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Coaches lack the appetite to exploit clear link between healthy eating and performance

Avg: 4.36 / 5 (2votes)


With the help of dietitian Vanessa Quarmby, we explore how what you eat can impact how you feel and how well you perform, with some bite-sized portions of nutritional advice that amateur coaches can pass on to their participants.

  • A well-balanced diet is vital to becoming a well-balanced athlete
  • Your brain and stomach are linked
  • Eating foods high in quick absorbing carbohydrates will mean your blood sugar levels see-saw up and down, which will be mirrored by a rise and fall in your mood
  • Vitamins and minerals boost brain function and help us think clearly, improving decision making and problem solving, or, in a training setting, boosting athletes’ capacity for learning
  • Vanessa recommends that half your plate should contain vegetables or salad, with a quarter protein and a quarter carbs
  • Tips to help you control your sugar levels and block some of the detrimental effects of salt.

If only athletes put as much effort and commitment into their dietary habits as they do their training habits.

There is a relationship between physical activity and nutrition that too many coaches either choose to overlook or do not fully understand.

By dedicating themselves exclusively to the former they are letting a glorious opportunity to optimise the performance of their athletes slip through their fingers.

Those coaches who understand that your diet affects the quality of your physical, psychological, emotional and social health, thereby providing the key to unlocking an athlete’s full potential, are indeed a step ahead of the pack.

Coaches should try to persuade their athletes of the importance of being as regimented with their healthy eating as they are with their exercising; that the two processes go hand in hand and that a well-balanced diet is vital to becoming a well-balanced athlete.

Trust me, I’m a dietitian!

A little knowledge can go a long way, but in the world of nutrition – where mixed messages and misconceptions in the media and advertising sectors abound – a little knowledge can also be a dangerous thing.

Which is why, for this feature, we asked the advice of qualified dietitian Vanessa Quarmby, from The Yorkshire Dietitian.

For starters, do you know the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist? Dietitians are trained in the practice of evidence-based research and must pass a degree and complete a clinical placement to become registered with the British Dietetic Association (BDA).

‘Just lust like a doctor, physiotherapist or pharmacist, we have to adhere to a very strict code of conduct,’ says Vanessa.

‘With nutritionists, there is no reassurance regarding the advice you are getting. They could be very well trained, or they could have taken a one-week’s online course.’

Vanessa visited the UK Coaching offices on World Mental Health Day, presenting an eye-opening one-hour session to staff on the impact of what you eat and how it affects your physical and mental health.

As easy as A, B, C, D and E

The ramifications of sticking to a varied well-balanced diet, and the knock-on implications for those engaging in physical activity, are significant.

Let us look first of all at the role of vitamins and minerals.

Low levels of iron in the blood can lead to feelings of weakness, tiredness and lethargy. Not ideal if you are about to compete in a race, play in a match or get the full benefit from a training session.

A shortage of B vitamins in the diet, meanwhile, can have the same impact, and can lead to irritability and feeling depressed.

Vitamins A-E and minerals also boost brain function and help us think clearly, improving on-field decision making and problem solving, or, in a training setting, boosting athletes’ capacity for learning. 

Now we all know cereal contains iron, B vitamins and minerals. And yet how many of us take breakfast on the morning of a match for granted and do not give any thought to the fact that what we eat can have a direct influence on how we perform. 

If I had a pound every time a parent said to me their child had skipped breakfast because they couldn’t get out of bed in time! 

While breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals, unfortunately many also contain copious amounts of sugar.

And did you know that there is as much salt in a bowl of cornflakes as a packet of crisps?

‘You wouldn’t give your kids a packet of crisps for breakfast would you?’ says Vanessa.

There is, however, a hack that maximises the positive benefits of eating a bowl of cereal – or rather, dilutes the negatives, depending on how you look at it: Have a glass of fresh orange juice with your muesli or fruit and fibre.

Vitamin C increases iron absorption,’ explains Vanessa. ‘This is why it makes sense to have a drink of orange at breakfast rather than on its own, outside of meal times.’

Now, a 250ml cup of orange juice contains 25g of sugar (the recommended portion size is 150ml), so, better still, have a whole orange as nature intended and put some extra fibre into your body on top of the high dose of Vitamin C.

The added bonus, says Vanessa, is that the fibre slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.

