Fun with Food Coloring

A look at some of the newest ideas in educating your athletes about sports nutrition (including color-coding their food choices).

By Greg Scholand

Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 14.6, September 2004,

Have you ever thought of your local supermarket as a teaching tool? How about using a restaurant menu or your school’s dining hall to teach nutrition? If you want to provide your athletes with practical guidance on sports nutrition, conducting an annual seminar and hanging up some posters may not be enough.

As the importance of nutrition becomes more pronounced, top athletic departments are finding new and creative ways to teach their athletes about proper eating habits and nutritional choices. The key points? Make nutrition a priority, make it as individualized as possible, and teach your athletes with hands-on methods. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the more innovative ideas that schools are employing to teach athletes about a wide variety of nutritional topics.

When freshman student-athletes arrive on campus, it usually marks their first time living away from home, and the transition to a more independent lifestyle can easily take its toll on their nutritional well-being. This can pose problems for any college student, but the physical demands placed on student-athletes make them particularly vulnerable.

"It’s amazing how many athletes don’t realize just how different it’s going to be. They’re used to having dinner waiting for them when they get home from practice," says Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, LD, Coordinator of Sports Nutrition at the University of Florida. "It’s very different when you suddenly have a busy class schedule and a workout plan and you have to find your own way in a dining hall every day."

Rockwell believes that the best way to prevent athletes from experiencing problems during the transition to college is by introducing nutrition as a priority while they are still getting acclimated to their new lifestyle. At Florida, each incoming athlete is provided with a personalized nutrition consultation that focuses on his or her individual needs and examines preexisting dietary habits.

"We sit down with every athlete and look at their class schedule, their training schedule, and any body goals they have," Rockwell says. "Then we look at what kinds of food they like to eat and where they like to eat, and put everything together into an individualized plan." The personalized plans tell athletes everything from when they should be eating to which types of foods and specific nutrients they should focus on in order to meet their energy needs and accomplish their goals.

To make the individual plans as user-friendly as possible, Rockwell organizes the school’s training table with a special labeling system. "Our various options are labeled with different colored dots, depending on each food’s nutritional content," she explains. "So when I am working with someone individually, I’ll say something like, ‘You should always have two servings of a yellow dot for your protein, and three of a blue dot for your carbohydrates.’ The athlete may choose a different type of food every night, but if they remember to pick two yellow and three blue, they’ll be on the right track. It’s practical, it’s easy, and it’s right in front of them." (See "Reading Dots" below.)

Another important part of Rockwell’s individual consultations involves teaching athletes about compromising between good nutritional choices and personal preferences. "My number-one philosophy is that people have to really like what you’re telling them to eat," she says. "I teach them that, yes, you can still go to a place like Taco Bell if that’s where you want to go, but there are a lot better choices you can make at Taco Bell than what you’re making right now. Or, you can still eat pizza, but you’ve got to eat it in moderation, and at the right time of day, and put the right toppings on it."

The main goal of the individual meetings is to open students’ eyes to the fact that as college athletes, they’ve reached a new level with new expectations for performance—and that previous eating habits may need to be reevaluated. "For kids used to being able to eat whatever they want, having to train a lot harder at this level is a big change," Rockwell says.

By providing personalized guidance that looks specifically at how nutrition can make them better athletes, Rockwell says her student-athletes quickly learn that her advice is something they should take seriously. And she finds that once they start to see their performance improve, athletes often choose to prioritize nutrition on their own.

"I thought when I started doing this that I was going to have to sell people on the fact that what I’m telling them is important," she says. "But when they realize that it’s going to make a difference, they really want to learn."

By the Book
Even if your school has a training table, it’s inevitable that athletes will be on their own at many mealtimes, both on and off campus. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be given guidance in making smart nutritional choices.

At the University of Arizona, for example, Nutrition Counselor Gale Welter, RD, is developing a guidebook that’s devoted to teaching student-athletes how to eat well when they’re on and around the Arizona campus. "There are a lot of great sports-nutrition books out there, but they’re typically aimed at the general population," Welter says. "My goal with this project is to focus on the same nutritional concepts as you’d find in those books, but to present the information in a way that’s specific to our campus and our community."

What she’s developing is an easy-to-use guide that provides basic nutritional information for everything from the entrees at the dining halls and at popular restaurants in town, to the snacks available in dorms and the energy bars athletes eat at the gym. Welter believes the guidebook will be a valuable resource because it will help connect the dots for athletes who understand the balance of nutrients they need to properly fuel their bodies, but may not know how to turn that understanding into actual meal choices.

"Let’s say you’re trying to increase your energy level during long workouts and you know you need more carbohydrates," she says. "I want to be very specific about places you can go and what items you should get there. It will be helpful for athletes to have a reference like that."

