Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Investment in collegiate athletic nutrition programs is surging across the country, but is it worth it?
What does it take to be a champion? Most coaches would say something along the lines of hard work or determination, but many are now realizing that champions must not only work hard, but eat well too.
53 NCAA athletics programs have registered dieticians or nutritional specialists among their staff, and some think that they are just as important as any other coach. “We would ultimately love to see sports dietitians elevated to equal status as athletic trainers or strength coaches,” says Randy Bird, the Director of Sports Nutrition for the University of Virginia. Bird explains that every college has a strength coach, but few have full-time nutritionists.
Part of the reason for this gap is money, as nutritionists and food supply can be very expensive for universities. In 1991 the NCAA banned nutritionists and food from being supplied to players by their universities to ensure competitive balance, but since the ban has been lifted, many athletic programs have jumped at the opportunity. Money spent on nutrition jumped from $534,130 in 2014 to $1.308 million in 2015 within the NCAA.
This surge in investment seems drastic, but the effect that nutrition has on athletes themselves is drastic. In endurance sports such as long-distance running, energy levels need to remain high for athletes to stay on track for the whole race. In order to do this many nutritionists will recommend a carbohydrate load in the lead-up to the race. These energy-storing molecules are better at slow releases of energy which last longer than the short burst given by sugar. If athletes are looking to gain or cut weight for sports such as wrestling or boxing, every calorie that enters the body matters, making nutrition critical.
Additionally, the specialization of nutritional programs has mental benefits for the athletes in question. The link between gut health and mental health is strong, as the brain uses 20% of the body’s energy. With that level of intake, the food powering the brain is integral towards mental performance. “Food is information that will upgrade or downgrade our biology with every bite. What makes up our food determines how well our brain & body can carry out its duties. A healthy gut equals a healthy brain,” according to Christie Brooks RD, a member of The Zone’s Wellness Committee.
While not every University has the financial means to invest in nutrition, the benefits remain undeniable. Every NFL team has a registered dietician on staff because better nutrition creates better outcomes on the field. Keeping athletes physically and mentally healthy is imperative for any team that has big goals to achieve.