No sugar-coating truth about sucrose

Sugary drinks and sweets are Vanessa’s nemesis – being a major cause of the nation’s obesity epidemic.

‘If there’s one thing I would change about the nation’s diet it would be to cut back on sugary foods and drinks,’ she says, recommending people drink water with their meals as one simple way to helping them cut their sugar intake.

Ideally, buy ‘no sugar added’ muesli for breakfast as, while this will still contain sugar, it will be in the form of fructose found in the sultanas, raisins, dried apricots etc, rather than added table sugar (sucrose), which has no nutritional value at all.

But don’t worry too much if your athletes tell you they steadfastly refuse to eat cereal without sugar in the morning.

As Vanessa concedes: ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.’ Better children are having a bowl of porridge with one spoonful of sugar than no porridge at all.

One teaspoon holds 4 grams of sugar, one 30g bowl of Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Frosties contains 11g of sugar. You do the maths!

You can always suggest they try weaning themselves off it. If they will only eat porridge or Weetabix with two spoonfuls of sugar, tell them to try and reduce it down to one over time.

There will be people reading this who have successfully weaned themselves off sugar in their tea and coffee and who, on finding someone has accidentally added a spoonful of sugar to their brew out of force of habit, nearly spit it out after taking their first sip.

Advice not to be taken with a pinch of salt

Time to spill the beans on salt and processed food.

There is another hack you can try that minimises the harmful impact salt has on your body – and that can double up as a technique to keep your athletes’ focus razor-sharp.

‘Yes cut back on salty foods because they increase your blood pressure and therefore your risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney problems, but you don’t just have to cut back on the salt,’ says Vanessa. ‘If you increase the fruit and vegetables in your diet then that will help too as fruit and veg contains potassium, which helps to counterbalance the effects of the sodium in salt.

‘Tomatoes, mushrooms and bananas all contain high levels of potassium, which is essential for your whole nervous system, including your brain.’

Processed meat has a high level of sodium, which is added in the manufacturing process. So if your athletes tell you they love sausages, urge them to not exclude the tomatoes and mushrooms.

Simply put, knowing what foods to eat will impact directly on an athlete’s physical (endurance, strength, sharpness) and mental state of mind (mood, alertness, the ability to think clearly).

The advice from the BDA is that, as a rule, ‘plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereal foods, with some protein foods, including oily fish, will support a good supply of nutrients for both good health and good mood.’

Following it could add years to your life. ‘There is no doubt that a Mediterranean diet of olive oil, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, pulses and fish will increase your longevity,’ adds Vanessa.

Controlling the highs and lows

Eating smaller portions regularly will help maintain and stabilise blood sugar levels and prevent you feeling tired and irritable.

Foods like nuts and seeds, oats and wholegrains release energy slowly. So sprinkle nuts on your porridge in the morning for a double whammy, plump for brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholegrain Ryvita crackers, seeded or granary bread, jacket potatoes with their skins on. 

Of course, if you compete in short, explosive events and need to bolt quickly out of the blocks, then glucose in the form of energy bars or isotonic drinks is the way to go. But be warned. 

‘Eat a bar of chocolate and measure your blood sugar. It will go from low to high but, with no fibre, your sugar level will crash back down and you get these peaks and troughs in your blood sugar.’

And as your blood sugar levels see-saw up and down by eating foods high in carbohydrates, so this will be mirrored by a rise and fall in your mood.

Endurance athletes should know all about GI. Not GI Joe or GI Jane, but Glycaemic Index, which is a value assigned to carbohydrate-rich food that indicates how fast it increases a person's blood glucose (blood sugar) level.

‘So if a food has got a high GI your blood sugar will rocket up,’ says Vanessa.

‘Something like porridge, a fibrous food – with the fibre helping to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream – will give you a slower rise in your blood sugar and it will stay lower for longer.’ Ideal for team sports and endurance events, when you need to maintain adequate energy levels throughout a match or a race.

Play the percentage game

Vanessa says the generally accepted view, based on established scientific evidence, is that we should get a third of our energy intake from starchy foods. However, she believes that percentage may have to change with the times.

‘Because two thirds of the population is either overweight or obese and the majority of UK residents live sedentary lifestyles, I think it should be less – unless you live a more active lifestyle. It very much depends on your own particular energy requirements.’

