The Environmental Impact of the Athlete’s Plate Nutrition Education Tool

Citation: Reguant-Closa A, Roesch A, Lansche J, Nemecek T, Lohman TG, Meyer NL. The Environmental Impact of the Athlete’s Plate Nutrition Education Tool. Nutrients. 2020; 12(8):2484. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082484 

Relevant to: 

Dietitians-Nutritionists working with athletes and/ or highly active people.  

Question:

The purpose of this study was to measure the environmental impact of the Athlete’s Plate (AP) and to evaluate the influence of meal type, training load, gender and registered dietitian (RD), as well as provide general recommendations to make the AP more environmentally sustainable. As protein recommendations for athletes are almost double of those for non-athletes, there is a concern that western, active populations consume protein and in particular meat in quantities beyond required amounts.  

The AP is a visual nutrition education tool developed for athletes which varies depending on training load from easy, moderate, to hard – see “Of additional interest”.  

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

To promote environmental sustainability in athletes’ diets, the authors recommend that athletes: “(1) adjust energy, carbohydrate, and fat intake to the recommendations according to training loads, (2) reduce protein intake to the recommended level, (3) replace some animal protein with plant protein, (4) within the animal protein fraction, prioritize milk, eggs, poultry and pork over ruminant meat and cheese, (5) use fresh, seasonal, regional, and unprocessed foods and (6) limit frozen and canned products and reconsider protein powders that result in protein surplus, (7) obtain education in environmental issues of food choices when creating plates and (8) consider individual and cultural preferences” (p.18). 

Study results may lead to modifications toward creating a sustainable AP.  

Abstract:

Periodized nutrition is necessary to optimize training and enhance performance through the season. The Athlete’s Plate (AP) is a nutrition education tool developed to teach athletes how to design their plates depending on training load (e.g., volume × intensity), from easy (E), moderate (M) to hard (H). The AP was validated, confirming its recommendations according to international sports nutrition guidelines. However, the AP had significantly higher protein content than recommended (up to 2.9 ± 0.5 g·kg−1·d−1; p < 0.001 for H male). The aim of this study was to quantify the environmental impact (EnvI) of the AP and to evaluate the influence of meal type, training load, sex and registered dietitian (RD). The nutritional contents of 216 APs created by 12 sport RDs were evaluated using Computrition Software (Hospitality Suite, v. 18.1, Chatsworth, CA, USA). The EnvI of the AP was analyzed by life cycle assessment (LCA) expressed by the total amount of food on the AP, kg, and kcal, according to the Swiss Agricultural Life Cycle Assessment (SALCA) methodology. Higher EnvI is directly associated with higher training load when the total amount of food on the plate is considered for E (5.7 ± 2.9 kg CO2 eq/day); M (6.4 ± 1.5 kg CO2 eq/day); and H (8.0 ± 2.1 kg CO2 eq/day). Global warming potential, exergy and eutrophication are driven by animal protein and mainly beef, while ecotoxicity is influenced by vegetable content on the AP. The EnvI is influenced by the amount of food, training load and sex. This study is the first to report the degree of EnvI in sports nutrition. These results not only raise the need for sustainability education in sports nutrition in general, but also the urgency to modify the AP nutrition education tool to ensure sports nutrition recommendations are met, while not compromising the environment.  

Details of results: 

RDs created hypothetical “Plates” within the context of set menus for athletes, and plates were used to evaluate the environmental impact EnvI of the AP using life cycle assessment (one of the most frequently used methodologies to measure the EnvI of foods and diets across the food system). Four environmental categories were used to analyze the EnvI of the AP: global warming potential; exergy (the use of all renewable and non-renewable resources used when making a product, e.g. land, water, metals); ecotoxicity (the level of harm to the ecosystem from, e.g., pesticides); and eutrophication (accumulation of nitrogen and phosphorous from excess fertilizer use resulting in lack of oxygen in the water, killing animal life).  

Results showed a higher EnvI for the AP than for the general population; this was expected, as the AP is targeted to athletes, meeting the needs of high energy expenditure. In fact, the authors suggest that this study may underestimate the EnvI of the AP, as snacks (providing about 23% of the total daily energy intake in athletes) were not included. The EnvI of the AP varies by training load; as training load goes up, so does (theoretically) the amount of food eaten. When adjusted for weight of food (kg) or energy equivalent (kcal), it was found that the total EnvI of the AP is mainly impacted by the total amount of food on the plate, the food group combinations, meal type (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner), and RDs (I.e., their recommendations for specific AP combinations).   

The findings showed a higher global warming potential relative to the general population, which the researchers suggest are a result of the inclusion of animal protein to the AP’s EnvI. When examining individual plates, all plates with meat had a higher EnvI than those without meat. Similarly, when analyzed across plates, the results showed that meat is the food group that accounts for the highest EnvI in all categories, except for ecotoxicity, where vegetables have a higher impact. The latter is in relation to pesticide use in conventional agriculture; the authors propose that organic vegetables would result in lower ecotoxicity.  

Sport nutrition guidelines recommend protein intakes that are more than double for athletes versus the general population. The authors suggest, however, that recommendations for athletes do not differentiate between protein sources and usually focus on animal protein. They suggest that more research is required to understand how to best integrate plant-based proteins into athletes’ diets. They allude to a study showing that the design of the AP may unintentionally lead to higher protein intakes because proteins from animal sources are often prioritized in sports, and as milk is listed both under protein and as a beverage. The researchers suggest that protein needs should be met, but not exceeded. Further details are given within the study about how to achieve this, also citing the concern of potential gastrointestinal discomfort with a greater intake of plant-based proteins.  

The authors advise caution in the recommendation of foods and diets with lower EnvI athletes and active individuals – in both individual and group settings – suggesting that reaching increased energy needs should focus on nutrient density, while ensuring that EnvI is minimized. They further suggest that as high protein diets are gaining popularity, the urgency for the development of a sustainable AP is increased. It was beyond the scope of this study to model an environmentally sustainable AP. The authors state that this is the first study to investigate environmental sustainability in sports nutrition. 

Of additional interest: 

The Athlete’s Plate (AP) is a validated tool developed to help RDs working with athletes or athletes themselves modify food intake in relation to changes in training volume and intensity (defined in the literature as training load). The AP changes in training load throughout the annual training and competition agenda.  

Editor’s comment:

This article includes extensive background information on environmental perspectives (e.g., lifecycle assessment), as well as the Athlete’s Plate. It is an excellent primer for those interested in both environmental sustainability of diets and of athletes’ diets.  
Few studies to date have include ecotoxicity, which this study does.  

Open access link to article: 

https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082484 

Conflict of interest/ Funding: 

N/A  

External relevant links:

https://swell.uccs.edu/theathletesplate

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