While we know proper physical care, coaching, and training are very important for the student athlete, proper nutrition is just as important to the longevity and vitality of an athlete’s performance. SEEN spoke to expert sports nutritionist and author, Marie Spano, regarding the importance of nutrition for the student athlete and how the average person can make healthier lifestyle choices.

SEEN: What is the typical, ideal diet of an athlete?  More fruits and vegetables — less protein? Or high carb diets?

Spano: This totally depends on the athlete. All athletes need a good amount of fruits and vegetables. The colorful compounds in fruits and vegetables protect the plants from diseases and pests and in the body they help protect the body’s tissues from harm. An endurance athlete needs more carbohydrates whereas a power athlete — say a weightlifting competitor — needs a good amount of protein and carbs.

SEEN: How does nutrition enhance a student athlete’s performance?

Spano: Nutrition plays a key role in academic performance by powering the brain. In particular, adequate carbohydrate intake and fluid intake are important for brain functioning. Even mild dehydration can impair academic performance.

SEEN: Obviously, with nutritional changes, there may be some weight changes for the student athlete. Is it better to focus more on the weight gain/loss or on muscle growth?

Spano: For kids below the age of 18, I would rather them focus on performance goals and muscle growth. Focusing solely on weight loss at this age can damage a kid’s long term view of their body. They end up remembering themselves as the “fat kid” and  having to go to Weight Watchers with their mom. Instead, I would rather a child focus on how food affects how they feel, their body in general and their athletic performance.

SEEN: Marie, you were a three-sport collegiate athlete, what preparation did you have (high school, etc.) to make it as a college athlete?

Spano: I outworked many others. Now, looking back I realize there are times I did too much. However, I really wanted to excel and I wanted athletics to pay for my college education.

SEEN: What are some of the challenges in sports nutrition now that you didn’t experience years ago?

Spano: There are many so-called experts who are willing to hand out advice with authority. Yet most of the nutrition information on the Internet or information you hear from others is wrong. It won’t help you and may do more harm than good. Never listen to your friend, neighbor, another athlete, etc. What worked for them may not be right for you. Be wary of those selling supplements. They should not be giving individualized advice either. Go to an expert. Visit a registered dietitian who specializes in the area you are interested in whether it be weight loss, heart health, sports nutrition, etc. There are many nutrition specialties.

SEEN: Outside of diet, what are other health tips you would give a top middle/high school athlete looking to go on and perform on a collegiate level?

Spano: Train with an expert. A person can become a personal trainer by going to a weekend course. This isn’t what you want. Training is vital to good performance and, like nutrition, it is a complex science. Go to a person who has their CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Expert), a wealth of experience and isn’t trying to sell you on the latest fad. Work with an inexperienced strength or speed coach  and you might not make as much progress as possible. Additionally,  you could end up injured. If you want results on the field, you rely on your star players. Likewise, if you want results from your body, rely on the best coaches you can find.

SEEN: What’s some of the most important nutritional information/advice you would give to the coaches/mentors of these star players?

Spano: Refer to a sports nutrition expert — they should have a CSSD credential and years of experience.  Give your athlete the best resources possible for them to succeed. No team can rely on one player alone. Likewise, an athlete needs a good team of coaches around them as well — including a nutrition coach, strength coach, etc.

SEEN: For our educators, and the average person looking to stay healthy during a busy workday, what would you suggest for them in terms of snacking and overall nutrition?

Spano: Here are the top three things everybody should keep in mind:

  1. Eat to fuel your day. I see many adults skipping meals or skimping on meals. Then they end up over hungry and over eating later on. Eat enough earlier in the day and you won’t be starving and apt to make poor choices later. Snacks can help curb hunger so dig in, but choose wisely.
  2. Make your diet plant-based. This does not mean you have to cut out meat, fish and poultry. However, more plants mean more nutrients important for good health. Do this by eating at least a fist of fruit at breakfast and a fist of vegetables at  lunch and dinner.
  3. Choose whole grains and whole plant based starches such as  potatoes. Look for a wide variety of colors. Colors often signify plant-based compounds that protect the plants when they are in the ground and they protect your body from breaking down when you eat them.

SEEN: What do you see on the horizon for sports nutrition?

Spano: I see a greater focus on gut health, the immune system and making changes based on individualized data — whether detailed blood work, the micro biome or genetic markers.  I also see a greater focus on combining nutrition into training data to get a comprehensive picture of how a player is progressing, fatigue and when to alter their training program.

Marie A. Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD, is one of the country’s leading sports nutritionists. She is the sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves. She combines science with practical experience to help Olympic, professional, and recreational athletes implement customized nutritional plans to maximize athletic performance. Spano has appeared on CNN as well as NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS affiliates, and authored hundreds of magazine articles, trade publication articles, book chapters, and marketing materials.A three-sport collegiate athlete, Spano earned her master’s in nutrition from the University of Georgia and her bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (UNCG), where she also ran Division I cross-country.

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