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Navigating Dining Halls as a College Athlete

For college athletes–especially incoming freshmen–dining halls can be a hard place to navigate. While they provide a variety of options for students, many athletes report having trouble with deciding which choices are safe for fueling college-level sport performance. Additionally, dining halls can generate a lot of anxiety for students that like to have control over what goes in their bodies. It’s difficult to trust what you’re eating if you don’t know what’s in it or how it was made, especially if your sport performance depends on it.

With the school year starting soon, staff writer and social media manager Kai McClelland sat down with Katie Spada Hillard, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ohio State University (OSU) synchronized swimming alum, to chat about safe dining hall choices for college athletes.

Kai: Hey Katie, thanks for chatting with us. First question: what are some red flags that athletes should be aware of when they’re in a dining hall?

Katie: The first thing is going to be food safety. I get concerned if food has been sitting out, even if it’s under a light. The biggest thing with athletes is we don’t want to pull them out of practice when we don’t need to [for things like food poisoning].

So especially if athletes have a sensitive stomach, you want to make sure that the food looks like it's fresh. If it looks like it’s been sitting out for a while, you can always ask the staff if they have something that's more fresh.

I think the other thing to look out for when it comes to dining halls is that we don't always know what food is being cooked with. For example, if it’s a protein and it's being cooked with heavier oils, that's not necessarily bad, but it can lead to GI distress if you're eating it right before you go to training.

Kai: Got it. Bridging off of that, if an athlete is going to fuel before or after training, what are some good choices that they might find in a dining hall?

Katie: Before training, any form of oatmeal, a cereal bar, or fruit would be great choices. Yogurt might even work depending on how far out from training it is. If they have a grab and go area with granola bars or even bags of chips or crackers, those are also good choices.

This would also be the time to utilize things like a juice station. Juice is a great option for quick carbohydrates. I've heard a lot of athletes say, “well, I don't want to eat before training”. We never want to show up to training on an empty stomach or without any fuel. So utilizing liquid energy in the form of something like apple juice or orange juice–maybe in addition to a banana or a bowl of cereal–would be a great way to still get something in without causing an upset stomach.

For after training, maybe work off of performance plates. I have mixed feelings about performance plates, but they’re easy and they can be helpful. After training, you want to get in carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and some form of color to help with antioxidant intake to reduce inflammation. Those are the big things. An example would be the omelet bar: I don't necessarily recommend it before training, but for after training, it’s a great option.

Kai: I’m not even sure I know what a performance plate is!

Katie: A lot of sports dieticians use performance plates to make sure athletes are getting enough nutrition. There are different plates based on whether you’re fueling for a light training day, a moderate training day, or a heavy training day. On heavy training days, half of your plate needs to be carbohydrates. On a moderate training day, it’s about a third [of your plate]. Light training days are when we focus more on fruits and veggies, and that sort of brings it back to gastrointestinal (GI) concerns. On lighter training days, because there isn’t as much strain on the GI system from heavy training, our digestion is able to break down the fibers [in fruits and vegetables] without it causing an upset stomach.

Kai: And you said that you don’t like to stick to performance plates too much, but they’re still good guidelines?

Katie: Yeah. I think that really comes down to my background with disordered eating and working with former athletes. [With those populations], performance plates can feel a little bit restrictive. Those athletes may think “if my plate doesn't exactly match a performance plate, I'm off”, and that’s definitely not the case. Your body is always going to be the number one thing to listen to.

But these can be good guides, especially for athletes that don’t know where to start when they’re building their plate.

Kai: Awesome. And even though we don’t want to over-restrict what we’re eating, what are some foods that you feel might not be good choices in a dining hall?

Katie: It always depends on the time of day. Post-training, barbecue chicken can be an awesome protein source. Pre-training, it’s probably not the best [source of fuel]. Desserts can absolutely fit into a high-performance fueling plan, but we also want to make sure that they don’t use up space for nutrition that's going to fuel our muscles in a more effective way. You're obviously going to get different nutrients from, say, a Greek yogurt parfait than you are from frozen yogurt. That doesn’t mean frozen yogurt can't be there, but we just want to make sure that depending on where we're at with our training and what our current goals are, we're picking foods that are going to give us the nutrients to support them.

Kai: Coming from a distance running background, I used to refrain from eating desserts or sugary things at least three days before a race. Is that overshooting it?

Katie: Oh, absolutely. And I would even say it's fine to have dessert the day before a race. Dessert can be a really great quick fuel option, especially for distance running when you need to carb load or make sure that your body has enough energy reserves prepped for the distance. There is no need to avoid dessert at any period of time.

What I can sometimes see happening is for athletes who have been overly restrictive and now feel like they have free reign, they may choose dessert in replacement of a choice that has more nutrients. We want to make sure that we're still having those nutrient-dense choices alongside more soul-nourishing choices.

Kai: Moving on to something more rapid-fire: what are five tips that come to mind immediately when you think of an athlete in a dining hall?

Katie: Number one is that salads always need carbohydrates. Whether that's grabbing a dinner roll, finding chips and crumbling them over, or having a bowl of cereal on the side, salads need to have carbohydrates.

Number two is that salads also need fat. Adding avocado, olives, a full fat dressing or even hard boiled eggs can help you absorb more of the nutrients [in a salad]. You’d want a full-fat dressing, not just something like balsamic vinegar.

Number three: use the fruit and box cereal as snacks to-go. If your dining hall allows you to do it, grab fruit and cereal to keep in your dorm room so you don’t have to spend money on other snacks.

Number four: Don’t be afraid of the dessert bar. It’s totally fine to have it.

Number five: Touch base with the chef. Sometimes they’ll do things like make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or smoothies for athletes. See if they're able to accommodate additional options for you since you're an athlete.

Kai: Those are great. And then last question: if an athlete has dietary restrictions like not being able to eat gluten or dairy, what are some options you’d recommend for them?

Katie: For both dairy and gluten-free diets, I would say that rice-based dishes are good options. Rice takes care of the carbs, and you can add chicken, beef, fish, or something like that for protein.

For gluten-free diets, look for prepackaged gluten-free things. Cheerios come to mind. Cheerios are a great gluten-free option, although sometimes it’s debated in the celiac world.

For dairy-free diets, utilize milk alternatives, but make sure you’re replacing the protein that you’re missing from cow’s milk. You’re not going to get the same amount of protein from something like almond milk. If you can’t have cow’s milk with your cereal, find another protein source to go with it.

I’d also recommend reaching out to the chef to see if they’re able to help you with additional accommodations. They usually make something special for you if you can’t find something that meets your dietary needs.

People that have additional questions for Katie can check out her Instagram page, @fueling.former.athletes.

Katie Spada Hillard, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and OSU synchronized swimming alum currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada. A synchronized swimmer for most of her adolescent life, Katie struggled with pressures to engage in unhealthy eating and exercise habits, which worsened after retirement from sport. Now, Katie works as a dietician nutritionist to help current and former athletes fuel for life, improve their body image, and develop confidence. Katie has garnered over 15,000 followers on her Instagram page, @fueling.former.athletes.



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