Nutrition education aims to enhance knowledge and improve dietary intake in athletes. Understanding athletes’ nutrition knowledge and its influence on dietary intake will inform nutrition-education programs in this population.
A strong evidence base supports optimal dietary strategies to enhance athletic performance.
However, the diets of athletes are often reported to be nutritionally inadequate compared with sport nutrition and general population recommendations.
Athlete nutrition-education programs usually aim to rectify dietary inadequacies and promote optimal health and athletic performance by furthering sound knowledge in general and sport-nutrition-specific areas. Education may be delivered by a variety of providers including coaches and strength and conditioning trainers, sport dietitians, nutritionists, sport scientists, and medical practitioners.
Athletes also obtain information from a variety of other sources including school or tertiary-education programs, books, sport-specific magazines, mass media, and increasingly, the Internet.
Even at the elite level, nutrition education programs for athletes may be predominantly coach driven and reactive, with depth and frequency of intervention influenced by financial constraints. In contrast to education programs in other areas of nutrition, evaluation of athlete nutrition-education programs is rarely reported.
Nutrition-education programs are often based on the premise that “superior nutrition knowledge may translate into better dietary intake”.
Few studies have investigated the relationship between nutrition knowledge and dietary intake in athletes… one qualitative study using focus groups of elite Australian athletes identified a number of factors other than education as important influencers of food intake, particularly time constraints for shopping and preparing food, physique concerns, and food-security issues. In fact, athletes in that sample who had varying degrees of access to nutrition education through the general community and sports institute support mostly indicated that the major challenge for eating well came from applying (rather than possessing) knowledge and overcoming some of the previously mentioned barriers.
Assessment of athletes’ nutrition knowledge and the impact of nutrition education on their dietary behavior is important for the development of effective athlete nutrition-education programs.
The level of general and sport-specific nutrition knowledge of athletes has been a popular question for researchers.
Because of wide variability in all studies, instruments used, sport disciplines, athletic caliber of participants and diversity, it is not possible to comprehensively describe the level of nutrition knowledge, consistently identify areas of strength or weakness in the athlete samples, or determine whether nutrition knowledge is differential to nonathletes.
There is some evidence in the articles I red that nutrition knowledge may be higher in tertiary-educated or elite-level athletes and in female than male athletes. Sport-nutrition-specific knowledge may be higher in athletes than their nonathlete counterparts. These conclusions are drawn primarily from the studies I red and require confirmation using studies and populations that are well defined and designed.
As with nutrition knowledge, the limited amount of literature and wide variation in sample characteristics and methodology meant it’s not possible to determine whether healthier or more optimal dietary intake is associated with level of nutrition knowledge.
Assessment of dietary intake and behavior is complex and challenging. In athletic populations, intake and behavior are complicated by the need to meet requirements that are sport specific. Generally, the requirements increase predominantly for macronutrients with exceptions in certain groups such as endurance athletes, who may have higher requirements for iron, and female athletes with amenorrhea, who may require additional Calcium.
Because athletes consume more food to satisfy higher energy requirements than sedentary populations, they should consequently consume a greater proportion of nutrients contributing to nutrient reference targets. Tools used to assess nutrient intake and diet quality in sedentary populations may be confounded by the higher energy intake in athletes, and this is particularly the case when the diet quality of athletes is compared with sedentary counterparts or comparison of athlete groups at the extremes of energy intake. Athletes consuming high food volumes may meet nutrient targets more easily because of greater energy, not superior diet quality or nutrient density.
Choice of an appropriate diet-assessment tool is more difficult for athletes because of complicated issues including wide variation in energy intake, poor skills in portion estimation, and consumption of specific sport foods.
This review provides weak evidence suggesting that athletes have similar general but potentially greater sport nutrition knowledge than nonathletes. General nutrition knowledge may be higher in females than males and be greater in elite-level athletes and those who have a tertiary education, but these findings need to be confirmed in larger samples using acceptable measures in well-described populations of athletes and matched controls.
Studies measuring nutrition knowledge should collect and report demographic information including age, gender, socio-economic status, level of education and specific exposure or learning in the area of nutrition.
Type of sport is also likely important, with a potential influence of physique-focused sports on nutrition knowledge.
Assessment of nutrition knowledge and its impact on dietary intake is important for the development and evaluation of nutrition education for athletes.
Validated nutrition-knowledge tools will help practitioners assess this in the athlete populations with which they work and also track the effectiveness of interventions. The availability of consensus statements on nutrition for sports or athletic performance provides a foundation for the development of nutrition-knowledge
instruments that are consistent with expert opinion.
- Abood, D.A., Black, D.R., Birnbaum, R.D., (2004), Nutrition Education intervention for college female athletes. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior;
- Axelson, M.L., Brinberg, D., (1992), The measurement and conceptualization of nutrition knowledge. Journal of Nutrition Education;
- Corley, G., Demarest-Litchford, M., Bazzarre, T.L., (1990), Nutrition knowledge and dietary practices of college coaches. Journal of the American Dietetic Association;
- Hamilton, G.J., Thompson, C.D., Hopkins, W.G., (1994), Nutrition knowledge of elite distance runners. New Zeeland Journal of Sports Medicine;
- Human Kinetics, (2011), International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism;
- Magkos, F., Yannakoulia, M., (2003), Methodology of dietary assessment in athletes: Concepts and pitfalls. Curent Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care;
- Shifflett, B., Timm, C., Kahanov, L., (2002), Understanding of athletes’ nutritional needs among athletes, coaches and athletic trainers. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.