Improving performance: Universities using nutrition to help their athletes play better

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 7:45 p.m. MDT

Beth Wolfgram, a dietitian at the University of Utah, assists Utah football player Lucky Radley and other athletes with their food at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center Monday, Sept. 9, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Before Karl Williams met Beth Wolfgram, the University of Utah running back thought good nutrition meant making sure he was full of food — any food — before practice.

“I would eat whatever,” said the senior. “I thought a box of pizza from Little Caesars was good carbs. I thought I could eat that, lift and be fine. I had no nutritional ideas whatsoever.” Even when he sat through high school health classes at Layton High, he didn’t think the admonishments to watch what one ate applied to him.

“I thought, 'I’m an athlete,'” said Williams, who started his collegiate career at Southern Utah University before walking on at Utah in 2010. “'I burn 4,000 calories a day. I don’t need that. I’ll burn the calories no matter what they are.'”

It wasn’t until he started to research the NFL athletes he admired that he realized that not only wasn’t he having the college career he could, he probably couldn’t succeed at the next level without making significant dietary changes.

After his hard work earned him a scholarship, he made an appointment with Wolfgram and came up with a plan to lose weight and gain muscle.

“It definitely changed everything,” he said of the nutrition and hydration programs created by Wolfgram, the University of Utah’s sports dietician. “Every college should have a Beth.”

Williams lost 30 pounds and feels faster, stronger and more clear-minded. He also stopped cramping during games, a situation the U. dealt with differently this summer after Wolfgram created a hydration monitoring program complete with weekly urine tests.

“Every game last year I cramped,” he said. “I was tired of cramping in the fourth quarter when my team needed me.”

Changes for the better

Wolfgram is a registered and certified dietitian who received a Master of Science degree in nutrition from the University of Utah and a Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science from Northeastern University in Boston. She preached the gospel of healthy food in the private sector for nearly two decades before the University of Utah hired her six years ago to oversee all 17 of the school's sports. Her job is to advise players and coaches on what to eat to succeed athletically, as well as how nutrition impacts their individual and team goals.

“Sometimes they see me as the food police, and I hate that,” she said. “I really actually hate that. My job is not to make them feel deprived or punished. It’s to help them succeed as student-athletes.”

What she teaches them will not only help them get more from their bodies, but also sharpens their minds, keeps them safer, and improves their long-term health. The problem is that many college athletes come from backgrounds where fueling is simply a matter of eating what’s available.

“Sports nutrition ... is kind of in its infancy,” she said. “There are actually still in the country only 43 sports dietitians at NCAA institutions (and there are more than 1,000 of those). When you look at that compared to athletic trainers, where there is one for every team, it’s a lot different. Eventually sports nutrition will go that same way, but right now we’re convincing people why they need us.” She said the initial effort is to change the culture.

“For example, with soccer, they need halftime fuel because they’re playing so long,” she said. “That’s just the reality and the science of it. But none of them are used to it. We really need to educate the young kids because that’s where it starts. That way when they get here, they’ve always done it.”

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