What nutrition benefits (top) athletes?

The Olympics are well underway. Athletes follow demanding training programmes to deliver world-class results. This includes nutrition. ‘Good nutrition is essential to getting the best out of yourself’, says Marco Mensink, nutrition, sports, and exercise researcher at the Human Nutrition and Health department.

What is the value of nutrition for (top) athletes?

‘Nutrition is a basic prerequisite for athletic performance. One of my favourite quotes in this respect is that of Professor Ron Maughan. He says: “A good diet will not make a mediocre athlete into a champion, but poor food choices can turn a potential champion into a mediocre athlete.” In other words, regardless of your genetic predisposition and rigorous training, if you fail to follow a proper diet, you will not be able to perform at peak level.’

What does nutrition for athletes entail?

‘We study nutrition at three different levels, much like a pyramid. The foundation is the basic nutrition, the food pyramid. This is the same for everyone, regardless of whether you are an athlete or not. To train and perform, you must adhere to a healthy and varied diet. In addition, we study what nutrition might improve athletic performance. What should an athlete do in the period leading up to the competition to enhance training results and performance and expedite recovery?

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Lastly, at the top of the pyramid, we study the effect of performance-enhancing supplements. Athletes require certain foodstuffs in high quantities at a specific moment, something that regular nutrition cannot provide. Certain supplements are known to enhance athletes’ performance. Caffeine, for example, can somewhat dampen pain and exhaustion, enabling an athlete to perform slightly longer.’

What discoveries have you made in this domain?

‘We have conducted extensive research on the role of proteins. Proteins are mainly associated with strength training, as proteins are a key ingredient for muscle growth. However, our research shows that endurance athletes, such as cyclists, also benefit from extra proteins. Proteins drive many of our body’s processes. Endurance athletes’ bodies contain more functional proteins, which, for example, enhance the muscles’ ability to absorb and use oxygen.

We also studied the role of carbohydrates. Low-carbohydrate nutrition, such as a paleo or ketogenic diet, is all the rage among athletes. The underlying assumption is that it increases the efficiency of fat metabolism. Fat is a lasting fuel, which comes in handy during extensive training. Our research, however, did not show this to offer a significant advantage. Worse, there are indications of an adverse effect. Carbohydrates are still the subject of heated debate within the world of sports.’

Wat onderzoeken jullie momenteel?

‘Within the Eat2Move consortium, we collaborate with Papendal Sports Centre to develop a “fit food meter”. We seek parameters that can easily be measured in top athletes and that trainers can then use to adjust training schedules and diets. In collaboration with the Ziekenhuis Gelderse Vallei (Gelderse Vallei hospital, ZGV) clinical-chemical lab, we developed a  Nutrition Profile for athletes. To this end, substances such as iron and vitamins in the athlete’s blood are recorded. The athlete completes a questionnaire on their diet. This information is then merged, leading to tailored nutrition recommendations for the athlete. We aim to develop a dashboard that provides an overview of nutritional status and other parameters, such as blood markers indicating muscle damage. If this data is linked to training data, it may enable one to analyse how training may be optimised and adjusted.

We aim to develop a dashboard that provides an overview of nutritional status and other parameters, such as blood markers indicating muscle damage.
Marco Mensink

We also collaborate with SportsValley, Ziekenhuis Gelderse Vallei’s sports medicine department in research on the prevention and recovery of tendon injuries. Tendon injuries are a leading cause for people to give up exercising. There is still much uncertainty on the role of nutrition in the development, treatment and prevention of tendon injuries. Previous research included experiments with collagen and gelatin. As tendons contain these animal proteins, they were thought to play a role in the recovery, or even prevention, of injuries. In this study, we adopt a broader perspective: are certain foodstuffs related to tendon injuries, and, more to the point, how can they help cure these injuries?’

What would you advise students interested in this topic?

‘We have a specific track for sports and nutrition, but you can also follow the course Nutrition and Sports within the master’s Nutrition and Health. Students frequently opt for a thesis on this topic. Several of my former students are currently employed as nutrition experts for top athletes. We also offer a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course ed.)  on Nutrition Exercise and Sports. The course is popular and is among the ‘best online course of all time’ according to class central. You must, however, bear in mind that we do not offer a programme in dietetics. We focus on learning what happens during exertion and how nutrition affects this. But what exactly should be on your menu is typically the expertise of a dietician.’

What is your perspective on the future of nutrition and sports?

‘I see that the knowledge we gain is increasingly applied to other fields. For example, the domain of geriatrics and hospital care. The elderly are often affected by muscle degeneration. They, too, benefit from supplementary protein intake and (strength) training. It is becoming increasingly commonplace to require patients scheduled for hip or knee surgery to follow a training programme for several weeks in preparation for the surgery. If your muscles function properly before the surgery, this expedites recovery. Another trend is personalised nutrition—advice tailored at an individual level. And in the case of athletes, for specific moments. Suppose you are doing strength training on a particular day. In that case, your menu differs from when you do a recovery training or an extensive endurance training.’