A similar idea is already being employed at the University of Nebraska to help student-athletes choose wisely when they’re away from campus. James Harris III, RD, LMNT, Coordinator of Sports Nutrition, provides all Husker athletes with a menu guide offering information on the best—and worst—food choices at many restaurants around campus.

To prepare the guide, he worked with his student assistants in the athletic department to evaluate menus at local restaurants and determine which options were the healthiest, and least healthy, for athletes. They used calorie totals and protein, carbohydrate, and fat content as basic criteria.

To make the information easy for athletes to use, Harris designed his guide using the same labeling system for nutritional content that he uses for all the items at Nebraska’s training table. "We use a ‘stop light’ system. Things that are labeled green are all good choices, yellow means that they are decent choices, and red tells athletes that something is not a very good choice for them," he says. "They can take the guide to the restaurant with them, and it tells them the worst five and the best five choices on the menu, so they’re not on their own having to guess."

"How’s My Plate?"
At the Georgia Institute of Technology, Rob Skinner, MS, RD, CSCS, Director of the Sports Performance Center, believes that one of the best ways to teach sports nutrition is by being hands-on with student-athletes. "I believe in the teachable moment," Skinner says. "The best time to teach athletes about nutrition is when they have food in front of them."

As a result, Skinner and Leah Moore, MS, RD, Georgia Tech’s Sports Dietician, are a regular presence at the school’s training table. They walk through the dining hall and make themselves available to answer athletes’ questions about nutrition and offer advice on how to make the right decisions.

"If someone is there for them to ask, a lot of athletes will come with questions. The one I get most often is, ‘How’s my plate?’" Skinner says. "And that’s my opportunity to tell them how they’re doing, as well as offer some suggestions on how to do even better.

"I’ll always start out with something positive, like, ‘You’ve got a great quality protein in that chicken breast, and you’ve got good fiber and antioxidants in those vegetables,’" he continues. "But then I may also say, ‘I see you’ve only got one glass of fluid on your tray, and I’d like to see at least two glasses at every meal.’ So that’s a teachable moment where I can talk about the importance of hydration at meal times."

Skinner finds that student-athletes don’t always realize how much their nutritional habits can affect their athletic performance, so another teaching resource he offers is individual diet analysis in the form of one- and three-day personal evaluations. To be evaluated, an athlete journals everything that he or she ingests over a given time period, along with compiling a list of his or her physical activity. Skinner says that these records can be a very effective eye-opener for athletes, who may see for the first time that the long gaps between meals sap their energy level, or realize the amount of unwanted extra calories they consume every day in the form of between-meal snacks and beverages.

"Let’s say that by the end of a certain workout they felt really bad—their legs were really heavy and they could barely finish—and they don’t know why," Skinner says. "With the records they kept, we can say to them, ‘See, on the day before that workout, you woke up late and didn’t have breakfast, ate lunch, went to practice, and then went to mandatory study hall where you couldn’t have food, so all you took in that entire day was your lunch and fluids. Is it any surprise that the next day’s workout was tough to get through?’"

Skinner says he knows that the teaching resources offered to Georgia Tech athletes are working, because at the end of their collegiate careers, athletes often show up in his office to ask about planning the transition to life after competitive sports. "They know that in college their eating was geared for their sport, but now that their athletic career is over, they’ll have to gear it for general health and fitness," he says. "They’ll come to us wanting to change things up, and we’ll help them with that, too."

What’s In Store
Since most students live off campus at some point in their college careers, another area where athletes can benefit from sports-nutrition guidance is at the supermarket. "I knew some athletes who would go into the local supermarket and just stand there, not knowing where to begin, because they had never shopped before," says May May Leung, MS, RD, LD/N, a former Sports Nutritionist at the University of Massachusetts who now works as a Nutrition Counselor at the University of Pennsylvania. "They knew they needed to go shopping, but with so many choices and no experience, it was overwhelming."

In response to this need, Leung began organizing supermarket tours to teach UMass athletes how to fill their carts with healthy, performance-enhancing foods. "I believe you can teach a lot more while in the actual shopping environment, as opposed to just telling them in a classroom or a locker room what things to eat," she says. "After going on a tour, the student-athletes were able to go into the supermarket and see things in a totally different way—and they were more confident that they could get what they needed and make the right choices."

On a typical tour, Leung and other UMass nutritionists would meet a team at the local supermarket, divide the athletes into groups of five to seven people, then lead them down each aisle, covering topics like how to choose the healthiest type of bread and how to read a nutritional label. As they walked, athletes could point out foods that they would normally buy, and Leung would go over the nutritional makeup of those items. She also often pointed out foods that were healthier alternatives to what the athletes had been choosing.

Leung says that one benefit of the supermarket tours was that by noticing what types of questions athletes most frequently asked, she could gauge where the most attention should be focused. "For instance, one thing that we usually ended up talking about a lot was the different types of breakfast cereals and how much their nutritional content varies," she says. "A lot of students consume a great deal of cereal, so I’d have them pull out their favorite brand and compare its nutritional content with other brands. It was a great way for them to see how a simple choice like which cereal to buy could affect their nutritional intake."

