Nutrition Knowledge and Eating Practices of Young Female Athletes

By Wiita, Barbara; Stombaugh, Isabelle et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Nutrition Knowledge and Eating Practices of Young Female Athletes


Wiita, Barbara, Stombaugh, Isabelle, Buch, Jane, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Coaches and others who work with athletes must teach young people how to select nutritious foods that will promote a lifetime of good health.

Young female athletes' concerns about weight and body image strongly influence their eating practices. Knowledge alone is not enough to ensure good dietary habits. Attitudes also affect behavior.

Positive attitudes toward nutrition are linked with accurate nutrition knowledge. Effective nutrition education is as much concerned with attitude changes as cognitive information. Athletes who receive nutrition education have significantly higher knowledge and attitude scores, and as their knowledge increases, they are more likely to eat or avoid certain foods (Werblow, Fox, & Henneman, 1978).

Studies of high school and college female runners show that nutrition knowledge is related to eating behavior. Many misconceptions about food are evident and cause concern. Lifetime consequences of poor food choices may affect reproductive health and bone strength. Eating disorders that begin in adolescence can develop into life-threatening problems.

When athletes are questioned on nutrition knowledge, their responses match those of the general public. Because of their concern for performing well, it would seem that athletes would have better nutrition knowledge than nonathletes; however, the two groups have similar test scores (Barr, 1987).

In a survey of dietary habits of elite female runners, Clark, Nelson, and Evans (1988) showed that most eat nutritious foods. Runners who have less than optimum intake often believe that they are eating wisely even when they are not.

Nutrition knowledge is positively associated with age, education, dietary pattern, sources of nutrition education, and length of time in a sport (Frederick & Hawkins, 1992; Perron & Endres, 1985). Other important factors, such as concern for weight and the dependence on others for food selection, also affect food consumption (Barr, 1987).

Updegrove and Achterberg (1990) explored the eating habits of high school runners and concluded that adolescents in general have poor to marginal nutrition knowledge and dietary practices. Many do not apply what they know. Not until they grow older and learn more about appropriate eating do some female athletes apply principles of nutrition (Barr, 1987; Parr, Porter, & Hodgson, 1987).

Athletes need to understand good nutritional practices. The information they learn in high school is increased during their college years. The kind of information learned and the amount of importance young people place on this knowledge affect both their health and performance.

The Study

A research study was conducted at a midwestern university in 1992 to compare the relationship of nutrition knowledge to eating practices and attitudes between female high school and college athletes. The 54 subjects were college cross-country runners and elite high school runners attending an athletic camp. Participants completed a nutrition knowledge test; a questionnaire concerning eating practices, attitudes, and sources of information; and a three-day food diary.

Nutrition knowledge was measured by means of a modified Werblow test (Werblow, Fox, & Henneman, 1978). The test measured responses to statements regarding basic nutrition and sports nutrition information. The mean score for high school runners was 62 percent correct. The mean score for the college runners was 71 percent correct. The difference between the two scores was statistically significant, showing that college runners have more knowledge of nutrition than high school runners. On seven statements included in the nutrition knowledge test, there was a significant difference in the responses between the groups (table 1). More than 50 percent of the athletes gave incorrect responses to 14 statements, showing the prevalence of misinformation about nutrition (table 2).

When asked whose advice they sought for nutrition information, 17 of the runners (31%) said they asked their coach. …

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