carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Nutritional guidance in high-performance sport

Research published today highlights the challenges that athletes face when adhering to nutritional guidance in high-performance sport.

Meghan Bentley

Meghan Bentley, Lecturer in the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett University and Sports Nutritionist at the English Institute of Sport

Research shows that sports “pre-occupation with body composition” can influence maladaptive dietary behaviours through heighten emotional distress and challenged athlete identity.

Poor nutritional adherence can compromise athlete health and performance. Yet, suboptimal dietary practices are frequently reported within the elite-athlete population, including disordered eating and eating disorders. Socio-cultural research illuminates the pressures athletes feel to achieve a certain body shape and/or size. However, given that disordered eating is prevalent across “lean” and “non-lean” sports, research has called for exploration of the underlying mechanisms which increase athletes’ risk of developing unhealthy eating behaviours in sport.

The most recent paper published by members of the Protecting Sporting Integrity and Welfare (PROSPER) research group at Leeds Beckett University has addressed this call. Led by Meghan Bentley, the team have conducted a comprehensive behavioural analysis exploring the barriers and enablers of nutritional adherence amongst elite-level athletes in high-performance sport, utilising behaviour changing theory, including the Theoretical Domains Framework and the COM-B model.

By listening to the voices of 39 UK based athletes, across six sports, this research has revealed:

  • The high-performance environment has an attentive focus on body composition through routine assessments to monitor athlete “progress” and by body comments made by coaches.
  • Body composition assessments and body comments by coaches become internalised by athletes as they adopt maladaptive dietary practices to regulate emotions and maintain their athletic-identity

Drawing on the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW), recommendations for policy and practice include the need to:

  • Update regulations for sports nutrition profession practice to acknowledge the skills required to support athletes’ emotional wellbeing
  • Educate coaches on the sensitivity of body weight and composition and develop guidelines and implementation strategies for monitoring athletes’ body weight and composition in sport
  • Persuade influential leaders to shift the performance-narrative of high-performance (i.e., environmental restructuring).

By applying a systematic and theoretical behavioural framework, this research informs the design and implementation of an evidence-based intervention which serves to create an environment that enables athletes to adhere to nutritional guidelines and thus protect athletes’ rights to optimal health, wellbeing, and performance.

If you’d like to read more, Psychology of Sport and Exercise have made 50 days' free access to the article via the following link: