Maine dietitian sees nutritional crisis

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Anne-Marie Davee knows a little something about athletic performance. She also knows something about nutrition.

Davee is a competitive runner and triathlete. She’s completed 20 marathons, including the first women’s Olympic marathon trials in 1984. She’s been a registered and licensed dietitian for more than 20 years and knows the importance that one of her passions has on the other.

As coordinator of Public Health Initiatives for the Muskie School of Public Service in Augusta, Davee has seen an increase in bad nutrition habits and the consequences.

“This has been building for 20 years now to get us to the health risk that we’re currently at for our children and adults,” said Davee. “It will take some time to reverse what has been done.”

Eating habits are not aiding batting averages, bolstering scoring totals and making runners faster or wrestlers stronger. Davee sites statistics that are evidence of a nutritional crisis and threat to the health of not just athletes, but everyone.

Since 1980, obesity rates have doubled among children and tripled for adolescents. In Maine high schools, 28 percent of the kids are overweight or at risk, it’s 31 percent in middle school and 36 percent in kindergarten. Only two percent of kids follow the food pyramid guideline.

“Just over half eat less than one serving of fruit a day and three-fourths report eating one vegetable and those are french fries.” Davee said.

Good nutrition impacts body weight, body composition, energy availability, physical and mental abilities, recovery time and overall performance. Poor eating habits, on the other hand, lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

“I think the last two decades, with the significant influence of convenience foods and fast food, the choices kids are eating are high fat overall and a lot more sugar,” she said. “Neither of which is the key fuel for athletes.”

She estimates making between 40 and 50 appearances each year to various schools, athletic teams’ community groups and school boards. Davee emphasizes that making the right choices nutritionally is as important as other facets of being a successful athlete.

The keys to athletic success, she says, are exercise and training, talent and motivation, confidence and nutrition. If the nutrition is lacking, a valuable component is missing.

When she stresses that the lack of nutrition can affect outcomes, it sometimes gets peoples attention.

“If they’re coaches and they are working on their training, exercise and talent and getting them psyched, but then they’re eating junk, that knocks them down,” said Davee. “When it comes down to winning or losing, it could make a huge difference.”

Davee says keeping a record of what foods are eaten over a day or week allows someone to examine how many calories are being consumed and where those calories are coming from. Athletes, she says, need to make a daily assessment to see where they are.

Though an emphasis on carbohydrates has suffered because of a variety of fad diets, Davee says they serve as the basic fuel for any athlete. The only real difference for a diet for athletes and one for non-athletes is that eating for performance requires more calories. Eating nutrient rich foods is still critical for either.

The first things Davee suggests in altering one’s diet is to add more fruits and vegetables and drink more water.

“They’re not eating fruits and vegetables,” she said. “That’s the big gap right across the board. The No. 1 vegetable consumed by students today are french fries. If it were potatoes, I’d be delighted, but it’s french fries, and No. 2 is tomato sauce.

“I wouldn’t consider french fries and tomato sauce as the high-nutrient vegetable.”

Davee says the key to changing eating habits is to get kids to think about what they’re eating and what choices they are making. It is not an easy task.

Improving awareness of the risks of poor eating and the benefits of healthy eating could help.

“Having the student eating right, whether they’re athletes or not, impact their academic performance,” said Davee. “If their blood sugar is high, and their eating junk all day, they’re not learning as well. Whereas, if they’re eating fruits and vegetables and nutritious items, they’re going to be much more focused.”

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