locker room

Eating to Win

UB Sports Nutrition teaches student-athletes what food can do for their form

UB Sports Nutrition Associate Director Natalie Robertello (right) consults with cross-country runner Rachel Barich at Alumni Arena.

By David J. Hill

Rachel Barich didn’t always have a positive relationship with food. In high school, she suffered from disordered eating behaviors, starving her body of many of the nutrients needed to fuel her cross-country and track and field workouts.

She could still compete at a high level—for high school. But Barich’s body couldn’t handle the increased intensity and duration of the training regimen of an NCAA Division I athlete, and she suffered a stress fracture in her tibia her freshman season at UB.

Though the injury sidelined Barich for a few months, it had a silver lining: It led her to the UB Sports Nutrition staff, who helped her understand how important proper eating is for an athlete. Now, Barich scans the dining hall menus each day to plan her meals in advance, sprinkles in energy-packed snacks between practice and class, and, most importantly, doesn’t fear food. “They helped me realize food is my friend,” says the junior nutritional science major from Ontario.

Barich’s story isn’t unique. “The No. 1 thing we see is athletes not eating enough calories,” says Natalie Robertello (MS ’12, BS ’11), associate director of UB Sports Nutrition. Since forming in 2012, the program, under Director Peter Horvath, has helped hundreds of student-athletes achieve their potential through a combination of individual counseling, group meetings and drop-in office hours.

Division I athletes are so physically fit that they often fail to see the difference proper nutrition can make—until they discover it firsthand. “Many of them don’t realize it can give them that competitive edge,” says Robertello. “Once they find out, they always want more information.”

To better prepare incoming freshman athletes, UB Sports Nutrition now leads a section on diet as part of Fundamental Academic Skills Training (FAST), a six-week summer program that helps incoming freshman athletes adjust to college life. “We encourage them to ‘eat the rainbow,’ which means consuming a variety of foods, and not to go long periods of time without eating,” says Horvath.

Horvath’s staff, conscious that they’re setting these students up for a lifelong approach to diet, shy away from phrases like “bad food” and “cheat meals.” “Part of what we do is set them up for success once their activity levels drop after college,” Horvath explains. “We don’t want to set up a mentality of guilt about food. All food is good.”

Of course, some foods are better than others. Fried, fatty fare like chicken wings will have a discernible effect on an athlete’s performance. “What I eat today will impact my run tomorrow,” Barich says.

For many athletes, it’s crucial to maintain levels of glycogen, a sugar in the body that provides fuel for vigorous activity. Depleted glycogen levels result in fatigue—it’s often called “bonking”— and also can break down muscle tissue. For other athletes, too much glycogen can be a bad thing. “High glycogen storage is negative for weight-aesthetic sports like wrestling and diving. It adds a lot of puffiness,” Horvath explains.

That’s why diets vary by, and even within, sports.

Still, the worst thing athletes can do is to not consume enough calories for the amount of energy they’re expending. That was problematic for Barich, who had little time to prepare big meals. But Robertello showed her simple ways she could add more calories to her day with minimal preparation. “After my injury, I started bringing snacks with me so I could go from my run to the weight room without chomping off someone’s head from ‘hanger,’” says Barich, who favors peanut butter and banana sandwiches, fresh fruit and trail mix.

Sports nutrition has made all the difference for Barich, who met with Robertello two to four times a month while recovering from her injury. It even inspired her goal of becoming a registered dietitian. “It’s all about balance and knowing your body,” she says, “without compromising the joy of eating.”

Myth vs. Fact:

Myth: You need huge amounts of protein to maintain muscle mass.
Fact: Protein helps, but you don’t need to go overboard with it, and it doesn’t have to come from animal-based sources, either.

Myth: Sports beverages, like Gatorade, are your best option to drink before, during or after a workout.
Fact: 
These are helpful 60 to 90 minutes after a workout, but otherwise, water is your best option.

Myth: You should carbo-load with a huge pasta dinner the night before a race or game.
Fact: This can result in an unhealthy spike in blood sugar. Plus, if you haven’t eaten enough carbohydrates in the days leading up to an event, the big pasta dinner won’t do anything to help restore that deficit.

Myth: Supplements are safe to take, particularly herbal supplements, because they’re “natural.”
Fact: Sports supplements aren’t safe. Period.