Athletes with Dietary Restrictions

In the world of athletics, almost everything is measured down to an exact science, from the plays run to the points scored. But for some athletes, the very factors that make up the sports they play come in second place on the field, pushed aside by a more pressing issue: ensuring that they are getting enough nutrients to sustain themselves through training and practice.

According to “Prevalence of food allergies and intolerances documented in electronic health records” from The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, approximately four percent of Americans have a serious food allergy, and another three percent are vegan or vegetarian. Of this already small percentage, only a fraction compete in competitive sports.

Nick Ricciardi, who teaches classes such as Nutrition and Fuel & Fitness at Oyster River High School, spoke about the importance of food in relationship to athletics. “I think the relationship between food and sports is so important that it is one and the same. Nutrition is athletics, and just as important as the workouts and the technique trainings that go into a sport.”

Ricciardi also voiced his concerns about athletes with a dietary restrictions not getting the nutrients they need to excel physically. “For people with allergies or restrictions, an understanding of how to meet needs outside of these is key. For example, protein is super important, so if someone isn’t getting enough, they need to understand complementary proteins so that they can still meet their needs,” he said.

Aside from the obvious nutritional concerns, there is an array of other worries for these athletes to consider, such as struggling to fit in with their peers and/or dealing with potentially life threatening situations while in competition. Below are stories of five athletes from ORHS, who have also shared their insight, advice, and struggles of living with dietary restrictions while simultaneously being involved with athletics.

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Athlete: Madeline Alphonse (‘19)

Sports: Soccer, Basketball, Lacrosse

Dietary Restriction: Dairy Allergy

Alphonse first learned that she was allergic to milk when she was only months old, after her parents noticed that she was breaking out into hives every time she ate dairy. “The diagnosis came after I was really sick and given antibiotics in the hospital,” she explained, “which is actually how a lot of food allergies begin.”

Due to the timeline of Alphonse’s allergy, combined with her matured athletic experience of playing lacrosse for five years, soccer for eight years, and basketball for nine years, she is careful to monitor her nutritional intake. “Being allergic to dairy means that I don’t get as much protein and calcium, which are both important to athletes. To keep up, and to make sure that my body has what it needs, I take calcium supplements and [eat] nut-based products, which are very high sources of protein,” said Alphonse.

In addition to watching what she eats, Alphonse also has to watch her surroundings closely, in order to ensure she doesn’t accidentally come into contact with any cross contaminated items. This requires her to, “always have my EpiPen in hand,” she mentioned.

Keeping her emergency medication close has helped her numerous times before, such as in November of 2016, when disaster struck during one of her soccer games.

“When I was a sophomore, my team made it to the Division II State Championship, and I was beyond excited to play. I always take my inhaler before games, but that day I had forgotten mine so I decided to use a friends’. Little did I know, she had just drank a glass of milk and taken it herself right beforehand. I took a puff and felt fine, so I went back to warming up, but in a few minutes, my face was covered in hives and I had major trouble breathing. The reaction started getting very bad very quickly, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay on the field. Right at the start of the game I left for the hospital and I was absolutely heartbroken. It’s not everyday you get the chance to play in a state championship, and I spent the duration of the game in the emergency room. I wanted nothing more than to be with my team,” explained Alphonse.

Though Alphonse has faced numerous setbacks such as this, she is determined to not let her allergy define her as an athlete. “I would tell anyone dealing with a similar issue to not allow your food restrictions to dictate your athletic life. Yes, food is very important to your health and sports abilities, but with so many options and ways to persevere, it’s possible to overlook something like an allergy,” she concluded.

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Athlete: Lauren MacManes (‘18)

Sports: Wrestling, Cross Country, Indoor/Outdoor Track

Dietary Restriction: Celiac Disease

As an active runner for all three athletic seasons, MacManes had a difficult time transitioning to her diagnosis of Celiac in early 2017. “[Being] gluten free affected everything last year because I was constantly sick and hungry, due to the fact that I wasn’t getting the right nutrients that I needed in order to excel in my athletics,” said MacManes, who has been running since sixth grade.

MacManes also noted that, on top of this, she struggled to connect with her teammates due to her newfound dietary restriction. “I have to be very careful with what I eat in the days leading up to a meet, which can mean not eating out at restaurants and no food from any spags with my teammates. This was hard, because for a long period of time, I just avoided going because I was constantly worrying about what I was eating and if it was going to end up making me feel sick.”

Spaghetti dinners, or spags, which many teams at ORHS use to bond before major games or races, were not the only source of conflict for MacManes. “I lost a lot of weight and had no appetite for a really long time because everything I ate made me so sick. If I accidentally ate gluten during school, then I would be sick for multiple days, which sucked because it was difficult to get quality practices in, which usually resulted in me running bad races,” she added.

MacManes is optimistic for the future however, noting, “not being able to eat wheat has been super hard, but it’s been getting a lot easier because I’m finding new things to try every day. I even joined a Facebook group with a lot of people who all have Celiac, and they always post really good recipes. It’s great to have such a safe space to learn and ask questions.”

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Athlete: Graham Beaton (‘12)

Sports: Lacrosse, Volleyball, Track and Field

Dietary Restriction: Cyclic Nausea/Vomiting Syndrome and Chronic Stomach Inflammation

For Beaton, most of the struggle has been found within his diagnosis, which remains unclear to this day. “The long and the short of it is, [doctors] don’t really know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been told that they very well may not have a name for whatever disease I have at the current time, but for me, it basically amounts to long periods of time not doing any activity and basically not eating any foods in fear of them leading to constant nausea/vomiting, debilitating stomach pain, and extreme fatigue,” he explained.

