Now more than ever, athletic departments are prioritizing student athlete wellness overall, realizing the connection between well-being of the individual and success in both sports and academics. Student athletes have much more to juggle than the average high school or college student, and while this may result in athletes being more organized or better leaders later in life, the pressure to perform in the classroom and compete is draining.
While the pandemic brought on many new considerations for physical wellness, awareness of the importance of mental wellness has been on the rise in the past decade as well. The NCAA Sport Science Institute states they believe that mental health is a part of, not apart from, athlete health. It’s also no secret that the pandemic has shifted more than hygiene practices and training environments as anxiety and depression have increased among student-athletes. So as a coach, athletic administrator, or parent, have you considered supporting student athlete wellness through nutrition offerings?
How Nutrition Knowledge and Resources Benefit Student Athlete Wellness
Truly addressing health and wellness requires a holistic approach, meaning all areas of wellness are considered. The impact of food and nutrient intake and timing for athletes can impact each area of wellness including physical, emotional, intellectual, occupational (as a student), social, and financial facets. Nutrition practices throughout the day and surrounding training are likely to enhance or harm other aspects of a student athlete’s life including focus in the classroom, sleep, relationships, and more.
Read on for a better understanding of how food and beverage intake impacts student athlete wellness in big ways.
Nutrition and Mental Well-Being
Adequate energy and nutrient intake as well as appropriate nutrient timing can make a big difference in mental well-being day to day, especially for student athletes. Both intentional and inadvertent low calorie intake are linked to depression and mood disturbances. Plus, blood sugar and hormonal responses to skipping meals and snacks or eating poorly balanced snacks, can result in heightened states of stress, anxiety, or just low productivity.
While nutrition itself is not a solution for more serious (yet common) mental health disorders including, but not limited to, anxiety and depression, certain nutrients and eating patterns as well as gut health, have been linked to lower depression scores and improved mood.
With all of the pressures related to performance, it is also common for student athletes to have a heightened risk for poor body image, disordered eating, and even eating disorders. Emotional eating and dietary restriction can result. With knowledge of performance nutrition, eating disorder pathology and the culture of athletic environments, sports dietitians are well equipped to help reduce the shame athletes feel in relation to their body’s and lead them to better coping mechanisms as well as more adequate fueling.
It’s important that all athletes on campus have access to similar performance nutrition education and resources to successfully shift the fueling culture on campus, so that student athletes can support one another in their nutrition goals for mental health and performance, too.
Nutrition and Physical Performance
Most athletes feel better when they perform better, so it’s no secret that optimizing student athlete performance contributes to enhancing student athlete wellness. When student athletes fuel well, they feel well during training and competition. While knowledge of accurate sports nutrition practices as well as appropriate resources on performance nutrition are available, athletes can certainly optimize their training sessions and recovery, leading to increased physical adaptations and confidence in their abilities for when they compete.
On top of optimizing regular training though, having sports nutrition services available to student athletes may help them better maintain adequate nutrition and therefore muscle mass, strength and endurance, when unexpected life events occur. This holds true whether athletes are dealing with injury, short or long term illness, or even altering training due to a pandemic. Confidence in fueling and maintenance of strength may make these times less stressful and result in a more confident athlete when they return to play.
Nutrition for Academic Success
Student-Athletes should be students first, and often, under-fueling can get in the way of academic success. With demanding training programs and busy schedules, it’s hard for athletes to fit in adequate and balanced meals and snacks at the right times without proper guidance. This can leave athletes feeling overly fatigued, leading to poor attention in the classroom or while studying and even skipping classes and study groups to fit in an extra nap.
For example, knowledge of the importance of carbohydrate to fuel exercising muscles and the brain can help student athletes prioritize high quality sources of this nutrient at appropriate times to optimize energy levels. Having a sports dietitian aid in strategizing a fueling plan for their unique schedule can mean less blood sugar fluctuations or mood disturbances, and a better ability to focus and be successful in school, not just sports.
The Immunity-Nutrition Connection
Immune system function plays a great role in support of student athlete wellness both physically and mentally. By helping to prevent illness and support optimal recovery, we not only allow athletes to train at higher intensities and better stick to their programs, but we also allow them to feel more confident that they’re prepared to be their best while competing.
Well before doctors agreed to standardize vitamin D testing through the pandemic, sports dietitians like ourselves were pushing athletes and athletic departments to pay attention to these lab values and prioritize foods and supplements to support adequate levels. We’ve also been advocating support of gut health through prebiotic and probiotic foods for over a decade knowing the role of the gut in immune function. On top of specific nutrients and gut bacteria, immune system function as a student athlete depends on eating enough total calories, timing of nutrient intake, hydration, vitamins and minerals, and more.
Benefits of Sports Dietitians for Student Athlete Wellness
Sports dietitians are uniquely qualified to work with student athletes versus other dietitians on campus. Food service, wellness center, and academic dietitians all have a niche already, and expecting them to also understand the nuances of nutrition for performance as well as the culture of sport and sport psychology is too much. Sports dietitians have the knowledge and experience to better connect with and be more empathetic toward athletes due to a more personal and better understanding of the circumstances student athletes face versus others on campus.
While many sports dietitians were student athletes themselves, all are accustomed student athlete’s lives, understanding the difficulties of fitting in practice and competition with classes, studying, clubs and volunteer work. We’re uniquely qualified in that we help students design their fueling plans to actually work with their schedules. A detailed plan helps athletes feel more confident and less stressed about food choices.
If a program’s budget doesn’t allow for sports dietitians to work with all teams they can, at the very least, present to all coaches, strength coaches, and athletic training staff so that all of these critical members of their team are on the same page with nutrition recommendations. Consultant sports dietitians can also review supplement protocols and fueling stations, or work with campus food service to provide additional help and resources. Reach out to us if you’d like our downloadable resources to be available to your organization.
Measuring ROI of Sports Nutrition Services
In a small survey we conducted on our own, over 60 current and former collegiate athletes in various sports and from various colleges, responded to the following question.
Did/do you ever feel that your nutrition and health as an athlete was undermined or not seen as important, whether this feeling came from coaches, trainers, parents or teammates?
As you can see via the graph below, roughly ⅔ of respondents felt their health and nutrition goals were not supported. Asking your student athletes similar questions and seeing results that they feel you value their health can offer peace of mind that they feel cared for and supported – which indicate a better ability to handle struggles with mental health.
When working with your team or organization, we can help you administer surveys before and after nutrition services are provided so you can see how the content and resources positively influence your student athletes.
Furthermore, you may consider how availability of nutrition services might impact success with recruiting, as more students and their parents are recognizing the value in performance nutrition services. When athletes are moving away from home for the first time, there may be a big difference in food accessibility and availability of preferred foods. This can take an emotional toll. Highlighting an emphasis on nutrition to recruits can be a game changer for both them and their parents, who are often very concerned about food quality and availability on campus when considering colleges.
If you’re ready to support enhance student athlete wellness and success by prioritizing nutrition, check out our free and low-cost resources and explore the services we provide. We’d love to create customized performance nutrition solutions to support the needs of student athletes in your unique environment.