Virtual Coaching in Sports

Columbia Athletics Teams Up with MealLogger

We’re excited to bring to you a guest post from Columbia University Athletics Sports Nutritionist Andrew James Pierce, who uses MealLogger to coach his NCAA Division 1 athletes.

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Background

On my never-ending quest to improve the quality of my athletes’ diets, I introduced 22 Varsity Football players to MealLogger this spring. I explained that they’d go head-to-head in a healthy eating challenge where I’d establish goals, they’d do their best to follow them, I’d score them on their dietary compliance, and we’d find a winner. Curious about what laid ahead, they agreed and I set up their daily goals and scoring system.

GOALS and scoring

Since the athletes’ goals differed considerably from each other (some needed to gain weight while others needed to lose weight, for example), I decided to implement broad-spectrum goals, specific enough to produce measurable changes but general enough to encompass all of their objectives. I awarded them one star per item per meal for each of these categories: 2 (So if one player ate fruit at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he received 3 points. If he kicked dinner off with a salad but ate no other vegetables that day, he’d get just 1 point for that category.)

Data from afar

Initially unsure of how committed the athletes would be to the competition, I was delighted to see how actively they engaged in the challenge. Here are their usage statistics from the month of April:

  • Meals they posted: 1092
  • Comments the athletes wrote: 93
  • Comments I wrote: 51
  • ♥’s given: 80
  • ★ ratings I gave: 873

A closer look

How did it go? Did the athletes eat better? Let me give you an example. Meet Ben, an offensive lineman.

Baseline meals

Checking out his meals at the start of the competition, I noticed that Ben hydrated regularly and consistently included fruits and vegetables in his meals. But like many athletes, he ate too much protein and too few high-quality carbohydrates.

 My suggestions

I recommended that he include a serving of complex carbohydrates in each of his meals to support his high energy needs and allow the protein he ate to be used more effectively. Happy to oblige, on the following day, Ben included cereal with breakfast and pretzels with dinner.

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While not optimal choices, I could easily see that Ben was making an effort and appreciated how receptive he was to my suggestions.

Dialing in the details

I commended Ben for taking initiative and proceeded to clarify my suggestions, offering up specific examples of foods available at the dining hall that qualify as high-quality carbs. Once again, without delay, he incorporated my feedback and this time, he included whole-grain cereal with breakfast and with pasta salad with dinner.

Overall balance

Having made significant progress on the carb front, I took a step back to help Ben establish overall balance, eating more productive serving sizes to support better health, performance, and recovery. As you can see, Ben loaded up in any given sitting, eating infrequent but extremely large meals, spiking and crashing his blood sugar and energy levels in the process.

I used MealLogger’s messaging function to explain to Ben the importance of meal timing and frequency and make my suggestions explicit: Instead of eating four eggs and two bananas with lunch, start by saving just one of the bananas to eat with your afternoon snack. And just like that, Ben began eating more moderately sized meals and snacks.

Committed to making incremental changes to his diet, Ben’s score improved each week, racking up enough points to place 3rd in the competition. More important than a nominal prize and well-deserved bragging rights, the improvements Ben has made to his eating habits will work wonders for him in the strength and conditioning room and on the field.

In his own words

“I really liked the app. I thought that it was well designed and worked well. It definitely made me more conscious about what I was eating, and it actually encouraged me to eat more, as I would usually just grab a sandwich or something. But when using the app I would be constantly thinking about what I needed to be eating for the most nutrition. I ended up gaining around 10 lbs since Winter Break, and dropped ~4 body fat % points. Overall, I’d give it 5 stars.

– Ben, Offensive Lineman, Columbia University Lions

My take away, as a sports nutritionist

Hands down the most useful aspect of MealLogger is that it allows me to connect with the athletes on a regular basis and serve as their personal nutrition coach. They receive my feedback and education instantaneously, which photo journaling enables me to tailor directly to their varied meals. This contrasts tangibly with more abstract nutrition counseling that typically occurs in most office visits. Photo journaling also provides me with far more detail about what an athlete eats than I can capture from a written food log, fleshing out aspects of dietary intake like servings sizes, preparation method, meal location, and other important details that might otherwise be lost. The social aspect of MealLogger also proved immensely valuable, increasing engagement and the flow of nutrition education. Rather than a replacement for in-person consultations, I envision MealLogger as an exceptional supplement to these sessions. The app powerfully reinforces my nutrition-related action items and extends the conversation beyond otherwise limited face-to-face visits.

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