The Unhealthy Athlete

By: Molly Hurford Jan 25

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While reading my normal roundup of weird nutritional articles, I stumbled across one that made me feel both better and worse about my eating habits. I’ve written a lot about proper nutrition, but I’m also the first to admit that I’m no saint about following the guidelines set by every sports nutrition book I’ve ever read. Sure, I’ve gotten better, but I still indulge in cookies, fried food and, of course, the occasional beer (or three).

So to read an article in the LA Times titled, “Charles Barkley, Weight Watchers and why athletes eat badly” followed by an NPR article called, “Baseball Clubs Pitch Players A Menu Change-Up,” well, it made me feel like it wasn’t just me with the healthy eating problem. Unlike my housemate, I don’t naturally come by a deep love of fresh fruits and veggies. Sure, I like a salad. But I really like French fries.

And apparently, that’s part of growing up. As the article on Barkley’s bad eating habits points out, “Players gravitated toward food from their childhoods, foods associated with their social class or their country of origin.” So, being from a meat-and-potatoes background, where dinner always ended with dessert and milk was chocolate or nothing, it’s hard for my sweet tooth to be satiated by an apple.

In a study published in Appetite, titled “Nutrition and culture in professional football,” authors claimed that, “The players’ personal eating habits that derived from their class and national habits restricted their food choice by conflicting with the dietary choices promoted within the professional football clubs.” So even though I might read about sports nutrition, talk to nutritionist and my coach, and know that steel cut oats makes more sense than, say, take-out Chinese food, I’m probably more inclined to choose the take-out because it reminds me of pleasant Friday nights with my family as a kid.

And then, when you add in how I feel after a four-hour ride, my food preference goes from bad to downright crappy. But hey, if Babe Ruth could eat a dozen hot dogs before a game, why shouldn’t I get a cookie, or six, after a long ride?

As the Babe Ruth example would indicate, this isn’t exactly a new problem. In fact, a 1988 study in Physician and Sports Medicine titled, “Nutrition Education for Elite Female Runners,” states that, “A survey of the dietary habits of 115 elite female runners revealed that some did not eat wisely, pointing out nutrition education needs for these subjects in the areas of sweets, vitamin and mineral supplementation, intake of red meat, body weight and body image, eating disorders, calorie intake, and amenorrhea and stress fractures.”

In the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, the article, “Nutrition assessment of athletes: a model for integrating nutrition and physical performance indicators” makes the obvious, but necessary, statement that, “Athletes, like all people, have special nutritional needs based on their age, lifestyle, health status, level of physical activity, physical conditioning, and type of sport. The diets of many athletes are inadequate due to overly restrictive eating habits, nutrition misinformation, dietary fads, and/or obsession with weight and food.”

In fact, when the Appetite study looked at what a group of football players consumed in a day, rather than being fairly similar from athlete to athlete, “The study found a high variability in individual intake which ranged widely from 2648 to 4606 kcal/day.”

And even when they are ingesting the appropriate amount of calories, a study entitled, “Nutritional practices of athletes: Are they sub‐optimal?” suggests that those calories aren’t being ingested in the correct forms, even if the athlete is avoiding cookies or cake. “Compared with the recommendations of sports nutritionists and exercise physiologists, the majority of athletes consume a diet which might be considered significantly deficient in carbohydrate.”

I’ve written about it before, but part of the reason for a lack of healthy diet for elite athletes is actually the fact that, well, they’re elite athletes. In “Nutritional practices of elite athletes,” the authors explain why: “The nutritional intake of elite athletes is a critical determinant of their athletic performance and ability to compete both physically and mentally. However, their demanding training and travel schedules in addition to a possible lack of nutritional knowledge may prohibit them from maintaining an optimal dietary intake.”

There’s clearly a disconnect between what we should be eating and what we do eat, as athletes. Or at least, what most of us eat. As the International Journal of Sports Nutrition study suggests, “There is a growing need for sports nutrition counseling and education to help athletes improve their eating habits.”

So what does this mean for an elite athlete? Simply put, it takes a village. And by village, I mean help from nutritionists, coaches, and family, friends and teammates helping keep your healthy eating habits in line. Or, as a study focusing on triathletes trying to follow a strict dietary plan, “Based on this study, athletes need help to achieve their sports-related nutrition goals, especially during intense training.”

Of course, for better or for worse, a study done on elite road cyclists had some good/bad news: “In general, it is possible to consider the professional road cyclists as a homogeneous group with a similar nutrition intake, eating habits, and nutritional needs throughout the more demanding periods of the season.” Hear that? As per, “Comparison of dietary intake and eating behavior of professional road cyclists during training and competition” in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, us roadies are all alike. I’m guessing that means most of you also have a secret chocolate stash under your mattress.

That all said, who wants to be my “keeper” for road season? Or at least hide the cookies…

*Ice cream photo courtesy of Väsk



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