Triathletes take flexible approach to food choices

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Triathletes take flexible approach to food choices


USC researcher Karen Birkenhead on campus

26 November 2013

An analysis of the food choices and eating behaviours of triathletes by University of the Sunshine Coast researcher Karen Birkenhead has come up with some interesting results.

Ms Birkenhead, 42, of Mooloolaba conducted the research as part of her Master of Sports Nutrition thesis, in which she compared the nutrition knowledge, food choices and eating behaviours of triathletes with those of non-triathletes.

Her research found that many of the triathletes surveyed applied a combination of eating strategies, with many taking a flexible approach to food choices. This means they do not rigidly control what they eat but rather allow themselves to eat some foods from “outside” their normal diet.

“This is not a surprising result,” Ms Birkenhead said. “Although many triathletes are disciplined around their training and nutrition — avoiding certain foods before an important race — they will allow themselves those foods after the event.

“Flexible control includes a more relaxed approach to eating, in which individuals watch what they eat but are able to self-regulate food choices without being overly restrictive.

“Rigid control, on the other hand, is an ‘all-or-none’ approach to food choices with little room for foods considered outside the diet.”

The research also found that, of the triathletes surveyed, men showed higher levels of flexible control than women.

Ms Birkenhead said her study to compare the food choices, nutrition knowledge and eating behaviours of an athlete population and the general population was the first of its kind.

“The Sunshine Coast has a reputation for triathlons and producing triathletes, so it felt appropriate to conduct research into what the eating behaviours and food choices are of these athletes,” she said.

“Not surprisingly, we found one of the most influential factors in the food choices of athletes was performance. The majority of triathletes felt choosing foods that help with performance was an important factor influencing their food choices.

“While there are some interesting results to come out of the study, there is still so much to learn about the factors important in the food choices of athlete populations and how this impacts on performance and dietary intake.”

— Jessica Halls

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