Updated: Sep 18
They didn’t teach us in school why nutrition is so important for exercise. But in 2018, the North American Sports Market generated more than 71 billion dollars in revenue. Within this industry, more than 13,000 professional athletes in the U.S. contribute to this unparalleled level of competition and entertainment each and every year. The competition in sports is so great, in fact, that our athletes spend hours upon hours of their days preparing themselves for the next event. Resistance training, high-intensity interval training, mental training - the amount of effort and work that these men and women dedicate to their field on the daily is at a cost that no other humans on Earth can expend.
With an energy and nutrient cost so great, it is a grand conundrum that the American Diet is the mainstream avenue for delivering these tools to the bodies of those who are rapidly depleting them. The American Diet is something that has swept this country off of their feet. And while many would identify the foods of this diet as “fast food” and “chips and candy” - and yes, these are certainly part of the problem - most of us are failing to also recognize things like “inaccurately marketed protein bars” and what some may refer to as “coffee”. These are also what the American Diet is about: convenience.
With the expense of energy so high in exercise movements, it is only surprising to some that fuel availability is not more commonly integrated into the process of training. And while legitimate sports nutrition education is increasingly common for professional level athletes, school-level athletes and all other Americans who regularly exercise are often times dependent on finding their nutritional knowledge by themselves. This often times leads to wormholes of unreliable nutrition sources, miscommunication and lack of understanding for the importance of individualized nutrition plans which will vary greatly from person to person.
Somewhere along the lines, when sports competition became elite and nutrition had enough research to back up its importance, the foundational message was lost – Food is the fuel that makes the human body move. And what was birthed from this miscommunication was a situation where only the elite have ended up with reliable access to nutrition (and only after they have become successful in their sport). That being said, Nutrition was never established as a necessity for all athletes, but rather a luxury for those who could prove themselves first.
And unfortunately, because this so called “luxury service” must be operated by a living, breathing (and hopefully knowledgeable and highly qualified) human being, the athletes who do not have the financial means to access this resource quickly fall behind in their overall health.
So in order to establish a safe, effective and unbiased foundation for the basis of performance and movement, there must first be a discussion about the 3 nutritional concepts that are not acknowledged enough. These concepts are not just intended for the athletes themselves, but also for every coach, every sports physician and every other member of a team that has direct contact with athletes and active individuals.
Here are the 3 concepts:
Concept 1: Athletes Have an Increased Need for Nutrients.
The USDA has identified more than 30 nutrients that are required for both movement and life. This research is based off the “Average American” population, of which 77% do not meet the minimal recommendations for exercise4. Because athletes are of the minority who either meet or exceed physical activity recommendations, the research that establishes how much of each nutrient an average American needs does not necessarily apply to the athlete. Obtaining enough of each nutrient is challenging for the Average American alone; but for an athlete who has an increased need for certain nutrients such as protein, fluids and overall calories; this number can look even more intimidating. Numerous studies show that athlete populations are insufficient in certain nutrients5,6,7,8,9 and this may in part be due to the fact that athlete diets as a whole do not necessarily differ from that of the Average American.
Perhaps some of the most under acknowledged considerations when it comes to athletes and nutrition are those which affect people of color. In the United States, more than 50% of the population is vitamin D insufficient10. This number is disproportionately represented by Black Americans, of which 82% are deficient, and Hispanic Americans, of which 69% are deficient11. People of color consist of more than 70% of the athletic population in professional American sports, and only those who are paid by these professional organizations – after cuts, after drafts, and after the contracts are signed – are provided with the tools to help them address this dire nutritional issue. Considering the fact that vitamin D plays a major role in sports performance and recovery, it is repulsive that these athletes are not provided with this information sooner.
Concept 2: The American Diet and many American food products are INFERIOR for athletes.
With sport programs residing in schools where athletes are playing at ages as young as 5 years old, there are some systems in place to ensure that children are receiving a variety of foods. Unfortunately, the meal pattern that has been established for public schools does not take into consideration a full nutrient profile, but rather the food groups that are seen on the USDA food pyramid. In doing this, a young athlete may receive a fruit, a granola bar as their grain, and a “fruity” yogurt for breakfast – all of which are likely to have a significant amount of sugar and not nearly enough protein or calories for an athletic body to maintain itself. This all being said, school meals just do not “cut it” for athletes.
