Our Behaviour May Be More Honest Than Our Words: Shaping the Environment to Promote Positive Changes in Dietary Behaviours with Youth Athletes

In our previous blog we explored early years career development in performance analysis. We suggested that a balance of academic rigour, applied practical experience and willingness to be conscientious and committed to personal develop may stand developing analyst in good stead for a career in the field. In this blog we explore nutrition support for youth athletes and consider if our dietary behaviour can be adapted to support fuelling for sport and more.  

Numerous approaches have been taken to try and understand the factors which influence an individual’s behaviours in relation to food choice and dietary intake. As a sport nutritionist the primary objective of your role is to support and guide your athletes to better performance, health and development through optimising their nutritional intake. Therefore, an integral part of the role will be designing and implementing dietary interventions to bring about positive changes in the dietary behaviours of your athletes (Bentley et al., 2019; Costello, 2018).  

As with all nutrition practices, a one size fit all approach is both unreasonable and inappropriate. However, it is often perceived that suboptimal dietary behaviours is simply a result of a knowledge deficit. Whilst nutrition education programmes have a place in the toolbox of a competent practitioner, that alone is often not sufficient to change behaviour (Kelly & Barker, 2016). Rather appreciating the complexity of the factors potentially driving food choices, specific to both the population and environment you are facing can allow you to take a more holistic intervention approach to try and induce positive change.

Common factors reported to influence Food choices include the environment, personal beliefs and skills, and social influences (Birkenhead & Slater, 2015). Whilst the boarding nature of Millfield facilitates food availability, our objectives then shift to shaping these key feeding environments to be conducive to our target behaviours.  

Literature investigating youth athlete dietary intakes commonly report suboptimal intakes of Carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables (Baker et al., 2014; Burrows et al., 2016). With demanding, multi-layered sporting programmes with our athletes, effective and appropriate fuelling is a priority.  Of course, education focus in the classroom of the ergogenic effects of carbohydrates is appropriate, how can we reinforce this in our key feeding locations?  

Creating a Nutrition Philosophy – “EAT TO EXCEL”

Group Culture can significantly shape member cognition, behaviour, development, wellbeing and performance (Andersen, 2011) 

Here at Millfield we view every feeding time is an opportunity to excel both in and out of the classroom. We wanted to create a positive nutrition culture conducive to our school wide sport vision of leading the development of children both on and off the sport field.  

Instruction for Ideal Behaviours – Performance plates

Scattered across our dining hall are dynamic plate compositions, highlighting how our students can make effective independent food choices to meet their energetic requirements at every mealtime

Actioning Those Ideal Behaviours – Effective food labelling & layout

“small changes in the food environment, including choice architecture interventions to make healthy items more visible and convenient, can result in better food choices(Thorndike et al., 2014)

Understanding our focus points of fuelling and nutrient density, choice architecture changes relating to food layout and implementing a colour coded food labelling system have been effective means to reinforce desired food behaviours at the focal point of where students make those decisions.  

Consistency

From dining hall, tuck shop, team workshops down to individual consultations, my aim to create a common language and clarity in my delivery style and resources utilised which is reflective of our Nutrition philosophy.

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