Sports nutrition emphasized for Michigan State varsity athletes
Eating right matters, especially for Spartan varsity athletes. However, being in college doesn’t always lend itself to smart and healthy meals. Until now.
EAST LANSING – It’s not a secret that college students aren’t the best at eating healthy. Their daily diet consists of some cold pizza on the way to class, some coffee or an energy drink for lunch and fast food for dinner before heading out to the bars.
It’s no wonder that they may feel sluggish all the time.
The athletes on campus don’t have that privilege. Instead of treating their bodies like a 1990s sedan, they need to have it running like a brand new sports car. To do that, athletes must track their nutrition rigorously and hold themselves accountable when it comes to their food intake..
There is a Performance Nutrition team at Michigan State Athletics that helps athletes fuel their bodies, and also learn the best ways to stay healthy. Rob Masterson is the leader, serving as the director of Performance Nutrition.
Despite his degrees and title, he doesn’t want to only be known as a dietician. He wants to be a resource and mentor to the nearly 900 MSU athletes under his care.
“I always say that I’m a health advocate,” Masterson said. “I’m here to guide, make suggestions and to educate. I’m not here to dictate to an individual what they can and cannot do, or what they should or should not do.”
Masterson said that it’s the athletes themselves, not him and his staff, who decide the path that they take when it comes to their nutrition. He feels the best he can do is help them understand the benefits of a healthy diet, and encourage them to take the steps best for them.
It can be hard for certain athletes, especially freshmen, to make these adjustments. Some haven’t built the proper fueling habits to prepare for workouts and then recovery; some are just picky eaters or have allergies. But the decision to take care of their bodies is one they must make on their own.
This isn’t an easy process, like anything else, mastering nutrition takes time and effort.
“They didn’t become the elite athletes they are overnight and their nutrition isn’t going to change overnight either, it takes time, it takes dedication, and that progress is never linear,” Masterson said. “The programming that we’ve put together for our student athletes really does emphasize the importance of learning those nutritional skills, which are life skills.”
These nutritional skills can vary depending on the age and experience of the athlete. It could mean adjusting to the dining halls or learning how to shop at the grocery store and meal prep.
Lianna Hadden is the assistant director of Performance Nutrition and a former athletic trainer at MSU. She says it’s a give and take process to get to know the athletes and best assist them.
“Everybody’s different, so usually I try to find their personality and things that I know that they like,” Hadden said. “If an athlete has told me that it’s O.K. to talk to coaches or staff, then I might even reach out to the coaches and just kind of find out what they’re like or where they might see some benefits.”
Once they know the athlete better, like their preferences and goals, the team uses technology to now design individual meal plans. The process, which used to take hours or even days of manual effort, now can happen for each athlete within minutes. At MSU, the athletes can use an app such as Healthie or Notemeal to track their diets.
Healthie is an electronic health record and nutrition-focused platform which helps track the nutrition of the athletes. Notemeal allows the athlete to take pictures of their food or enter items individually. This can give the dietitians a better look understanding of the types of nutrients the athlete is taking in and maybe more importantly, when they are eating..
The nutrients that most dietitians are looking for in the athletes’ diets are macronutrients such as carbs, proteins and healthy fats, but also micronutrients like vitamins or minerals that will be important to the athlete’s performance.
It’s all about meeting the athlete where they are in their journey. An athlete’s micronutrient intake can’t be broken down if they aren’t getting a proper caloric intake, which is a baseline that can vary depending on body composition and sport.
Masterson said once an athlete can get to the point where they are eating three square meals a day with snacks in-between, then a more complex breakdown can take place to make those meals more productive.
When it comes to an athlete wanting to gain weight or lean out, the team tries not to speak in terms of pounds but in terms of mass and how that gain or loss can become productive in helping them become stronger. Hadden said that there are no specific weight requirements, as long as the performance is where it needs to be.
“No matter what, we’re always going to deal with it in terms of performance,” Hadden said. “At the end of the day, if the athlete is able to perform at a really high, exceptional level, it doesn’t matter how much they weigh as long as they are performing and are able to recover and feel good.”
None of the dietitians at MSU said they are going to force the athletes to do anything they are uncomfortable with, especially when it comes to weight. That does nobody any favors.
Masterson said that even though tracking weight and body composition can be useful, it can sometimes do more harm than good.
“We talk about disordered eating or eating disorders and having a level of tracking and rigidity within your intake and understanding nutrition can sometimes also be a detriment,” Masterson said. “It’s very important for us as health advocates to assess every person as an individual and see where they’re at and what we feel is appropriate for them and then move forward from that and make sure the athlete’s on the same page.”
It’s also important not to overwhelm the athlete with too much change all at once. Hadden said whenever she begins talking with an athlete, she doesn’t mention nutrition..
“Initially when we meet, sometimes it’s literally just establishing a relationship,” Hadden said. “We don’t always even talk about food right away, we kind of just figure out who they are and what makes them tick and things that they like to do, where they see themselves on the team and some of their team goals.”
Hadden then tries to challenge the athlete a little bit more by way of the “1% goal.” She knows that if she gave an athlete a long plan with a lot of steps, they would probably ignore it completely, so she presents it as getting better each day, 1% at a time.
“I go, ‘O.K., if you could be 1% better, would you be willing to make the change and what are you willing to do for that 1%?’” Hadden said. “If we do 1%, maybe we do that 1%, 5 to 10 times, what would you think about being 10% better?”
The 1% could be as simple as drinking an extra glass of water or taking snacks with them to eat between classes.
“I usually just find a way that I can add something simple initially that they can take on as a small habit,” Hadden said. “When they start doing that, then it’s usually easier for me to add another small thing so that over the course of maybe, eight weeks, we’ve now added five small things and they really start to notice some of the changes.”