Running on empty: The hidden dangers of poor nutrition advice for athletes

By Olivia Haslam

- Last updated on GMT

© FlamingoImages / GettyImages
© FlamingoImages / GettyImages

Related tags Sports nutrition Sports nutrition sector performance nutrition BDA

Experts warn of short-term performance impact and long-term health risks as new research reveals poor nutrition support for endurance athletes.

A recent study​ published in the journal Nutrients, ​found that intakes of energy, carbohydrates, water, sodium and caffeine were lower than recommended in endurance athletes.

Forty-two triathletes and mountain runners participated in the observational, cross-sectional study, which assessed their consumption of liquids, food and supplements.

The volunteer athletes completed a 'Vi-Half-Gasteiz’ triathlon and the Ultra Sierra de Cazorla trail run in Spain, submitting a validated Nutritional Intake Questionnaire for Endurance Competitions (NIQEC) upon completion.

“Our data suggest the need to instruct endurance athletes to plan competitions at a dietary–nutritional level so that they can previously implement appropriate nutritional strategies,” the authors from Spain wrote. 

“The advice of a nutrition professional, such as a dietitian–nutritionist, will help establish adequate nutritional periodization and gastrointestinal training to successfully compete in competitions and achieve the recommended nutritional requirements.”

Poor nutrition advice

Poor nutrition advice for athletes is a prevalent issue and one that comes with several risks, Dr. Sharon Madigan, head of performance nutrition at Sport Ireland Institute, told NutraIngredients.

Sports nutrition is a ‘grey science’ as it includes not only what athletes consume but also the context in which they eat, which can be nuanced to measure, she explained.

Short-term performance impacts are a significant concern, but Madigan pointed out that long-term health issues pose a substantial worry. 

"We have to remember that health issues are not seen or felt until an athlete presents with sickness and injury," she added. "Our role is to keep athletes aware of impacts to both performance and health."

Running risks​ 

When athletes access nutrition information through unofficial media channels, this creates additional risks. Communication via social media is often directed towards the general public, not professional athletes who undergo extensive training for several hours most days of the week, Madigan explained.  

There is a heightened risk of steering individuals towards dangerous messages when athletes are in sports that come with body pressures. This can lead to disordered eating patterns, posing a substantial impact on both health and performance, she continued, emphasizing the importance of “ensuring that appropriately qualified people are supporting athletes and coaches and trying to ensure that messages and advice are based on context”.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of people in the nutrition space giving advice who have issues themselves with food, and this is impacting the quality and appropriateness of the advice given,” she added.  

SENR

The solution could lie in registers like the Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENR), Alan Kennedy, executive support consultant to the SENR, told NutraIngredients. 

The voluntary register, which is part of the British Dietetic Association (BDA), takes responsibility for developing and maintaining standards of practice and education in the sports nutrition sector, accrediting individuals and endorsing higher education institutes to ensure qualified and skilled practitioners.

The three registration categories (Graduate Registration, Practitioner Registration and Academic Associate Registration) are designed to offer support for ongoing professional development. 

The register is not statutory and will not be as long as ‘sports nutritionist’ remains an unprotected title, unlike ‘dietitian’ which holds legal status, Kennedy explained. 

But while legally entitled to practice without being registered, it is increasingly important for sports nutritionists to join the SENR, as it both safeguards the practitioner and serves the well-being of clients and athletes they work with.

“Given the complexity of the nutrition field, especially for athletes, misinformation and unreliable advice abound in the public domain," Kennedy said. “To counter this, having qualified, certified, and accredited individuals on dedicated registers is a reliable method of safeguarding against such challenges, and that precisely is what the register provides.”

 

Journal: Nutrients
“Are the Dietary–Nutritional Recommendations Met? Analysis of Intake in Endurance Competitions”
doi: 10.3390/nu16020189
Authors: Rubén Jiménez-Alfagem et al.

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