You won’t find Betsy Middleton at Chick-fil-A during the Gator soccer season.
The junior midfielder on the University of Florida soccer team is not allowed to eat anything that is cream-based or fried during the soccer season. None of her teammates are, either.
The women’s soccer team isn’t the only sports team at a Division I university to restrict its athletes’ diets. Nutrition and proper dieting play a critical role in optimal performance on the field, track or court. However, when athletic programs have restrictions on how many meals they can provide athletes each year, healthy dieting becomes difficult.
Athletes like Middleton at universities across the country are feeling the effects from the inflated food budgets of their schools. The NCAA lifted restrictions last year on meals and dietary supplements that college programs can provide to their athletes.
According to a survey conducted by the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), major college athletic programs have increased their average annual budget for food from $534,000 to more than $1.3 million within the past year. This is an increase of 145 percent.
Middleton said that players are encouraged to eat foods high in protein in order to properly fuel their bodies for competition. She added that during the average week, it sometimes becomes difficult to find foods on campus that are nutritional and meet her dietary needs.
“I am at the fueling station every single day,” Middleton said. “I may come by for breakfast, lunch or for just a snack.”
The fueling station for the soccer team, located by the team’s locker room, provides players with healthy food options such as fruits, deli meats, vegetables, oatmeal, cereals and granola bars at no charge to them. Players are free to stop by at any time of day to have their fill.
When the soccer team travels, there is no price limit to what Middleton can purchase for meals, opening up menu choices and widening the spectrum of healthy alternatives to the fried, fatty foods she must stay away from.
Middleton added that she has learned a lot about nutrition since arriving at UF as a transfer from the University of Miami. It is for individuals like Middleton that the NCAA decided to lift its food budget restrictions, opening a discussion on nutrition for young athletes.
The CPSDA has advocated in the past for decreased restrictions on what college programs feed their athletes. According to the survey, those campaigning for fewer restrictions within the organization based their argument on the importance of balanced nutrition for athletes following workouts, practices and games.
“Schools also have a responsibility to restore athletes’ energy, repair muscle damage and speed recovery,” Amy Freel said in a statement. Freel is the director of sports nutrition at Indiana University and was a moving force behind getting the CPSDA’s position statement on lifting the food ban introduced to the NCAA.
Limitations on meals and dietary supplements in the NCAA were initially established in 1991. The purpose was to restore a “competitive balance” between the schools in Division I athletics.
Feeding all athletes, however, comes with a much higher price tag for universities. The University Athletic Association won’t say where the funding for the extra food came from, but it has given the public an idea of the funding required to meet the new guidelines in its annual report.
According to the 2014-2015 athletic budget, the UAA operates its training and nutrition department at a budgeted expense of $2 million. As a result of the lifted food restrictions in 2015-2016, the operating budget allowed $2.5 million in expenses for the department — an increase of $500,000 in just over a year.
Of the additional $500,000 in expenses, $444,000 was attributed to incidental meals, which are food expenses from travel and team gatherings on the road or in Gainesville. These expenses reflect meals from team events as well. The remainder was used for alternative nutritional purposes, such as dietary supplements or snacks for athletes.
Some nutrition experts at UF believe the removal of these restrictions will improve the overall health of student athletes on campus by taking away the non-nutritional options and replacing them with healthier foods provided by their respective sports programs.
“These students certainly benefit from not having to worry about how to eat well on campus relative to the rest of the student population,” said Kristina von Castel-Roberts, an assistant scientist in the department of human nutrition at UF.
She added that some of her colleagues are conducting research projects aimed at improving general student health through social and peer promotion.
“Even viral learning and outreach peer-to-peer alongside nutrition experts is possible,” she said. “Students can support the efforts of the nutrition team by making healthy food choices when on their own.”
Laura Acosta, a lecturer in dietetics at UF, said that athletes will benefit most from having unhealthy food options eliminated completely.
“Vigorous training programs require deliberate refueling strategies,” Acosta said. “For the athletes that did not have their meals provided before, this meant they were essentially on their own to figure out how to optimize their nutrition for performance.”
One thing that remains steadfast among sports nutritionists is that all athletes can benefit from the help of a licensed professional.
Middleton and her teammates on the soccer team benefit from additional guidance and inquiry into their eating habits.
She said the nutritionist who works with the team reinforces good dieting and staying hydrated. The nutritionist is able to see first-hand what the athletes need and recommend the best strategies for each individual to reach peak performance on the field.
Without a proper fueling strategy, performance may noticeably suffer, Acosta said.
“In a world where a fraction of a second can make the difference between winning and losing, proper nutrition absolutely gives a competitive advantage,” she said.