SHOW DR. SARAH Short an athletic program and she'll show you some weird eaters. From wrestlers to rowers, the nutrient profiles of Syracuse University athletes appear on Short's computer--and reveal what those students believe about eating, and where that leaves their nutritional status.
Short, a nutrition professor and biochemist, monitors the nutritional status of the members of 16 athletic teams at Syracuse. She knows who's deficient, who's overweight, who's underweight. In fact, she's even become confident enough in her findings to predict which players will make the pros. (So far, she's been 100 percent right; one prediction, one pro choice.)
As it turns out, there's no mumbo jumbo involved. She observes how much the athletes eat, then how much they burn through activity. She figures the ones who burn the most work the hardest. A little simplistic, perhaps, but she's made a point.
She obtains three-day diet histories from most of the athletes, except wrestlers. "Three days is meaningless for them," she says, "they may not eat for three days." She punches a diet history into a computer programmed by her son (he has his Ph.D from Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and it spits out the athlete's nutritional status.
Her "athletic" endeavors started when the crew team approached her about an overweight team member. They had heard about her classes and the sometimes bizarre methods she uses to get students excited about nutrition, which -- in addition to multi-media presentations and entering the classroom on a motorcycle--included a computer analysis of their diets. The crew complained that they were "sick and tired of rowing him around," and asked Short to run a computer profile on him.
The overweight rower tended to gorge at meals, so Short recommended he keep healthful snacks (fresh fruit was available for the taking at the college cafeteria) within easy reach to control his appetite. She told him to "eat what you like but eat half as much and cut out the desserts."
By the time the rower was 15 pounds lighter, "the word sort of got around, more of the crew came to see me and took my classes." Soon the graduate student trainers on athletic teams enrolled in her classes. Then she established a rapport with the team trainers, and before you could say "calcium deficiency," she was joining football and basketball teams at their training tables -- historically a very unlikely place for an adult to be, much less a woman.
She's encountered a few surprises. "I was astounded at the huge amount of calories they were consuming," she says.
She expected to see them polish off as many as 5,000 calories a day. The textbooks, says Short, explain that 5,000 is adequate for "the athlete."
She quickly learned that the athlete doesn't exist. Even among football players, a wide range of needs exists. Some run, while others stand and look fierce. And there's no average, either. The recommended dietary allowances (RDA) are established for the reference male -- who is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 154 pounds -- and the reference female -- who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 128 -- at moderate activity levels. There aren't a lot of women crew members who are 5 feet 4, says Short.
Some of the athletes were eating as much as 14,000 calories a day -- "as much as an average man eats in a week," she says. At the football training table, the players are allowed 16 ounces of meat and as much of anything else as theywant. Most ignore salads while slathering five to six rolls with butter. Short saw 22 pats of butter on one tray alone.
Even though they eat a lot, athletes don't always get proper nutrients. Many of them are deficient in vitamin A and calcium. In one rare case, Short found deficiency diseases in a wrestler who was so low in vitamin A and riboflavin that his lips were cracking, the inside of his nose had dried so he nearly always had colds (mucus membrane is one defense against disease), his eyes teared and he was extremely sensitive to light.
Short would ultimately like to discover whether fat (as distinguished from total calorie) intake makes any difference in the fat content of the body. Some of the athletes she sees consume a diet that is 50 percent fat (the average American consumes 40 percent; the American Heart Association recommends around 30).
Until then, she will deal with:
* Coaches who "know about training, [who] know about X's and O's" but who don't concern themselves enough with the nutritional needs of their athletes.
* Wrestlers who starve themselves until they make their weight class, then gorge themselves for several hours before their match, so they'll be heavier. Short says they typically enter classes that require weight levels far below normal.
They will go to any extreme to lose weight. If they are two to three pounds heavy at weigh-in, "they don't even consider that a problem," says Short, who adds that they will vomit, run in sweat suits, even spit, to dehydrate themselves enough to make weight. Once they weigh in successfully they'll "eat full grocery bags" full of food, she says, because they think the extra weight will give them the advantage in the match. This all happens in a matter of three hours or so.
Even more amazing, their weight may fluctuate 20 pounds in a week, says Short. Three of the wrestlers she checked had each gained 30 pounds within three days of the end of wrestling season.
* Football players who think that zinc supplements improve invulnerability -- sort of like a coat of mail. One player took 30 zinc pills every day because he thought it would "coat him so he wouldn't get hurt."
* Athletes in general who think that powdered protein supplements will help their game, even though Short tries to tell them it's "training that builds muscle, not what you eat." Still, she says, most of them consume three to five times the protein they need, and the big eaters consume up to 12 times as much.
With the help of her computer, and a new device that uses sound to measure percent body fat, Short hopes to determine how diet affects specific athletes -- and how to convince them and their coaches that diet is important.