Opening the Pantry

January 29, 2015
Thanks to a long-awaited NCAA rule change that deregulates feeding, athletic departments suddenly have a host of new options for boosting their nutrition programs. In this three-part article, sports dietitians explain how they are reacting.
By Amy Bragg

Amy Bragg, RD, CSSD, is Director of Performance Nutrition at the University of Alabama and a past president of the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association. She previously served as Director of Performance Nutrition at Texas A&M University and can be reached at: [email protected].


On April 24, a collective cheer could be heard from collegiate sports dietitians across the country. For years, we had been lobbying for deregulation regarding feeding athletes, and on that date, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a rule change allowing schools to provide unlimited meals and snacks to our athletes.

At its essence, this legislation grants athletic departments the freedom to tailor our nutrition operations around the student-athlete instead of around compliance. It allows us to meet the energy and nutrient needs of the athletes without the burden of determining whether doing so constitutes an impermissible "extra benefit."

In practice, it should increase student-athletes' exposure to healthy foods at frequent intervals throughout the day. And that will positively impact classroom and sport performance, optimize hydration and fuel status, and reverse the typical practice of overloading calories at a single, large training table meal.

However, this broad, sweeping change also presents challenges. For one, an important clause in the legislation is that unlimited food is allowed "incidental to participation." Our compliance staffs are working on exactly how to interpret this caveat and how to apply it.

In addition, each athletic department must now determine how to best utilize its resources while expanding its food offerings. There are no easy, blanket answers. Each institution is tasked with balancing the nutritional needs of its student-athletes with its budget.

Here at the University of Alabama, we are starting work on a deregulation plan by discussing and refining our philosophy on nutrition. Our overall goal is to offer a comprehensive nutrition program that assists athletes in reaching their competitive goals and teaches them healthy habits for a lifetime. Through department-wide meetings that involve our administration, support staff, and coaches, as well as the sports medicine staff, we are discussing how the new rules can further our vision for sports nutrition.

The thoughts I bring to the table revolve around a "food first" philosophy and teaching athletes about proper nutrition to bring them life-long benefits. I also believe in an inclusive strategy that combines culinary techniques with nutrition science, evidence-based research, and practical on-the-scene observation of the student-athlete's consumption trends. Providing the student-athlete with foods via meals, snacks, and recovery items should be both strategic and intentional. And it requires continual management and evolution as the student-athlete population and athletic department staff change.

In addition, a great nutrition program motivates student-athletes to make better fueling decisions and builds on itself. Student-athletes often arrive on campus with limited, sometimes child-like, palates. They may have little appreciation for the value of nutrition and tend to have no experience in meal planning, shopping, cooking, or food safety.

To best teach them these skills, each exposure to a food choice should function as an educational opportunity. As hands-on practitioners, we know our student-athletes learn best while actively participating as opposed to being lectured.

One of the ways we do this now--and will continue in the future--is by having training table meals function as a nutrition learning lab. Fruits and veggies are "sold" and emphasized, while carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are identified with labeling systems that help drive smarter student-athlete decisions. Lean proteins are mainstays of the menus, and we include fresh fruit stations; a hot veggie bar; a salad bar that features proteins, nuts, and seeds; and a sandwich and wrap station. A wide selection of beverages offers multiple options.

Moving forward, we will continuously monitor training table operations and seek new ways to revitalize menus and serving styles, but we don't anticipate any major changes in them. We will also continue offering our traditional recovery stations. Where we will make changes immediately is in the addition of snacks. These snacks will be supplied mainly as recovery fuel, expanding the food options for athletes after a workout.

Now that we are no longer limited to certain items (sports drinks, protein shakes or fruit smoothies, energy bars, vitamins and minerals, and fruits, nuts, bagels, and permissible spreads) as post-workout fuel, we can offer options with bigger goals in mind. Therefore, we are planning the addition of two to three protein-centered breakfast snack options after morning conditioning sessions. We will serve them from our weightroom nutrition bar, and aim to help frame the day for every student-athlete with balanced, optimal nutrition.

Providing more recovery options allows for variety, helps break shake or bar fatigue, and sets up more opportunities for nutritional education. It also fosters greater consistency in recovery and increases meal and snack frequency. And having the flexibility to utilize whole foods for recovery means we get more for our money. Supplements will always have a place in the overall nutrition program because of their convenience and portability, but whole foods are cheaper per calorie and per gram of protein.