As a broadly accurate guide, she recommends that the equivalent of half your plate should contain vegetables or salad, with a quarter protein and a quarter carbs. You can even buy 'portion plates' from Matalan (pictured) to remind you of the recommendation.


Let us use favourite British dish spaghetti bolognaise as an example of how we are currently getting things completely out of balance.

We will typically cover the plate with spaghetti then pile lots of meat and sauce on top. Things aren’t helped by the fact we use a jar of ready-made sauce containing high levels of added sugar mixed with a few meagre tomatoes and a few stingy shavings of onion.

‘When I make spaghetti bolognaise I always put lentils in – because they are a low fat source of protein and fibre – tinned tomatoes, fresh onions, mushrooms, peppers, garlic. I pad out the sauce with vegetables but still keep the meat because that is an important source of iron. And remember that your five a day doesn’t have to be just fresh fruit and veg. Tinned, frozen, dried or juice all count.’

In a nutshell, it is a matter of making a series of small steps that lead to big strides over time.

So on your next trip to the fish shop, remember to order a large portion of mushy peas too. You could share one portion of chips rather than order a portion each and, even better, take off the batter on your fish. You will then effectively be eating steamed fish with your peas and a few chips.

Food for thought

Just a few tiny morsels of practical advice on what is a vast topic, of which one blog can barely begin to scratch the surface.

Of course, no coach wants to suck the fun out of sessions and risk earning a reputation as a spoilsport by encouraging their athletes to live a completely abstemious life.

But hopefully the advice will have contributed to your five a day – pieces of essential advice that is – to persuade you of the profound power of food to affect people’s physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing. It should at least give your athletes something to chew over.

Do you urge your athletes to pay attention to what they eat? Do you believe basic dietary advice should be part of a coach’s role? Please let us know by leaving a comment.

Further reading:

If you want more dietary advice you can trust, feast your eyes on my blog with Team GB’s Head Nutritionist.

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Comments (7)


A good article, I would be interested in finding out.hoe many coaches do give advice. I know we have in the past to some rec classes, but who does it regularly?

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Yet again Excellent Article, having completed my level 2 in Diet and nutrition a few months ago I feel I have gained better knowledge and information that I feel I'm able to pass on to athlete or parent's. I think more coaches should have at least some knowledge of nutrition to help athletes with nutritional health and to better understand how nutrition can help with development, training and in competition.

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Great article. I have done nutrition as part of my degree and have also completed an online Level 2 course. My difficulty is sometimes getting the message across to parents about how eating impacts training. I have had them come up to me and say "she'll be fine this morning, she's had a cereal bar / biscuits for breakfast" and I have the kids drinking coke / lucozade / chocolate milkshake during sessions when I always stress that water would be better ... I've also had one child eat 14 oreo cookies before her lesson ... even I felt sick when she told me that!

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

It would obviously be good if coaches gave more and better advice about nutrition, but I have been thinking for a while now that there is a lack of easily digestible (sorry!) information. As it rightly says in the article, a little knowledge can be dangerous in this field, so we need more articles like this and training courses that condense what is known into a form that can be used by coaches who are not trained in this area.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Still the same old outdated obsession with 'low fat'. Not exactly cutting edge nor forward thinking. Love the 'based on established scientific evidence' no doubt funded by the fructose syrup adding wheat based product manufacturers. Lets hope the 'evidence' didn't exclude those results that didn't support the desired outcome. Like last time.

I generally don't give nutrition advice to athletes though next year when I begin L3 coaching that may have to change. Hence I'm on a new regime myself.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

I think this article raised some good points. Probably will use this more with athletes that are showing an interest in progressing above club level up to county level. Might well give a marginal gain and over time a larger gain in performance.
I agree with a balanced diet.
The problem is ... fish chips and mushy peas. I already halve the portion of chips and have an extra scoop of peas ... I an not going to take the batter of my fish ...Seriously though there needs to be mote effort put in to making meals at home and not buying ding meals. I think that over the years there has been a dumbing down where putting together a healthy meal is concerned, I don't know who is responsible for increasing the portion sizes ... Probably the ready meal producers.

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Just after I posted my comment I watched a program on TV about ready meals and they have actually increased in portion sizes since oven ready meals came in to supermarkets, then another increase when microwave ovens became common.

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Is that a bowl of cheerios in the headline picture ?

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