Staying Well: an Important Job for Athletes


By Nancy Clark MS, RD, CSSD — As an athlete, you have two jobs. One is to eat wisely to perform well. The other is to stay well: get enough sleep, eat foods that promote good health, live according to your values. Wellness was the focus of the 35th Annual Symposium of the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutrition dietary practice group ( of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ( Here are some highlights that offer food for thought:

  • Knowledge does not lead to behavior change. According to Dr. Chris Wharton PhD of Arizona State University, people make changes based on their values. For example, those who eat plant-based diets tend to value health and animal rights. They may also express concern about the environment. The question arises: Can we create public health campaigns that focus on values, so that individuals will choose to bike more, waste less food, and choose fewer foods in single-serve plastic wrappers?
  • Eating disorders and disordered eating affects about 60% of female athletes and 30% of male athletes. Yet, these athletes may wait 10 to 15 years to seek help. (“I’m not THAT sick.”) Sometimes they are too ashamed and embarrassed by their inability to just eat normally; other times they might be afraid the treatment plan will deny them the ability to exercise and maintain a lean body. The GOALS Program at Walden Behavioral Care in the Boston-area helps athletes learn how to fuel for performance (as opposed to sabotage their performance by dieting and using unhelpful weight management techniques). During the 8-week treatment program (3 nights a week), disordered eating behaviors decreased—and weight remained relatively stable.
  • Butter is not back. The conclusion of the often-quoted study (Siri-Tarino et al, 2010) should have been “Saturated fat, refined carbs and added sugars are equally bad for risk of heart disease.” By using poly- and mono-unsaturated fat (avocado, nuts, olive oil) instead of saturated fat (butter), the change in total mortality drops by 15-25%
  • The health claims made about coconut oil are misleading and made by marketing gurus using research based on medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, not coconut oil. Coconut oil contains primarily lauric acid, an MCT, but it behaves like a long chain saturated fat in terms of digestion and metabolism. Lauric acid raises bad (LDL) cholesterol, inflammation, coagulation and insulin resistance. (Eyres. L. 2016). If you want to lower your cholesterol, use coconut oil sparingly! One tablespoon has 13.5 grams saturated fat. Given the recommendation to consume less than 7% of total calories from saturated fat, the limit for a person eating 2,000 calories/day is only 15.5 grams/day of saturated fat.
  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the USA and globally. 70% of people aged 60 to 79 have CVD, as do more than 80% of people over 80 years of age. The good news is functional foods such as blueberries, avocado, beets, and tea can help curb the negative health effects associated with aging. For example, the polyphenols (bio-active compounds) in a daily cup of blueberries can reduce blood pressure, improve blood vessel health, and reduce the risk of CVD.
  • While we have been lead to believe that drinking 1 to 2 glasses of wine can offer positive health benefits, that belief can be questioned. There are 25 alcohol-related diseases, to say nothing of the associations between alcohol and certain cancers, CVD, intestinal issues, unintended injuries from accidents, and intended injuries from suicide. Unless you are among the estimated 35% of Americans who reportedly abstain from alcohol, the least harmful way to include alcohol in a diet is to limit alcohol to to one (women) or two (men) drinks only 3 to 4 times a week (not daily). And be sure that “one drink” is actually just one “standard drink” (6 oz wine, 12 oz beer, 1.5 oz spirits),
  • Lutein (found in egg yolk, spinach, and other dark green and yellow/orange foods) is important for eye health (reduces age-related macular degeneration). What is good for your eyes (lutein) is good for your brain. Adults with normal brain function have three times more lutein than those with cognitive impairment. To easily get the recommended 6 to 10 mg lutein per day from your food, eat avocado, oranges, eggs and spinach.
  • Herbs and spices are known to not only make food taste yummier but also to lower inflammation and joint pain associated with arthritis. For curcumin (a part of turmeric), you need supplements to get an effective dose (~1,000 mg curcumin/day, the amount in ~2 tablespoons turmeric). Ginger has the potential to aid in morning sickness, vertigo nausea, and the pain and disability of osteoarthritis. The dose of 1 gram (1/2 tsp. powered ginger) 2 or 3 times a day is do-able through food. Cinnamon has mixed and modest findings for improving blood glucose levels in individuals with pre-diabetes. One-half teaspoon per day may or may not be helpful.
  • People who overeat often do so mindlessly. One way to be more mindful is to pause before you overeat and think POUR: Pause, Observe (Am I hungry or am I stressed?), Understand (I am stressed and tired) and Respond (I need to take a nap more than I need to eat.). Physical barriers can also helpful save a lot of calories: pre-portion the cereal into appropriate servings and keep them out of sight.
  • We lose sleep by going to bed too late, drinking too much coffee, having sleep apnea and needing to urinate during the night (a normal part of aging). Sleep loss is associated with accidents, increased risk for diabetes and metabolic disorders, weight gain, and hunger (due to increases in the hormone grehlin). Exercise doesn’t protect against he harmful effects of sleep deprivation. Is dragging yourself out of bed in the morning to fit in your workout a wise plan? The goal is to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night to avoid sleep deprivation.
  • To help maintain muscle mass, people (over 40 yo) need to eat enough protein (1.0 to 1.2 g pro/kg/day) and do resistance exercise (lift weights, do push ups) if they want to have quality of life as they age. This strong protein intake will not lead to lose bone mass, kidney failure, or cancer. Rather, it will help them be able to have more fun in the last 10 years of their lives.
  • Research shows that being physically fit is more important than being lean. People who live in large bodies are better off adding on exercise than self-inflicting rigid diets that “backfire.” The pattern of losing weight only to regain it has a negative impact on overall health.
  • What one thing can you do, no matter how small, to begin moving in the direction of the health you desire?


1) Eyres L. et al. “Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans.” Nutr Rev. 74(4):267-80, 2016

Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guide for Soccer offer additional information. Visit For her popular online workshop, see

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