Beaton shared his recollection of when he first knew something was wrong, stating, “I remember the first day of this whole ordeal very well, because I was doing 200m sprint intervals at the UNH outdoor track and I felt a migraine coming on, so I left. Later that night, I was in the Emergency Room and from there on out it just snowballed.”  

Being a junior in college at the time of these events was also difficult for Beaton, who said, “being ‘diagnosed’ was an extremely frustrating experience for me, because as I mentioned, doctors all disagreed and equivocated a lot about what exactly was wrong with me, and it is still not clear. This was all going on while I was trying to finish my degree, though I was also rapidly losing weight and essentially not eating or sleeping for months. It really felt like I was watching myself die and no one had any answers for me, so I would say my mental health took a massive hit during the ‘diagnosis’ period as well.”

Beaton was forced to stop all training, as well as to restrict his diet to exclude dairy, red meat, oil, or hot spices. “This whole experience hit the reset button on my athletics. I went from being at what I considered the best shape of my life to the worst. I was at a really good weight and power level for what I wanted to do, which was to continue with lower distance sprinting, and in about three months, I lost 50 pounds and all my strength. Most days I didn’t get out of bed except to go to class and even that was exhausting,” he said.

Now, Beaton tries to focus on the positives of his experience. “My mentality towards athletics and myself in general was forced to change. I may never get back to where I was in terms of the times I was running or the weight I was lifting comfortably, but I’m simply not the same person I was a few years ago. What I can still do, and this is what I try to focus on, is simply be the best that I can under my given circumstances,” he concluded.   

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Athlete: Nate Moore (‘18)

Sports: Soccer

Dietary Restriction: Vegan

Moore’s story differs from those of the athletes above, in that he chose to limit his diet due to his beliefs surrounding the meat and dairy production industries. “The idea that I, and millions of others, were participating in keeping the demand for these industries high was too much for me not to make a serious change,” he said.

After transitioning from being a vegetarian to becoming a strict vegan, a lifestyle which Moore maintained for fifteen months, he eventually found it difficult to manage alongside his demanding soccer workouts. “For the first time in my life, I had to think about what I was going to eat, when, and how and where I was going to get [food]. It never felt like a hassle, because I stood by the cause resolutely and it was worth it to me. But for someone of my size who exerts as much as I do during athletics, I’d say it was probably not an intelligent decision, and it certainly wouldn’t have been sustainable if I were a two or three season athlete who never really got a break from the day to day and week to week demands of high school athletics.”

While, “at the time, [he] couldn’t have imagined ever eating meat or dairy again,” Moore has since let go of his vegan ways, though is still full of advice for athletes that are considering making the switch. “If anyone is interested in a vegan diet, first spend at least three months on a truly vegetarian diet to see if that’s manageable and sustainable, as it’s a serious adjustment. Secondly, make sure that your parents are willing to help and that your financial situation permits it, as while it’s not going to outwardly drain you parents’ savings, a lot of food in your fridge and pantry will need to be solely for you, so a vegan diet needs to be practical for you and your family.”

Lastly, Moore touched on the benefits of planning meals. “During athletic seasons, I would always be sure to bring a surplus of nutritious food to school because I quickly found out that there was a slim chance I was going to be able to find sufficient food in school that was also vegan. You can’t just be eating salad and bread; you have to be smart and find the right substitutes,” he concluded.

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Athlete: Hannah Jane Wilson (‘18)

Sports: Crew and Ski Racing

Dietary Restriction: Vegetarian

Like Moore, Wilson’s dietary restriction of vegetarianism is also by choice. “I’m a vegetarian because I oppose the industrial meat farms, due to their cruelty and lack of humanity,” she explained, adding, “I think being a vegetarian is about supporting what you believe in by making an individual difference.”

Inside Wilson’s athletic life, vegetarianism, which she adopted over the summer of 2017, certainly did make a difference. After tearing her ACL last winter, Wilson had been working hard in physical therapy to return to athletics, but was met with a surprising new challenge.

“The biggest difference that I noticed was that I became extremely anemic. Around September and October [of 2017], I took several naps a day because I was so fatigued all the time. It’s one thing to be tired after a workout, but it’s another to be that exhausted.”

For Wilson, a change was found within her diet. “I actually started eating green vegetables. I realized that I’m really good at roasting them, so that helped me conquer my hatred of a few,” she said, adding, “there are always good substitutes around, if you’re willing to look.”

While giving advice to those considering making a transition, Wilson explained, “everywhere always has so many vegetarian options these days, and most people are very accomodating. As long as you’re eating right, keep eating what you want to eat.”

 

Though dealing with a dietary restriction may seem difficult at times, athletes such as Alphonse, MacManes, Beaton, Moore, and Wilson prove it’s not only possible, but it can be empowering, as well.

“A few weeks ago, after training relentlessly for about a year, I maxed out squatting, deadlifting and hang-cleaning the amount of weight I used to warm up with for those exercises. However, I was so excited by this seemingly tiny accomplishment that I was yelling. I gave all I could give, and accomplished something that I could never have accomplished a few months prior. The way I see it, whether you’re squatting 80 pounds or 800, the victory is the same because you were the best you could be,” said Beaton.  

Alphonse added to this, noting, “I’ve been allergic to dairy so long it doesn’t even seem like I have to make accommodations, it just feels normal. However, I know that it’s always going to be something that I have to be mindful of, but that’s okay. I refuse to let that define me in or outside of athletics.”

Speaking to Alphonse’s point about the nutritional mindfulness that accompanies dietary restrictions was Ricciardi, who also offered his final piece of advice. “I would tell anyone that checking labels and doing your research make all the difference. Though getting the right amount of nutrients is everything, you can still make it happen with a dietary restriction if you’re willing to work hard enough.”