One idea we hope to implement is a yogurt, granola, and fruit parfait setup. Not only does this provide great recovery fuel, but it allows us to reinforce the concept of balance among protein, carbohydrates, and fats; discuss the importance of calcium in the diet; review fiber content in carbohydrate choices; and touch on phytonutrients, vitamins, and mineral content in fruit and their effects on the body.

Another option is slow cooked oatmeal with various anti-inflammatory toppings like dried cherries, fresh berries, almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. We are also looking for local vendors who can provide egg wraps and breakfast sandwiches.

In addition, at strategic points during each team's season, we will utilize a customized boxed snack or two in the team lounge to optimize recovery and fuel status. Ideally, we hope to synchronize the timing of those snacks based on our insight into the team's history, our eye on their recovery and performance, and the upcoming performance and travel demands.

We also plan to make snacks more precise and individualized. Our approach is to calculate optimal snack and recovery prescriptions and make our food options match our "nutrition labels."

While offering more fueling opportunities, we are discussing how to not go overboard. The use of the word "unlimited" causes concern among sport coaches that it will lead to overfed, oversized, and overweight student-athletes, with team budgets covering the bill. The execution of the rule change should not lead to the creation of all you can eat, around the clock buffets.

Our goal is to create a more formalized, structured, and individualized approach for our athletes that is cost conscious, yet effective. The training table meal will continue to do the heavy lifting for our nutrition, while snacks and recovery nutrition will allow us to fill in the critical gaps.

An outstanding piece of the new legislation permits walk-on athletes to increase their participation in the nutrition program. These hard-working athletes require optimal fuel, nutrients, and recovery foods as much as any other athlete, and it will be fantastic to include them in all our programs. Beyond the health and performance benefits, inclusion of walk-on student-athletes facilitates greater team bonding and chemistry.

As we navigate the first months of deregulation, our nutrition philosophy will continue to be developed and shaped by our expanded operations. Year one has a bit of a "wild west" feel, and the practical implications will play a role in how our methods evolve over the next few years.

The NCAA has provided a great opportunity for athletic departments in voting to deregulate the feeding of student-athletes. It's up to us to ensure this new flexibility results in athletes making quality choices, broadening their palate, and optimizing nutrient timing. Our task is to implement strategies in a responsible way that helps our athletes be the best they can and promotes life-long healthy eating.


Plan For All Athletes

By Lindsay Brown

Lindsay Brown, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, CPT-NETA, is Coordinator of Sports Nutrition at Washington State University. She has also worked as a consulting sports dietitian for the Oklahoma State University athletic department and can be reached at: [email protected].


Here at Washington State University, we have been expanding our nutritional services for student-athletes over the past three years, following the arrival of Athletic Director Bill Moos in 2010. We are now looking forward to taking another step forward with the passage of the NCAA's new rule to deregulate the feeding of Division I student-athletes.

The legislation allows "unlimited meals and snacks incidental to participation," which sounds pretty straightforward. However, there are nuances to it that are open to interpretation, and our compliance department is currently discussing the fine details. In the meantime, I am planning ahead, following my interpretation of the rule as a dietitian.

One thing I'm excited about is that deregulation appears to allow us to provide meals and snacks to all eligible student-athletes. In the past, our walk-on and partial scholarship athletes--whom comprise a large percentage of our student-athletes--did not partake in our training table or had a very limited plan because it required them to pay out-of-pocket for meals. This led to many of our head coaches opting out of the training table since it would be expensive for some of their athletes.

Now, any meal provided in conjunction with participation will be permissible and free of charge. This will allow equal access to high quality, nutritious meals, meaning we can fuel all our athletes in all sports.

I am also looking forward to helping my athletes with their nutrition for more than one meal a day. When it comes to maximizing intake to enhance performance, timing is key, so this aspect provides much greater flexibility to develop meal snack plans involving a larger array of products spread across the entire day.

While there are some concerns that programs will provide 24/7 access to food for athletes, we will not do that at WSU. We feel it is important for our student-athletes to prepare some meals for themselves so they learn the life skills of meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. Also, it would be very expensive to offer three full meals to all athletes every day.

