Olympics focus on sports nutrition

Team USA athletes get a cooking lesson (photo: Team USA)

The London Summer Olympics, which start next week, bring sports nutrition into the spotlight.  Nutrition can certainly make a difference for highly train athletes.  Food and beverages provide fuel to power muscle work, and protein for muscle mass.  In sports that are decided in fractions of a second, such ask sprinting, swimming or bicycling, proper nutrition can give an athlete enough extra edge to win by that razor-thin margin.  In other sports, nutrition is one part of a big picture, where skill and experience are also critical, such as team sports or tennis.  Regardless of the sport, nutrition is important to support training, muscle conditioning and competitive performance.

The US Olympic Committee employs registered dietitians to oversee the athletes’ nutrition.  The emphasis is on food.  According to USOC dietitian Shawn Dolan the women’s volleyball team’s diet is all about foods like oatmeal, yoghurt, eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, smoothies, chocolate milk, vegetables and bananas.  Dietary recommendations are not one-size-fits-all.  Food choices, calorie and protein requirements differ between sports.  Jennifer Gibson, the dietitian who works with weight class sports, establishes a “body weight code of conduct” so that athletes can achieve a healthy competitive body weight without resorting to crash diets, starvation or dehydration.  The USOC has access to lots of high tech equipment to assess body composition and metabolism, tests that aren’t generally available or affordable for the average person.

Despite the high performance demands, special nutrition and sports supplements don’t play a major role in training and fitness at the Olympic level.  According to Jeni Pearce, head of performance nutrition at the English Institute of Sport, the components in real food are not fully understood, so food comes first.  Supplements are only used to complement food if necessary.  Pearce is concerned that occasional athletes and the average person who works out at a gym occasionally have the mistaken impression that special sports supplements and performance drinks will make them fitter.  Over use of such products offers no benefit, and can result in excess intake of certain nutrients, not to mention calories.  You don’t need a special recovery beverage or rehydration drink after a half-hour gym workout.

Another potential problem for Olympic or professional athletes taking supplements is contamination.  No one wants to win an event only to be disqualified because that special so-called performance enhancing “supplement” contained a banned substance.  Supplement manufacturers are not subject to purity and quality standards the way prescription drugs are.  And not knowing your supplement was contaminated is no excuse.  To that end, some companies have set up testing and certification programs.  However, such programs are entirely voluntary.  A certified product will only meet standards of the certifying organization.  Lack of certification doesn’t necessarily mean contamination, but what professional athlete would want to gamble on that?

Team USA will reportedly have the most sports nutrition experts on board of any Olympic team, so as you watch the Games unfold, you can be sure that regardless of the sport, the US athletes have nutrition on their side.

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