Fuelling future sports stars

Jo Golding asks the catering industry what impact nutrition education in schools can have on pupils’ experiences with sport, and finds out that for budding sportsmen and women, it can make all the difference

Nutrition education can vary from school to school, in fact, I imagine many of us don’t remember being taught very much of it at all in our school days. While of course vital for those studying food subjects, nutrition education should be for everyone. One key reason for this, and the focus of this feature, is because of the impact it can have on sporting experiences.

Banging the drum, still

I talked to a handful of catering industry experts about the importance of teaching students about nutrition.

Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent, said: “Thirty years ago, at university, I wrote a dissertation on the link between education and nutrition and how a lack in one caused a deficit in the other. It’s hard to believe that today, it’s a drum we’re still having to bang.

“Nutrition should be part of the basic curriculum for all children, wherever they go to school. This is the perfect place to start the journey of understanding the benefits of eating well that will impact a lifetime. You have to spark interest in young children and build on this as they grow older. It’s a long-term approach that is surely the only way to truly tackle all the eating ‘issues’ that, as a society, we’ve unwittingly created in the last 30 plus years.”

Consultant nutritionist at CH&CO Independent Amanda Ursell agrees, saying a ‘basic knowledge of evidence-based nutrition’ is vital, and should continue to progress throughout a child’s school life.

She goes on to say that this education will allow students to decipher fact from false: “It can arm them with the scientific facts about the subject and, in turn, help them to spot and ignore, or at least put into perspective, the plethora of nonsensical advice given by self-appointed ‘experts’, which abound not only in social media, but also in so many areas of the general media.”

Harrison Catering

Another important part of education is finding the right resources. Ursell says: “As well as learning the basics of nutrition science, it’s important to help students know where they can source evidence-based opinion and advice such as the British Dietetic Association evidence-based ‘Fact Sheets’, advice on NHS Choices and from the British Nutrition Foundation website.

“Arming them with this information and complementing this with hands-on learning about food in school gardens and allotments, and healthy preparation and cooking methods in class time and after-school cooking clubs, is one of our best hopes for future-proofing the next generation against so many of the self-inflicted diseases that currently plague large swathes of the population. These include everything from eating disorders, nutritional deficiencies, type 2 diabetes, fallen foot arches and joint problems, heart disease and stroke. The list goes on and on.”

Paul Quinn, health and wellbeing manager for Independents by Sodexo, is also a qualified nutritionist and explains to pupils the science behind nutrition. A large part of this role is helping students dispel myths.

He says: “Increasingly, we are hearing that pupils believe that they need to drink protein shakes to get bigger, or that they shouldn’t eat carbohydrates in the evenings. If we can dispel these myths by helping them understand how the body uses the different food types, it will help them make better food choices which will improve their overall health and wellbeing.”

Myths about sports nutrition

Harrison Catering nutritionist Dr Juliet Gray RD RNutr FAfN busts the top three myths surrounding sports nutrition

Myth 1: Sports gels are the best carbs for sport

Readily absorbed carbohydrates are the best source of instant energy for sports activities but you don’t have to have sports or energy gels for this.

Bananas will also do the job and are also a great source of potassium which is important for muscle activity.

Myth 2: You always need sports drinks for hydration during exercise

Sports drinks are not always necessary, often water is all you need.

Staying hydrated is vital to performing well but unless you are doing high-intensity exercise for more than an hour, water – before, during and after your activity – will do the job.

Some sports drinks can be high in sugars and their acidity means they can be bad for your teeth – eroding tooth enamel.

Myth 3: You need protein supplements to build muscle

Whilst it’s true that you need good quality protein to build and maintain muscle mass for strength, protein supplements such as whey protein can be expensive.

You can also use everyday foods such as milk and eggs. Knock up a quick cheese omelette, scrambled egg and beans on toast, or a good portion of cereal with milk and Greek yoghurt for a protein-packed post-exercise meal or snack.

Eat it within two hours of exercising for optimum effect.

Independents by Sodexo’s new menus will highlight nutritional benefits

Food’s impact on sport performance

So, we know how important nutrition education is, but does it really have an impact on students’ experiences with sport? Could it boost performance, resulting in more wins for the school team?