Leung also used the tours to clear up some misconceptions that athletes had about nutrition. "When we would visit the aisle with the energy bars, they’d show me the ones that they used, and often they were the high-protein bars, which they were eating before practice or competition," she says. "I’d have the chance to explain to them that those bars don’t break down as effectively as high-carbohydrate bars, and that they can cause stomach cramps. I could actually show them right there in the store which bars would be better choices. They knew that was something which could have a big impact on their performance immediately, and I could tell they appreciated it."

In addition to taking the tours, UMass athletes also learned what to do with their groceries once they got them home. They were provided with a cookbook specially designed for college students in need of highly nutritious, performance-enhancing meals that didn’t require a lot of cooking experience to prepare. The book was peppered with nutritional facts and information, and even provided a shopping list of 15 basic items everyone should have in their kitchen.

"With those ingredients, they could prepare just about anything in the book in under 15 minutes," Leung explains. "And they were all the types of foods students like to eat, all made with ingredients that ensure the meals were nutritious and appropriate for athletes."

Talking to the Teams
Although most of the new ideas in nutrition education go beyond the classroom approach, the use of seminars and presentations should certainly not be discarded. However, they should be geared specifically to the student-athlete population. At the University of New Hampshire, Nutrition Educator Suzanne Sonneborn, RD, presents two types of nutrition seminars to every incoming athletes as a part of the orientation process.

Their education begins with a general presentation, with the goal of providing an overview of major concepts in sports nutrition. Sonneborn divides the students into groups by gender, with 100 to 150 athletes in each group, and covers subjects like hydration, disordered eating, losing and gaining weight safely, and the effects of alcohol on the body. Each athlete leaves the presentation with a folder full of handouts summarizing all the topics discussed, as well as information on how to set up an appointment with the school’s nutrition counselor.

Following this general introduction, Sonneborn uses individual team talks to provide more specific nutrition guidance. "The most challenging part of talking to any group of athletes is that they all have such individual needs," she says. "So I’ll always start out my team presentations by focusing on something that is specific to their sport and inviting the student-athletes to ask questions. By asking for the feedback from the athletes up front, they feel like this is not a canned nutrition presentation, and that I’m actually going to fine-tune it for their specific needs."

Another way that Sonneborn makes the presentations as effective as possible is by using visuals to illustrate some of her most important points. "Hydration, for one, is always at the top of my list because I think it’s often overlooked by student-athletes," she says. "I’ll actually line up Nalgene bottles in front of everyone and say, ‘This is how much you need before your match, this is how much you need during, and this is how much you need afterward.’ So they can see it right in front of them—and they love that."

Sonneborn says the only complaint she hears about her presentations is that there isn’t enough time to talk about everything the athletes wanted to learn. But sparking an interest in nutrition leads many athletes to seek out ways to learn more. "We’ve seen a definite increase in referrals for nutrition counseling, which we attribute to the fact that I am doing this type of programming," she says.

Opening the Floodgates
However you choose to make nutrition resources and education available to your student-athletes, sports nutritionists agree that creating the right emphasis is key. Proper nutrition should be presented as a tool that’s just as important as strength training, conditioning, and team practices. Because the more athletes know, the better-equipped they are to make the right choices.

"I think that once you get them interested in nutrition, it really opens the floodgates," says Rockwell. "It’s about creating a culture where it becomes part of the normal routine—you lift weights, you go to the training room, you work on your nutrition."

Reading Dots

At the University of Florida, Coordinator of Sports Nutrition Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, LD, makes choosing the right foods easier for her student-athletes by using a color-coded labeling system at the school’s training table. Each item is labeled with a colored dot, using the following system:

Orange: Vegetables

Blue: High-quality carbohydrates, including starchy vegetables (15g of carbohydrates, 3g of protein, less than 1g of fat, 80 kcals, and at least 2g of fiber).

Purple: Low-quality carbohydrates (15g of carbohydrates, 3g of protein, 5g of fat, low amount of vitamins and minerals).

Green: Lean protein (0-10g of fat per serving).

Yellow: Medium-fat protein (10-20g of fat per serving).

Red: High-fat protein (more than 20g of fat per serving).

Selections at the training table change every day, but each item is always labeled with its appropriate colored dot and any key nutrients it contains. Thus, a typical day’s menu might look like this:

Squash & zucchini: orange
Wheat bread: blue (fiber)
Macaroni & cheese: purple (calcium)
White rice: purple
Lo mein noodles: purple
Spinach & artichoke casserole: purple (antioxidants, iron)
Garlic bread: purple
Teriyaki chicken strips: green (antioxidants)
Beef tips: green (iron)
Lasagna: yellow (iron, antioxidants, calcium)
Fried shrimp: red