Another benefit of the new rule is that it appears to mean we can provide meals during non-traditional times such as summer and winter breaks. I do believe the NCAA will need to further define "incidental to participation," but it should allow meals during any training periods. When it comes to voluntary training, I am assuming only pre- and post-workout snacks will be okay.

Finally, the infamous "fruit, nut, bagel, spread" rule regarding recovery snacks has been eliminated! This created many headaches for sports dietitians and compliance staffers as we struggled to define what a bagel is, what a fruit is, and so forth. Now we have the freedom to provide athletes access to many different healthy nutritious snacks--vegetables, Greek yogurt, cheese, flaxseed, oats--without stressing over whether we might violate an NCAA rule.

How will we put the new legislation into action at WSU? Cougar Athletics has offered some type of meal program to student-athletes for more than 20 years, but recently underwent a large transformation with the introduction of a traditional "training table" program in 2012. Called the Cougar Athletics Training Table (CATT), the head coach of each sport is responsible for deciding if his or her team will participate. We usually have had between eight to 10 teams use the program, which covered about half of our student-athletes.

CATT is considered a team function, the same as training and practice, thus those participating are required to be at their scheduled meal. Attendance is tracked for each team to ensure student-athletes are taking advantage of the program and optimizing their nutrition intake. In the past two years, the CATT program has averaged approximately a 95 percent attendance rate, which speaks volumes on how administrators, coaches, and student-athletes view nutrition at WSU.

Hand-in-hand with the CATT program was the hiring of myself as WSU's first full-time sports dietitian and a full-time executive chef. In addition, we designated a larger budget to purchase higher quality ingredients to best fuel our athletes. Most recently, we've added an athletics-operated kitchen and dining facility in the new Cougar Football Complex, as well as a general manager who will oversee all food-service operations within the facility, an additional executive chef, and increased food-service support staff. These building blocks put us in a great position to implement the new NCAA meal and snack rule.

One change we are now making is constructing nutrition hubs next to our two weightrooms to fuel student-athletes before, during, and after training, practice, and competition. I will oversee their operations, and they will be fully serviced by WSU sports nutrition hub managers and volunteers.

All student-athletes will have access to the hubs throughout most of the day to grab nutritious snacks, smoothies, and approved supplements. I believe these facilities will play a crucial role in optimizing nutrition intake, decreasing risk of injury, and enhancing training and overall athletic performance.

In addition, our plan is to provide all student-athletes with a morning meal via the hubs, as well as an express mid-day meal option to grab and go between classes at no charge. We will also continue our traditional training table meal option for dinner, which the teams will be charged for to help offset the cost of providing the morning and mid-day meal.

Head coaches will still be required to create their program's meal schedule, and the sessions will be a "team function" with mandatory, monitored attendance. These policies will help the food-service staff prepare for meals and manage the budget more efficiently by minimizing waste.

As we implement new ideas tied to NCAA deregulation here at WSU, we will also work with our peer institutions to ensure an equitable implementation of the rule. While everyone agrees there is not a "one size fits all" approach, the hope is that those schools with larger budgets will not use the newfound food freedom to provide lavish and overly expensive meals.

Another hope is that the rule pushes all athletic departments to employ a full-time sports dietitian. Currently, only 12 percent of D-I programs do so. Performance-based nutrition education, support, and reinforcement is essential for student-athletes to best utilize foods and fluids to enhance their athletic performance and overall health. In fact, it would be pointless to have an extensive meal and snack plan if the quality of the meals and snacks are poor and athletes lack the nutrition knowledge to know how to best utilize them.

Overall, I'm excited about the new rule. While there are some aspects still to be ironed out, it has created a permanent spot for sports nutrition in college athletics and most importantly, we are finally free to "feed the athlete!"


A Better Way

By Victoria Rosenfeld

Victoria Rosenfeld, RD, CSSD, is the Sports Dietitian at Princeton University. She can be reached at: [email protected].


At its core, deregulating feeding is about improving student welfare. Allowing unlimited nutrition in conjunction with athletics participation lets departments appropriately meet the nutritional needs of their students. For the athletic department here at Princeton University, the rule change will not greatly alter what we do, but we welcome it with open arms, as it represents a better way of thinking about feeding athletes.