Ursell says while every student should have an understanding of sports nutrition, it is even more important for those students performing at high levels in sport – something independent schools are renowned for.

She says: “Of course, getting nutrition ‘right’ becomes more important, the more training and the higher the level of performance a student is involved with, but it’s vital to encourage all students to eat and exercise well, as doing so can make physical activity ‘easier’, improve results and increase the enjoyment of sports, for even the least ‘sporty’ pupil.

“When it comes to students taking part in more regular and higher-level training, matches, races and performances, the need to understand sports nutrition becomes more important. It’s vital that a triangle of understanding exists between sports teachers, carers and parents at home and the student themselves.

“This is because eating the right amount of carbohydrate at the right time and understanding the truth about protein and sports drinks can affect training schedules and performance in the activity concerned.”

What Ursell suggests schools do is have a policy in place to set students on the right path. “If a child or teenager is hungry or dehydrated, physical activity is always going to feel harder and less enjoyable compared to when they are well-nourished and hydrated. It’s basic, but it can make a real difference across the whole school if there is a sound policy in place to ensure that before and after games and physical activity, students are encouraged to eat and drink the right foods and drinks at the right times.

“It’s hard to over emphasise the need for a school to have a general and sports nutrition policy in place. And to encourage the buy-in of teachers, pupils and carers, and parents to ensure it is then lived and breathed in day-to-day life in school and in pupils’ home lives too.”

Quinn discusses the usefulness of school dinner menus that highlight nutritional benefits on them. He says: “Understanding the link between nutrition and its impact on performance is at the heart of Independents by Sodexo’s new range of menus. Our nutritional and culinary teams have worked together to create a range of meals that have been carefully designed to help pupils perform at their very best. The dishes will feature throughout the week with accompanying information highlighting their nutritional benefits, which will help pupils choose options that match the demands of their school day.”

When it comes to students taking part in more regular and higher-level training, matches, races and performances, the need to understand sports nutrition becomes more important

CH&CO Independent’s Amanda Ursell says eating well can make physical activity ‘easier’

Budding sportsmen and women

Anna-Maria Holt RD, company dietitian at Pelican Procurement Services, gives her advice to schools with pupils who are looking to go into professional sport in their careers.

“The diet of the elite athlete is meticulously planned and finely tuned to maximise performance and promote quick recovery,” explains Holt. “The reason for this is that the role of nutrition in sports and exercise is well-documented and those competing individually or in a team will usually seek the support of registered sports nutritionists and dietitians to ensure that what they eat is tailored to their needs in order to gain a competitive edge. Sports nutrition in schools should cover key strategies for eating well before, during and after exercise.”

She recognises that for many independent schools, playing competitively is the norm. “In schools where sport and exercise are an important component of the school day, going beyond PE and games on the curriculum, playing competitively is a given as part of the school’s busy fixtures list. In these schools it is vital that schools teach their pupils about nutrition.

Not only does knowledge of sports nutrition help to establish positive eating practices, it will also enable budding sportsmen and women to give their best during matches and sporting events.”

Holt also dispels a common myth about ‘performance-enhancing’ energy drinks: “It isn’t only what pupils eat but what they drink to hydrate which is important. In times where energy drinks are trendy and popular, young people are told through clever advertising that expensive sports drinks are necessary for sporting performance. Research shows that low-fat milk is better than sports drinks at promoting muscle recovery due to the electrolyte and protein content.”

Research shows that low-fat milk is better than sports drinks at promoting muscle recovery due to the electrolyte and protein content

Elite athletes have specific diets to boost performance

Sprinting forward

It is clear that all students should be receiving nutrition education, whether they want to take up sport in their lives after school or not. Education can make sure the record is set straight about certain food myths and reduce future health issues. However, it is those students who are budding sportsmen and women that need this education even more.

When competing, effective nutrition before, during and after games can make a great deal of difference. Looking at the right resources online and not believing everything written on social media, and unfortunately even in the general media, is important. So is communication between teachers, carers and parents, and students. This way, schools can ensure young people today are receiving the most effective nutrition education for them.

Food nutrition resources

British Dietetic Association Food Fact Sheets: www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/home

  NHS: www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well

  The British Nutrition Foundation: www.nutrition.org.uk

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