As athletes get older, they become more independent and are able to outsource their meals from restaurants and “fast casual” food joints. They travel out of town, and may stop at the nearest burger joint for dinner after a game. If they are “lucky”, they might even stop at a smoothie hut and get a drink that might contain more than 100 grams of sugar per serving. The culture that has been established with grade-level sports in the bodies of still-growing people is that there are very high physical demands and very little time to replenish what has been depleted from them. It has become a realm where the mentality is “Play sport, sleep sport, breathe sport” and for some unjustifiable reason, the “eat” has been left out. Because this culture has forced athletes to rely on convenience foods for nourishment, they fall to the mercy of the food product industry - who quite frankly care far more about “palatability for profitability” than they do for your athlete’s personal nutritional needs.
Concept 3: Therefore, High-Quality and INDIVIDUALIZED Nutrition Education should be provided for ALL athletes.
It is clear that athletes are not receiving nutrition advice from their teachers, coaches and trainers about which foods they need to be eating and when. And this is exactly how it should be. Nutrition is a complex and multi-dimensional science. So unless a coach has received specific sports nutrition education from an accredited institution, they are not qualified to discuss sports nutrition with their athletes. While coaches may make an attempt to encourage their players to eat “healthy”, Eating "healthy” is oftentimes perceived by athletes as eating more vegetables, which is one of the least optimal foods to fuel with when immediately followed by activity.
It is therefore imperative to establish a legitimate system in which all athletes have access to sports nutrition education by a qualified sports nutrition professional. Grade schools and colleges should require sports nutrition education for all athletes within their system, and club sports should include sports nutrition sessions at the beginning of every season. Both parents of athletes and athletes themselves should expect this from a legitimate sports program. Sports dietitians and nutritionists therefore have a moral responsibility to work with athletes and their financial capabilities in order to both provide necessary education for every athlete and respect the payment standards within the fields of sports nutrition and dietetics. If every athlete is provided with a baseline knowledge of sports nutrition, they may be able to decrease their risk for sports-related injury and also optimize their performance in sport.
To put it simply: Food is the reason we move. When we exert more energy, we use more of certain nutrients. Because so many foods that are found in America are so inadequate, most Americans are insufficient in at least one nutrient and athletes are most certainly no exception to this rule. The more movement we have, the more responsibility we have to replenish and re-nourish ourselves each time. And the more we deplete ourselves of the 30+ nutrients that we need, the more it will impact our own performance. Sports nutrition is not just for athletes. It is for every single person who chooses to be physically active. If you exercise, sports nutrition is for you. If you move, sports nutrition is for you. And if you work with people who move, it is your responsibility to seek out those who can help you and your team move better.
Blackwell D., Clarke T. State Variation in Meeting the 2008 Federal Guidelines for Both Aerobic and Muscle-strengthening Activities through Leisure-time Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 18-64: United States, 2010-2015. National Health Statistics Review. 2018;112(1):1-22.
Ogan D., Prichett K. Vitamin D and the Athlete: Risks, Recommendations and Benefits. Nutrients. 2013;5(1):1856-1868.
Suedekum N., Dimeff R. Iron and the Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2005;4(1):199-202.
Volpe S. Magnesium and the Athlete. Nutrition and Ergogenic Aids. 2015;14(4):279-283.
Mecheletti A., Rossi R., Rufini S. Zinc Status in Athletes. Sports Medicine. 2001;31(8):577-582.
Larson-Meyer D., Woolf K., Burke L. Assessment of Nutrient Status in Athletes and the Need for Supplementation. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.2018;28(1):139-158.
Parva N R, Tadepalli S, Singh P, et al. (June 05, 2018) Prevalence of Vitamin D Deficiency and Associated Risk Factors in the US Population (2011-2012). Cureus 10(6): e2741. DOI 10.7759/cureus.2741
Forrest K., Stuhldreher W. Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults. Nutrition Research. 2011;31(1):48-54.