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What Influences the Diets of Elite Academy Footballers?

Updated: Feb 1

In this article, we discuss a new study that sought to understand what factors influence academy professionals’ dietary behaviours. These insights may provide value to both footballers and those working with footballers.


Introduction

Dietary behaviour is complex, and can be guided by many interacting factors. These include factors at the individual level (e.g., taste, knowledge), the interpersonal level (e.g., social support, cultural norms), the environmental level (e.g., food availability, food advertisements), and the policy level (e.g., food taxes, market regulations) (1). Unfortunately, factors across all levels can often prevent us from eating according to recommendations.


Footballers are not immune to this. In fact, footballers are reported to often fail to eat enough carbohydrates (2)—the premium fuel source for powering optimal exercise performance—as well as total energy, or calories (3). Needless to say, this is not ideal for performance.


To improve footballers’ diets, we need to have an understanding of what shapes their dietary choices. That’s where a new study can provide some insight (4).


Premier league and championship

All participants within the study discussed in this article play (or work) for Premier League and Championship club academies (4).


Study design

Participants

This study included 13 male footballers from Premier League and Championship academies, with an average age of 18 years. The researchers also included 12 sports nutritionists and 10 male coaches in the study, to see if their opinions on what drives players’ dietary behaviours matches the players’ opinions.


Methods

The researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with the players, sports nutritionists, and coaches based on the COM-B model (Figure 1) (5). In brief, the COM-B model states that behaviour occurs only when an individual has the Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation to perform that behaviour. Researchers developed open-ended questions related to each component of the model, which allowed them to cluster responses into themes based on the three components. Examples of questions asked to players:

  • Capability: ‘Do you feel you have the skills required to follow nutrition recommendations?’

  • Opportunity: ‘How does your environment influence your ability to follow nutrition recommendations?’

  • Motivation: ‘Are you motivated to follow nutrition recommendations, and what motivates/demotivates you?’


PS. Check out last week’s article for a deep dive into the COM-B model!


COM-B model

Figure 1. The COM-B model of human behaviour (5). In this model, behaviour is a function of the capability, opportunity, and motivation of an individual. If they lack any one of these components with regards to a specific behaviour, the behaviour will not take place.


Results

Several common themes emerged from all participants (i.e., players, nutritionists, coaches). Below, I have picked out some key messages.


Capability

  • Knowledge: Players discussed the importance of having sufficient knowledge to make good dietary choices, and expressed that they believed their knowledge could be improved. Sports nutritionists and coaches also remarked on the importance of educating players from a young age.

  • Cooking Skills: Players said that having adequate cooking skills allows for greater control over their dietary choices, and that this could enable them to eat according to sports nutrition recommendations. Sports nutritionists and coaches highlighted the importance of having cooking skills, particularly if players are loaned to lower league clubs where food will not often be provided for them.


Opportunity

  • Food Provision: Many players found having food available to them at the training ground made it easy for them to adhere to sports nutrition guidelines. On the other hand, if food wasn’t available, they cited this as a barrier to eating properly.

  • Nutritionist Availability/Approachability: Players highlighted that having a supportive, approachable, and accessible nutritionist embedded within their club academy was an enabler of nutritional intake. Sports nutritionists and coaches highlighted the importance of a good working relationship between players and sports nutritionists; however, they noted that insufficient time spent with players was a barrier to promoting good nutritional practices in players.


Motivation

  • Performance: Players’ experience of performing well after eating properly was discussed as an enabler of good nutritional practices. Sports nutritionists and coaches found that linking diet with performance—and backing this with data—helped to generate interest and motivation among players to eat better. On the other hand, they said that if players aren’t interested in performance or body composition goals (e.g., gaining muscle or losing fat), this is a barrier to eating properly.

  • Role Modelling: Players were influenced by the dietary habits of first-team players, as well as world-class footballers, and perceived this as an enabler of good dietary practices. It was uncovered that sports nutritionists and coaches purposefully used first-team players to communicate key messages relating to the importance of good nutrition.


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Takeaways

Overall, this research is valuable as it is the first of its kind to map out barriers to, and enablers of, good dietary and nutritional practices in high-level academy professionals. What’s more, if you’re a player, coach, sports nutritionist, or even a parent, you can take these insights and apply them to your own situation, which can ultimately allow you to improve your (or your player’s/child’s) diet. For example, are poor cooking skills holding you (or them) back? Or, should your club be doing more to provide food for the players?


Sports nutritionist recommendations

Figure 2. Practical recommendations for clubs and sports nutritionists from the researchers of this study (4).


My key takeaway relates to the influence that senior players may have over young academy professionals. This can be leveraged to a sports nutritionist or coach’s advantage, as they can serve as role models regarding the importance of good nutrition. However, considering the dietary fads prevalent on social media, if these individuals are pushing ill-informed or even dangerous dietary practices online, this could lead young, impressionable players to follow suit, and is something to think about as a nutritionist or coach working with young players.


Summary

This study highlights the benefit of spotlighting the player’s voice within discussions on diet. Players, coaches, nutritionists — will you consider these insights in your own life or practice?


If you would like supplemental football training to improve your skills, reach out to our team of expert coaches at [email protected] to get started. And if you enjoyed this article, please sign up to our mailing list to stay up to date.


Thanks for reading! Keep your eye out for the latest episode of the Training121 Podcast dropping this coming Monday, the 29th of January, featuring yours truly. This episode will walk through the value of using the COM-B model for behaviour change, and much more!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Twitter/X: @PatrickElliott0


References

(1) Stok FM, Hoffmann S, Volkert D, et al. The DONE framework: Creation, evaluation, and updating of an interdisciplinary, dynamic framework 2.0 of determinants of nutrition and eating. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0171077. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0171077


(2) Steffl M, Kinkorova I, Kokstejn J, Petr M. Macronutrient Intake in Soccer Players-A Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1305. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627126


(3) Hulton AT, Malone JJ, Clarke ND, MacLaren DPM. Energy Requirements and Nutritional Strategies for Male Soccer Players: A Review and Suggestions for Practice. Nutrients. 2022;14(3):657. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8838370/


(4) Carter JL, Lee DJ, Ranchordas MK, Cole M. Perspectives of the barriers and enablers to nutritional adherence in professional male academy football players. Sci Med Footb. 2023;7(4):394–405. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24733938.2022.2123554


(5) Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implement Sci. 2011;6:42. Available at: https://implementationscience.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1748-5908-6-42


Technical Terms

COM-B model: The COM-B—or Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation Behaviour—model is a comprehensive system for understanding human behaviour. It was created by world-leading behaviour change researchers and is used by researchers and policymakers worldwide. The COM-B model illustrates that capability, opportunity, and motivation are the three necessary components for behaviour change. It further divides capability into physical and psychological capability; opportunity is divided into social and physical opportunity; and motivation is divided into automatic (non-conscious) and reflective (conscious) motivation.

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