"Tackle" Food Allergies On and Off the Field

As most athletes can attest, what they eat both in and out of their sports season can definitely impact their game.  Both conditioning and diet play an integral part when it comes to a players performance.  For those athletes who have food sensitivities, intolerances or allergies, understanding their diet can be critical to how they play. 

In fact studies show that athletes may actually be more likely to experience food sensitivities due to the continuous strain from training.

  Athletic training will not only tax the body from a muscular stand point, but also can tax one’s immune system.  When a body is stressed, it can experience more difficulty in terms of digestion and gastrointestinal issues.  

When one eats a food they cannot tolerate, the immune system releases a special type of white blood cell that is meant to attack the food.  However, it also results in chronic   inflammation at the same time. Inflammation for an athlete can inhibit their breathing or stiffen their joints, making it impossible to be an active part on the field. 

Athletes with food allergies and intolerances can experience any of the following:

  • Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption 
  • More muscle soreness with a slower recovery time
  • Increased stress on the body leading to fatigue 
  • A weakened immune system
  • Respiratory distress
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Achy joints
  • Migraines
  • Feel extremely worn out, without probable cause

Sports performance and recovery are related to the foods and fluids the body will take in.  When a player is unable to take in the right foods, this may result in a lag time for their needed energy or perhaps a sluggish gut, resulting in stomach upset.  The quality of the diet as well as the timing of their food intake is just as critical.

  Prior to the big game or a race, the athlete often needs to take in the right food to help them with endurance and energy. On the flip side, for optimal recovery after a game, other nutrients are required.  Those who are limited by allergies, may find it hard to find food substitutes to meet their needs.

In particular, athletes must be sure to meet their needs for calcium, protein and carbohydrates, among other components of their diet.  With the added stress on their bones, it is critical to restore their calcium stores.  For those with dairy allergies, it is important to understand what non-dairy sources of calcium should be added to the diet.  Protein is an important part of building and maintaining muscle mass, so enough sources should be incorporated into the athlete’s intake.  Many athletes often add tree-nuts or peanuts as a viable source of protein to their diet.  For those with allergies to nuts, alternative substitutes of easily digested proteins needs to be explored. And to no surprise, energy is derived and maintained with glucose stores, which come from carbohydrates.  The timing and amount of carbohydrate may vary from sport to sport, depending on the type of endurance required for that sport.

For those with gluten allergies, for example, it is important to find gluten-free options that will serve as appropriate sources for energy.  

Athletes with suspected or confirmed food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities should share their concerns with their coaches at the beginning of their playing season.  

Together with a registered dietitian specializing in Sports Nutrition they may want to review the following:

  • Players suspected food issue
  • Monitor players performance, looking at signs of early fatigue, slow recovery time, extensive muscle weakness or soreness
  • Keep a food diary on and off season to track any patterns of intake that may be reflected in performance
  • Develop a meal plan to meet the athletes caloric and nutritional needs
  • Review fluid intake to avoid dehydration and be sure to replace lost fluids during the game

After the food allergy or sensitivity is understood and an appropriate diet plan is developed, then game on!  There is no stopping an athlete once he is on top of his food intake or his game. 

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