Student-athletes are starved for nutrition knowledge, yet many athletic departments are not staffed to provide it.
The University of Alabama football team's drive toward the BCS National Championship last season was fueled daily by a variety of salad greens and raw vegetables. Players could select fresh grapes, cherries and melon, and entrÃ©e options included baked chicken and steamed fish. Further down the Crimson Tide's training table were burgers and fries, fried chicken and southern-fried steaks.
The quantity (and, yes, the quality) of food was enough to impress registered dietician Lori Turner, chair of the university's Health Science Department, who witnessed firsthand the role food played in keeping the unbeaten Tide rolling through the 2009 schedule. In October, when she traveled with the team to a game at Ole Miss, she and the players were treated to bag lunches on the bus, a monster dinner buffet at the hotel and a bedtime peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich after team meetings. Says Turner, "The thing that everybody told me before I went was, 'You are going to be fed. You are going to be stuffed.'"
Even senior Terrance "Mount" Cody, Alabama's 6-5, 365-pound defensive lineman, whose stock in this month's NFL draft has fluctuated in direct proportion to his weight, was allowed to suspend his calorie-counting for the weekend and eat his fill.
"I always try to be careful when talking about what foods are good because it depends on the person, and it depends on what he or she is doing," says Turner, who doesn't begrudge certain players having access to southern-fried steak. "It sounds unhealthy, but some players are lean and burning so many calories that they need to be eating some fried foods. If that person ate only veggies, he wouldn't be able to get enough calories to maintain his weight."
Few things have greater impact on athletic performance than what athletes consume, but the average collegiate student-athlete's knowledge of nutrition may be sorely lacking.
According to "Nutrition Knowledge and Attitudes of College Athletes," a study co-authored by Debra Dunn, George Denny and Turner and published in 2007 by The United States Sports Academy, fewer than one-third of the 190 student-athletes surveyed at one BCS school responded correctly when asked about recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and only 35 percent were aware of a link between low fruit and vegetable intake and health problems. A full two-thirds were aware of the recommendation to reduce saturated fat, but fewer student-athletes knew of the link between fat intake and heart disease and obesity. Only one athlete among the 190 correctly linked sugar to its most immediate health risk - diseases of the teeth.
Turner, whose dietary expertise has not been formally tapped by Alabama athletics, feels student-athletes are just as susceptible to marketing claims as anyone else (more survey participants chose Nutri-Grain bars over raisins as a high-fiber, low-fat snack) and that nutrition education often gets short shrift within collegiate athletic departments. "Unfortunately, coaches don't have the training and they often give players misinformation," says Turner, who recommends the hiring of a dietician or nutritionist. "Even if it's a part-time person, I think it's very useful and will help with performance."
Telltale signs of a student-athlete's nutritional deficiencies may include declining performance, chronic fatigue or prolonged illness. Too often, these signs manifest themselves before an athlete seeks expert nutrition guidance - if it even exists. A review of the sizable staff directories of all 11 Big Ten Conference athletic departments finds only four individuals with "dietician" or "nutritionist" in their job titles, and two of them are on the University of Wisconsin campus. "This past year, we started really focusing on our nutrition department and beefing up our program," says Katie DiPiazza, the Badgers' full-time nutritionist since 2007.
DiPiazza consults with student-athletes mostly on a case-by-case basis, particularly if there are perceived problems. However, coaches encouraged the entire incoming class of softball freshmen to seek DiPiazza's nutrition advice this past season. "Coming from high school, a time when mom and dad prepared all their meals, a lot of athletes are kind of clueless about how important nutrition actually is," she says. "They know they have to eat, but a lot of them lack the specific 'how, when, why and what' knowledge of nutrition and its effect on performance."
The athletic department convened a nutrition panel last May, and in November, DiPiazza watched as women's varsity crew athletes spent two hours learning from a senior lecturer in the UW Department of Food Sciences how to prepare baked chicken breasts, stir-fry, hard-boiled eggs and granola. The pilot program's goal was to promote healthful food choices for student-athletes - not only for now, when their schedules allow little time for food preparation, but also for when their competitive careers end and the days of burning 5,000 calories are over. "Cooking can be a scary experience for some people," DiPiazza says. "I think this just kind of put them at ease about the whole cooking process, taught them that it actually can be enjoyable. Food shouldn't be the enemy."
An emphasis on whole foods over dietary supplements was also apparent last fall in the UW football weight room, where a smoothie station offered players ingredients such as oats, mixed berries, bananas, peanut butter, honey, and skim and chocolate milk, in addition to whey protein powder. "A lot of times they do end up adding protein powder to the mix," DiPiazza says, "but it's not as much as they would if it was just a protein shake."
The NCAA has established rules limiting student-athlete supplement use to those products with a calories-from-protein content of 30 percent or less. Jay Hoffman, chair of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey and current president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, thinks that's a mistake. "It's ridiculous," Hoffman says. "Under those parameters, milk could be deemed inappropriate. I have a hard time with the NCAA not allowing education of the athlete to be the primary way of preventing them from making bad choices. The reality is that athletes are still using these supplements - they're legal, they're very effective and they're safe."
Whole food diets are "nice," Hoffman adds, but they alone won't allow athletes to reach their performance potential. "One of the ways you do that is by using a supplement program at the appropriate time - immediately before and after workouts to enhance recovery and protein synthesis to a greater extent than just waiting for the next meal to be consumed," he says. "I really don't see the problem with providing a supplement, as long as the athlete is using it as a supplement and not a meal replacement."
As evidenced at Alabama, major college football players aren't likely to miss many meals. But athletes in gymnastics, diving, distance running, wrestling and lightweight crew can be susceptible to disordered eating. "A lot of times we want to maintain the weight of our athletes, so it's kind of a trial and error process," DiPiazza says. "We give them an amount of calories, and if they gain weight, then obviously we have to cut back. If they're losing weight, we have to add more. All bodies are different. I tell the athletes when I meet with them, 'I wish I could point something at you and it would tell me exactly how your body metabolizes, how many calories you need.'"
While there are post-graduation dietary ramifications for many college student-athletes, that's not necessarily the way to pitch a healthful eating program during their athletic careers, according to Turner, who has consulted with collegiate gymnasts regarding diet and osteoporosis risk. "You tell them, 'If you eat this way, you're going to have bad bone density when you turn 50,' and they're going to go, 'So what?' Rather, say, 'Not only will your health be poor, but also your performance, because if your blood sugar is low, you can't focus, you don't have the energy you need, and you'll be more susceptible to injury.' Diet can directly affect performance, and that's the best selling point to these athletes: 'Eat well, so that you'll perform better now.'"