Since the deregulation process began, Allison Rich, our Senior Associate Director of Athletics has observed a "cultural shift from one based on the interpretation of permissibility to one where each institution now has the opportunity to define their values and priorities given this new flexibility."

One thing we will not change is our meal offerings or overall budget. Two main reasons for this decision are that the department of athletics has long set boundaries around practice times that allow student-athletes to use their meal plans during regular dining hall hours and the quality of the food is phenomenal. Dining services at Princeton are self-operated and enjoy a lot of flexibility to be both creative and cutting edge. I work with its staff to craft preseason menus, supply recovery nutrition, and prepare tailored pre-competition meals.

What will change is that our efforts to provide nutrition will no longer have to rely on a rule intended to limit the use of supplements. Bylaw 16.5.2, still in effect, is designed to curb the inappropriate use of supplements that often lack evidence for safety and efficacy and come with a high risk of adulteration. The bylaw describes four categories of permissible products that include vitamins and minerals, carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks, energy bars, and carbohydrate boosters. Anything not in those categories, such as individual amino acids, chondroitin, and products with very high protein content, is impermissible.

The unintended consequence was that schools applied the same definitions of permissible products in supplements to food. Despite knowing that food is nutritionally superior and less costly, programs were technically providing an additional benefit by meeting the nutrition and recovery needs of student-athletes with items like chocolate milk, yogurt, and peanut butter.

Well-crafted sports nutrition products will always have a place in athletics because of their convenience, portability and formulations, but whenever possible, we will be doing our best to get more food on the field. Within the framework of thoughtfully managed budgets and resources, more attention will be paid to optimizing performance and recovery by providing nutrition and fluids at the right time. Pre- and post-practice nutrition options are no longer limited and teams that want to adjust their budgets to enhance performance through better nutrition now have that ability.

In my role as Sports Dietitian, I am excited about being able to more effectively help our student-athletes. The evidence is very clear that access to regular meals and adequate nutrition positively influences physical performance. It also sustains focus, concentration, and cognitive function--helping our athletes not only in their sport, but in the classroom.

While we now have the option to provide meals in the event of practices that run late, I don't want to see our teams utilize this option because our budgets are limited. Any funds earmarked for nutrition should ideally be directed toward recovery and competition fueling rather than on providing meals that could be covered by a meal plan.

Going forward, interpreting the definition of "incidental to participation" will be up to each conference. The Ivy League, according to Rich, agreed that "rather than set arbitrary limits, each university will implement the rule change in a manner it feels best meets the needs of its students and department."

Patience and care should be taken as each institution applies the new rule. While concerns about out-of-control spending are warranted, universities must remember they are already in the food-service business. Before considering future expenses, athletic departments should thoroughly assess their current food-service expenditures and evaluate if funds are being appropriately utilized. Feeding student-athletes is already a multi-million dollar endeavor for some universities when travel nutrition, banquets, meal plans for scholarship athletes, preseason camps, and recovery nutrition are considered. Spending time now to assess current budgets and attend to efficiencies and cost saving measures will allow schools to be better positioned to consider how or if they want to expand funding.

A tremendous amount of nutrition education occurs at training tables, on the field, and on the road. Any additions that departments choose to make should focus on student welfare, life skills, and health promotion. Therefore, universities should not plan on athlete nutrition bringing in revenue. When the food provided is expected to generate profit, quality and nutrient density are driven down. Skilled professionals can maintain neutral budgets in athlete food service--lines of revenue should come from catering and retail arms instead. This allows sports dietitians and culinary professionals to focus on providing the highest quality meals without the added pressure of hitting profit numbers.

Princeton does not have training tables, making it a little more difficult to tailor our education and choices. But we work hard to show athletes what high quality performance nutrition looks like. I conduct dining hall tours and provide team education on constructing optimal athlete plates. I use road trips as an opportunity to recommend specific foods for travel, hotel meals, and after competitions. Some teams request that I work directly with hotel food service in planning pre-game meals, while others seek my guidance on what to provide on the bus or plane.

For preseason training camps, I plan and oversee the implementation of nutrition and fueling for football. For other teams, I make recommendations for recovery and hydration management that athletic trainers implement. As a department of one, I depend on collaborations with other staff members and coaches to make this possible. Regardless of the structure, the guidance provided by a sports dietetics professional will ensure that departments and students will thrive on the field and off.
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