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Nutrition of Olympic proportions: Advice for athletes

Professor Holly Willis (right, back) with members of the USA Curling Women’s Team, and Exercise and Sport Science student/faculty collaborators.
Professor Holly Willis (right, back) with members of the USA Curling Women’s Team, and Exercise and Sport Science student/faculty collaborators.
Photo by Ashley de los Reyes ’15

It’s top of mind for any Olympic hopeful. What’s the best diet for optimal athletic performance? The short answer is “it depends,” according to Holly Willis, assistant professor of Exercise and Sport Science at St. Catherine University.

“There is no one-size-fits-all. The food we eat interacts with our genes,” says Willis. “So it’s important to experiment and learn what works best for your body.”

A budding partnership with the USA Curling team and St. Kate’s Exercise and Sports Science program is providing athletes insight on performance data and nutrition. Coaches and players from the women’s team recently met with Willis for an initial nutrition talk.

Here are highlights from Willis’ presentation on performance nutrition:

  1. It’s better to eat well throughout the year, than just in the weeks leading up to competition.

    “Eating well all year gives you a metabolic edge when it comes to competition, partly due to the idea that you will maintain healthy, lean muscle tissue all year round,” says Willis.

  2. Track what you eat and which food works well. Willis suggests spending an hour or two in the grocery store making a list of all your favorite healthy options. For the digitally savvy, there are apps like Wunderlist that can help you keep track.

  3. Put yourself in the situation where your best food choice is your easiest food choice. Stock your fridge and pantry with the healthiest choices at eye level.

    “There’s a great deal of research that shows that the first thing you see is what you end up eating. Whether its on the shelf in your pantry, on a menu at a restaurant,” explains Willis. “What that means is that if you open up a cabinet and the first thing you see is cookies, even if you hadn’t intended to eat the cookies, you likely will.”

    Athletes who travel often should purchase “shelf stable” versions of healthy food that can be packed in their luggage. When traveling internationally, check for any regulations about food that may be restricted.

  4. Beware of “health halos” — pretty packaging that implies healthy food. While food packaging and messaging has to be truthful by law, there are lots of implied messages that come through without any words at all.

    “Take a close look at their suggested serving size. Sometimes it’s unrealistic. Who would eat two tablespoons of cereal for a serving?” says Willis. “It’s also wise to look at total carbs versus just the sugar. Starches can mess with your blood sugar levels even more than sugar alone.”

  5. While the best recovery food depends on the individual, a good balance of carbs and protein is still the best bet, and should be eaten within 15 minutes.

    “I’d suggest a 4 to 1 or 3 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein,” says Willis. “As a general rule of thumb, take in a gram of carbs per 2 pounds of body weight.”

Flickr buttonThe USA Curling women’s team also did a blood draw at St. Kate's Health and Wellness Clinic before the talk.

“We’re doing basic blood work — some lipid panels and a cholesterol check. I know the team was concerned with micronutrient content. Vitamin D keeps coming up, but frankly, everybody is vitamin D deficient in Minnesota,” explains Josh Guggenheimer, assistant professor of Exercise and Sport Science.

The team’s Skip (captain), Nina Roth was grateful for the opportunity to establish baseline nutrition scores through the blood work and learn from Willis.

“I look forward to tracking our results. Dr. Holly gave us some good pointers on how we can track our nutrition,” says Roth. “Over the next few weeks I plan on using some of her tactics as we prepare for nationals. It’ll be nice to look back and see how we can improve our nutrition and our performance.”

Related content:

Exercise and Sport Science partners with USA Curling

March 6, 2015 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Education, Faculty, Healthcare