Staying Well: an Important Job for athletes

Posted on 15-05-2019 , by: Nancy Clark , in , , , 0 Comments

As an athlete, you have two jobs. One is to eat wisely to perform well. The other is to stay healthy by sleeping well, eating well, and living well. Wellness was the theme of the 35th Annual Symposium for the more than 7,000 sports dietitians who are members of SCAN, the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutrition dietary practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here are some highlights that offer food for thought and tips for health:

  • Research suggests physical fitness is more important than leaness. People living in large bodies are better off adding on exercise than self-inflicting rigid diets that “backfire.” Think twice before starting an eating plan you won’t sustain for the rest of your life. The pattern of losing weight only to regain it has a negative impact on overall health.
  • Athletes who overeat often do so mindlessly. Physical barriers can help reduce mindless eating. For example, pre-portion crackers into appropriate servings—and keep them out of sight. Another way to be more mindful is to think POUR:

          Pause (before you start to eat)

          Observe (Am I hungry or am I stressed?)

          Understand (I am stressed and tired)

          Respond (I need to go to bed more than I need to stay up and eat.).

  • Eating disorders and disordered eating affects about 60% of female athletes and 30% of male athletes. These athletes may wait 10 to 15 years to seek help, believing I’m not THAT sick. Sometimes they are too ashamed and embarrassed by their inability to eat “normally.” Other times they might be afraid the treatment plan will deny them the ability to exercise and maintain a lean body.    The GOALS Program at Walden Behavioral Care near Boston helps athletes learn to fuel for performance (as opposed to sabotage their performance by dieting and using bad weight management techniques). During an ~8-week treatment program (meeting only 3 nights a week), the athletes weight remained relatively stable while they overcame their disordered eating behaviors. Yes, athletes with eating disorders can eat more “normally” and remain lean.
  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the USA and globally. An estimated 70% of people aged 60 to 79 have CVD, as do more than 80% of people over 80 years of age. The good news is functional foods such as blueberries, avocado, beets, and tea can help curb negative health effects associated with aging. For example, the polyphenols (bio-active compounds) in a daily cup of blueberries can reduce blood pressure, improve blood vessel health, and reduce the risk of CVD. Blueberry smoothie anyone?
  • Butter is not back. Saturated fat, refined carbohydrate, and added sugars are equally bad for risk of heart disease in high-risk people. By eating poly- and mono-unsaturated fat (avocado, nuts, olive oil) instead of saturated fat (butter), you can invest in a significantly longer life span. More extra-virgin olive oil, please.
  • Health claims made about coconut oil are misleading. They were created by marketing gurus using research based on medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, not coconut oil. Coconut oil does contain MCTs, but primarily lauric acid, a MCT that behaves like a long chain saturated fat in terms of digestion and metabolism. Lauric acid raises bad (LDL) cholesterol, inflammation, coagulation and insulin resistance (1).     One tablespoon of coconut oil has 13.5 grams saturated fat. Given the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 7% of total calories, that’s only 15.5 grams a day of saturated fat per 2,000 calories. Use coconut oil sparingly…
  • Lutein (in egg yolk, spinach, avocado, dark green, and yellow and orange foods) is important for eye health; it curbs age-related macular degeneration. Lutein is also good for your brain and is associated with a reduced risk for dementia. Adults with normal brain function have three times more lutein in their brain than those with cognitive impairment. Chow down colorful fruits and veggies to consume the recommended lutein intake.
  • Does drinking 1 to 2 glasses of wine a day offer positive health benefits? Perhaps not, given there are 25 alcohol-related diseases, to say nothing of links between alcohol and certain cancers, CVD, intestinal issues, injuries from accidents, and suicide. Unless you are among the estimated 35% of Americans who abstain from alcohol, the least harmful way to drink is to limit alcohol to one to two drinks only three to four times a week (not daily). And be sure that one drink is actually just one standard drink (6 oz wine, 12 oz beer, 1.5 oz spirits)—and not the “bartender’s special.”
  • Knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, for athletes to make sustained lifestyle changes that improve their health. We change our behaviors based on our values. For example, vegetarians generally express concern about the environment and animal welfare. In light of environmental concerns, seems like we need to create public health campaigns that focus on values, so that more people will eat less meat, waste less food, and choose fewer snacks in single-serve plastic containers…
  • Athletes can easily lose sleep by going to bed too late, drinking too much coffee, having sleep apnea, and needing to urinate during the night. Sleep loss is associated with accidents, metabolic disorders, weight gain, and hunger (due to increases in the hunger-hormone grehlin). Exercise does not protect against the harmful effects of sleep deprivation. Routinely dragging yourself out of bed in the morning to exercise might not be a wise plan. Seven hours of sleep a night are recommended to avoid sleep deprivation. Go to bed earlier?

1) Eyres L. et al. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 74(4):267-80, 2016

Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guide for Soccer offer additional information. Visit For her popular online workshop, see

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