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Student research could help athletes eat to win

by Luanne Williams

If rising senior LeAnn Domitrovits and School of Sport Sciences professor John Acquaviva have their way, Wingate University athletes could go into future seasons with an edge over their opponents: solid nutritional knowledge they can use to enhance their performance.

That’s just one of several goals of a Reeves Summer Research project – “Knowledge of Nutrition Among Division II Athletes and Coaches” – that is keeping the faculty-student duo busy.

“I talked to some student-athletes about nutrition and a lot of them have a right-side rule in the cafeteria,” Domitrovits says, “meaning they limit themselves to the foods served on that side, those made with the freshest ingredients and not the pizza and burgers and such served on the left.

“But do they know why? And do they know when they should have protein and when to eat more carbohydrates? These are things an athlete should know.”

To find out how much they understand about healthy eating, she sent out 400 or so 16-question surveys to Wingate athletes in seven sports, their coaching staffs and a non-athlete control group.

Take a 5-question nutrition quiz

The five-minute online questionnaire, a validated survey developed by Dr. Toni Torres-McGehee of the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, included questions about vitamins and supplements, fast-food menu choices and caffeine. It also queried research subjects about recommended pre- and post-exercise eating, performance-enhancement aids and healthy techniques for losing weight and building muscle mass.

With the help of Dr. Acquaviva and Wingate management science professor Dr. Barry Cuffe, Domitrovits is now in the midst of analyzing responses to answer a variety of research questions. For example, is there a difference in knowledge based on gender? Did senior athletes score better on the quiz than underclassmen? And, perhaps most important, is there a correlation between the knowledge level of coaches and that of their team members?

“Mentoring given by the coach can play a role in what the athlete believes they should consume,” explains Acquaviva in the research proposal he and Domitrovits wrote for the Reeves grant. “It will be intriguing to see if there is a correlation present between the two groups.”

A gift to coaches

Studies show that athletes tend to be misinformed on proper nutritional intake and are often exposed to professionals, such as athletic trainers, strength and conditioning specialists and coaches, who are not dietetic experts. A 2012 study revealed that even when they have access to a registered dietician, NCAA players are more apt to seek nutritional advice from athletic staff, making it all the more important that coaches and trainers be educated on the topic.

Domitrovits hopes that her research will open the door for Wingate’s coaches to receive nutritional education they can use to give athletes a “solid baseline” to build on. In exchange for their cooperation with the research, coaches will get a better understanding of how to help their players up their nutritional game.

“Our gift back to them will be that the coaches will have the data in front of them on how their teams did,” Acquaviva says. "We will do the analysis, and we’ll be able to say to them, ‘If you’re giving nutritional advice and you want to know what to focus on, here’s a place to start. Your athletes got these five questions wrong.’”

Although student-athletes will be able to check their individual scores on the survey, coaches will see only composite results, so participants’ identities won’t be revealed, Domitrovits explains. She completed the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative’s Human Subjects Research course to make sure she was following proper protocol.

A golfer from Newport, N.C., Domitrovits is majoring in exercise science and minoring in biology. She says that taking Acquaviva’s course in Applied Nutrition sparked her interest in pursuing a research project and that she’s already seeing how the work will benefit her as she pursues a physical therapy career.

“Nutrition plays a role in everything,” Domitrovits says. “I know I will be using what I’ve learned to help encourage my patients to improve their nutritional knowledge to help them heal throughout their rehabilitation process.”

Her project is one of seven being funded by Reeves at Wingate this summer.

July 9, 2018

  • Exercise Science
  • Sport Sciences
  • Student Spotlight