity as they rehab. Cutting back on food intake when injured creates a caloric deficit that delays recovery. For this reason, fueling an injury is every bit as strategic and purposeful as fueling for sport.
My coaches know exactly what I need for nutrition as an athlete.
Athletes develop strong relationships with their coaches, athletic trainers and strength coaches who are highly respected authorities in their daily lives, entrusted with their well-being and possessing the expertise needed to help them achieve their goals. There is plenty of opportunity for those inside the sports family to give advice to athletes about nutrition and food choices. Some coaches monitor athletes’ weights and make recommendations to players to lose weight or to bulk up.
Be aware that the level of nutrition education and nutrition knowledge of even the most experienced coaches may be lower than you expect. Sports medicine doctors and athletic trainers typically have had at least a few lectures or a course on nutrition as part of their education. But there is no formal or mandated nutrition education required for coaches. Even the most well-intentioned advice from a coach may not be entirely appropriate for an individual athlete because a full nutritional assessment is required for customized advice.
Coaches may be as vulnerable as athletes are to the harmful influence of the media and social media for driving food fads, supplement use and dieting advice that can derail an athlete’s performance. If you need guidance on how to feed yourself to meet your needs as an athlete, ask your doctor or health professional to refer you to a Registered Dietitian (RD). Registered Dietitians are trained nutrition professionals, qualified to perform nutritional assessments and provide reliable and accurate nutrition advice that is based on scientific evidence, tailored to meet the specific needs of each individual.
If someone you know could benefit from the truth behind these myths, share our post! And check out the Walden GOALS Program to learn more about how we help athletes fuel better and train more effectively when recovering from eating disorders and other forms of disordered eating.
Dr. Quatromoni is a senior consultant for Walden Behavioral Care, and one of the nation’s top minds on the intersection of sports nutrition and eating disorders. As a registered dietitian, she has more than a decade of experience working with athletes with disordered eating and has published several papers on both clinical experiences and qualitative research on recovery experiences of athletes. Dr. Quatromoni is the Department Chair of Health Sciences and a tenured associate professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Boston University where she maintains an active, funded research program. In 2004, she pioneered the sports nutrition consult service for student athletes at Boston University. Dr. Quatromoni was recently named a 2016 Outstanding Dietetics Educator from the Nutrition and Dietetic Educators and Preceptors (NDEP) Council. She earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Nutrition from the University of Maine at Orono and her Doctorate in Epidemiology from the Boston University School of Public Health.
Lauren Smith is pursuing a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and is a Dietetic Intern at Boston University. Currently, she is a student intern in the Walden Behavioral Care GOALS program where she is combining her passion for sports with the treatment of eating disorders. Before coming to Boston University, Lauren attended Florida State University where she received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics. In her professional career as a Registered Dietitian, she hopes to educate and counsel collegiate athletes to optimize performance in sport..