Are Dining Halls Equipped To Give Student-Athletes The Fuel They Need?

June 22nd, 2018 | by Leslie Bonci
Are Dining Halls Equipped To Give Student-Athletes The Fuel They Need?
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dining hall

Your athletes may all share similar performance goals and team specific training schedules but when it comes to fueling, there is a lot more variety in food choices based upon preference, health, beliefs, religion, and body composition goals. More sensitive tests to diagnose food intolerance and allergies, a greater emphasis on the benefits of plant-based diets and the latest fads means that athletic departments and dining halls need to keep up to keep attracting and fueling today’s student-athletes. For instance, you may have student-athletes who are lactose intolerant, have food allergies, do not eat gluten, are vegan, keep Kosher or need foods that are Halal, among others. Do your dining options and facilities capture and offer the food diversity that athletes have come to expect?

At the end of the day, athletes need to eat enough to meet daily macro and micronutrient needs. So athletes who eliminate certain foods due to health, religion or fads still need to find enough diversity in food choices for sport, growth, and development, health goals and cognitive function.

For the lactose intolerant or those with milk allergies, alternatives need to be nutritionally equivalent. Almond milk is dairy free but it is much lower in protein than dairy milk. Soy-based beverages, yogurt, and cheese are better alternatives. It may be prudent to do taste tests/samples as well as educational signage such as “what is in your pour?”

For those that avoid gluten due to medical necessity, i.e. celiac disease, or potential sensitivity, the goal is not grain-devoid, but providing nutritionally dense alternatives such as rice, potatoes, corn or corn tortillas, beans based pasta, and some of the other gluten-free grains for main dishes, side dishes, and snacks.

Many athletes are drawn to plant-based eating patterns and some are choosing vegan eating patterns. Lunch consisting of a salad with a few chickpeas is not going to optimize muscle protein synthesis nor calorie requirements. So, meat alternatives such as tofu, Quorn, and pea protein products can provide variety and nutritional adequacy.

For religious reasons, foods that are Kosher and Halal should be available. For student-athletes who observe Ramadan, provide earlier access to the dining hall ( before sunrise) and extended hours ( after sunset).

For athletes looking to minimize or maximize intake to optimize body composition and weight goals, portion appropriate foods and plates as well as signage can make it easier for athletes to fuel well without compromising their nutrition intake. Eating should not be a source of stress, it should be about comfort and enjoyment.

To best care for your athletes, dining halls, training tables, and performance eating destinations should aim to be inclusive, accessible and flexible. Departments should identify a key staff member to make sure these needs are addressed and met for their student-athletes. An experienced sports dietitian can reach across the aisles to advocate for the needs of the student-athletes and communicate the science to the plate for the food services staffs. He or she can also collaborate with the administrative and sports medicine teams and coaching staffs to ensure athletes eat well to play well and stay well. Who’s on your team?

Leslie Bonci About Leslie Bonci
Leslie Bonci, MPH,RDN,CSSD,LDN is a board-certified sports dietitian and founding principal of Performance 365, a sports nutrition consulting group serving the needs of athletes, organizations, universities and aligned industry partners with experience and evidence. Leslie and Performance 365 are proponents of the fuels of engagement, a focus on guiding athletes and performance artists to peak performance in their sport and health. Find Leslie @lesliebonci on twitter.

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