Healthy or not: the truth about athletes’ diets

Posted on March 03, 2014 in Sports
By Justicia Barreiros

Ellen Spahn | THE FREE PRESS

The difference between a nutritional diet and unhealthy habits can make or break a student athletes’ performance.
Many student athletes find it difficult to keep their diet on track when their sport is off season. “When I’m out of season, I’ll eat more junk food—you know chips, salsa—everything you shouldn’t be eating,” said Sabrina Sodders, sophomore athletic training major and track and field athlete. “And then when I’m in season, I try to eat more salads and fresh fruit.”

However this isn’t a problem for Tyler Leavitt, sophomore exercise science major and baseball player. “I don’t change my meals on or off season,” said Leavitt. “I try to eat healthy all the time, but I find that if I plan out what I’m going to eat before I eat it, that definitely helps.”

In their sports’ season, athletes need to focus on consuming enough calories to maintain their weight and energy levels, while also staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables.

Many athletes in sports that require weight loss resort to extremes to cut weight, like cutting carbs. Carbohydrates, head athletic trainer Matthew Gerken explained, are essential to the diet of the athlete because that’s the best way to fuel their bodies.

Using a system revolving around weight classes for competitions, wrestling especially sees a large number of students concerned about making weight each week. “I’m not really good at maintaining my weight, so after a wrestling meet, I may gain a few pounds and throughout the week slowly work off the weight each day,” said Khalil Newbill, freshman computer science major and wrestler. “I won’t eat a ton of food during the wrestling meet, but when we come back to USM I’ll eat a lot of food. It’s a continuous process of gaining weight and losing it again.”

However, for student athletes in general, maintaining weight is a key part of staying healthy. “Pretty much the main thing is you want to get calories back in your body,” said Alex Tobey a junior holistic health major and baseball player. “After you’ve worked out or played a sport, you lose a bunch of calories. [So] you just want to replace them and make sure you eat, so that you’re staying healthy and maintaining weight.”

According to Gerken, because of the amount of calories athletes burn, they should actually be consuming more carbohydrates than non-athlete students. “I think a lot of athletes don’t realize that they need more than just 2,000 calories a day,” said Gerken. “If you’re an aerobic athlete, running like 40 miles a week, you need probably 3,000 to 4,000 calories.”

According to Gerken, there are two main myths that student athletes’ diets tend to follow. The first myth is that athletes need to reduce their carb and calorie intake; the second is the assumption that athletes need a lot more protein than non-athletes. “But the reality is that because they’re athletes, they’re generating so much more caloric burn that they need to get more caloric intake, and they don’t want to be ingesting a lot of fat and protein—that’s the other myth, a lot of athletes think they need a lot of protein,” said Gerken. “You need protein, you need to keep your iron levels, but you can get your iron from other non-meat sources and get enough of it from your diet.”

Myths that athletes should eat fewer carbs and more protein are very ingrained in our society and commercial culture. “I think when most athletes, or at least dedicated athletes, are in season, they tend to lean more towards healthier things, eating salads all the time, avoiding carbs, protein shakes—I know so many baseball players that just live off of protein shakes, and it’s ridiculous,” said Sodders.

Some athletes like Mike Frey, junior sociology major and wrestler, are aware of these myths. “Something a lot of people don’t understand about them is that a protein shake is a meal, so if you eat one of those and a meal you’re getting two meals as opposed to one meal, and if you ate an entire plate, you’re negating everything you gained from that protein shake,” said Frey. “If you have that protein shake, you’d better be on a clean diet too.”

There is a risk that comes with taking supplements, though, because according to Gerken and the Food and Drug Administration website, supplement manufacturers are not required to obtain approval from the FDA. “So if you go to GNC, for instance, and you buy this bottle of some kind of supplement, there is no way you know for sure that what it says in the ingredients is right or [if] the components and measures are accurate, because nobody is monitoring it to make sure that it’s done right—because it’s not food- or drug-controlled,” said Gerken.

When teams make it to the NCAA tournaments, there are random drug tests on student athletes. These tests can turn out positive because of illegal substances that were in a supplement. Quite often these substances will be misnamed or not listed on the supplement’s bottle. “So you might have something that is an illegal substance, banned by the NCAA or the Olympic committee, and you don’t know that you have it in your system,” said Gerken.

This can affect not only the athlete taking the supplement but the entire team as well. “They’ll say you had an athlete who tested positive, they’re ineligible for a year, all the team participation that they had—the wins become loses, and it affects everybody,” said Gerken. “It affects the record, it affects their own statistics and the team’s record.”
For student athletes that are seeking ways to improve their diets but can’t afford to hire a personal dietician or nutritionist, Gerken recommends speaking to members of the USM community. According to Gerken, members of the health center staff have an interest in and knowledge of dietary requirements. Gerken also recommends Robin Hoose, coordinator of fitness and recreation, as a good source for information about good nutritional habits.

Gerken’s main advice to athletes however is to make sure that they are ingesting enough calories using a well-balanced diet. “Carbs would probably be the most important thing and the balance of their diet, making sure they’re getting lots of vegetables and plenty of water,” said Gerken.