Opening the Sport Ireland Institute's annual Performance Nutrition Conference at the National Sports Campus in Dublin, Joe O’Connor, lecturer in exercise physiology and performance nutrition at the Institute of Technology Tralee, Ireland, explained that this year's programme would centre around debunking some of the nutrition myths circulating social media.
He argued that one big issue with social media influencers is that they often aren't doing much, if any, research into the subject they are speaking on.
“Usually even when you think you know everything there is to know about a subject, the more you study, the more you start to doubt yourself as you start to realise there’s a lot you don’t know yet.
“But a lot of social influencers’ confidence is through the roof and that’s problematic because a whole sports team can be influenced by one post or one tweet and can cause others to doubt themselves.
“As health professionals you know not to give advice in areas you are not licensed to but where are the consequences to influencers giving advice where they shouldn’t?”
Also speaking at the event Dr Giles Warrington, head of the department of physical education and sport sciences at the University of Limerick, Ireland, alluded to the ‘echo chamber’ effect, adding that social media has a dangerous part to play in the ‘band wagon effect’ in which people will share a belief regardless of the evidence.
“If you have a set of beliefs, there’s a tendency you’re drawn towards others that share those beliefs and you can find information online to support just about anything!”
Dr Julia Bone, sports nutritionist at the Sports Institute Northern Ireland, presented her concerns, explaining that there were a lot of misconceptions around the ideal ‘look’ for athletes which have become particularly 'warped' due to social media.
“The reality is that not all athletes look the same and this is an important message to get to our younger athletes in particular – looking a certain way won’t necessarily have a positive impact on performance.
“It’s like British Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey said, ‘if you’ve got that gold medal around your neck no one is going to care what you look like’.”
She explained that many athletes can ‘fall into’ the mentality of assuming that a lighter and leaner body composition is the best for performance.
“It’s not just about percentage body fat. Health is as important as performance because if you are getting sick all the time then you will miss out on training.”
The ‘right’ body composition will be totally dependent on the athlete, their age, gender, sport, position, where they are in their season, and more, Dr Bone added.
The diet for changing body composition
Speaking about the different diets athletes might try using to get to their optimum body composition, Dr Bone said this is ‘an absolute rabbit hole’.
Her first gripe was with the high fat, low carb diet which people say will help a person to lose weight fast. She said this diet may well help reduce the number on the scales in just one week but its unlikely to have impacted the body composititon as hoped.
“If you are on the low carb, high fat diet for five days you will probably loose weight through the loss of water, glycogen and fibre, so essentially you’ve emptied your gut contents.”
She added that those who argue a greater calorie deficit will lead to greater weight loss may not be giving the smartest advice.
“It’s not that simple, because a large calorie deficit leads to the body trying to slow down physical processes like the digestive system, reproductive system, and it can impact bone health and this will also cause the metabolic rate to decrease.”
Body composition assessment
Anyone doing a body composition assessment should be aware of the potential errors within the different techniques available, added Dr Bone.
For example, she pointed out that the results from a DXA machine will vary greatly depending on the brand of machine and whether the user has consumed food or drink or done exercise. Therefor it’s important to always try to use these first thing in the morning when rested and fasted and best not to compare results from different machines.
She said that BIA machines have the same issues and these are so variable in accuracy that they are not recommended by the International Olympic Committee.
Skin folds are a convenient test method to use as they can be done out in the field at pretty much any time of the day, said Dr Bone.
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