Dr Sharon Madigan, Head of Performance Nutrition, Sport Ireland Institute.
Dr Sharon Madigan, Head of Performance Nutrition, Sport Ireland Institute.

Proper nutrition advice can protect physical and mental health of our players

By John Harrington

The physical and mental health of many of our young GAA players is being compromised by the mixed and often misleading messaging they are being exposed to in terms of body image and nutrition.

If you have an interest in sport, then there’s a good chance your social media accounts are flooded with targeted advertising telling you how to achieve the perfect six-pack, what supplements you should take to help you in this endeavour, or why even intermittent fasting can transform your body for the better.

The problem with this deluge of information is two-fold.

Firstly, much of this unfiltered and unsolicited nutrition and exercise advice is misleading or even false to the extent that it can damage rather than enhance your heath.

Secondly, the ‘body beautiful’ imagery that is usually used to push this messaging and the pressure to attain what is often unattainable poses a real threat to the mental as well as physical health of our young women and men.

Dr. Sharon Madigan is the Head of Performance Nutrition with the Sport Ireland Institute and has real concerns about this growing trend.

She hopes the newly formed Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group that she is a member of can produce guidance that will help sift out the “cowboys and snake-oil salesmen” she believes are damaging the health of our young players.

GAA.ie: Sharon, you have long history of working with both male and female GAA teams and players, isn’t that right?

Sharon Madigan: I do. I started my trade with Burren back in the day in the 1990s. I spent many years with the Derry county team. I really felt that that's kind of where I learned my trade, before the days of structured service provision through institutes and high performance centres. And there was a great multidisciplinary team where I could learn from them and vice versa.

There were no specialist courses on the island of Ireland and I had done mine in England and was a dietitian in the NHS. I was lucky enough to start a PhD in Jordanstown time around the time that the Sports Institute was being developed in Belfast. And GAA was one of the founder sports within the Northern Ireland Institute of Sports. A number of players from each of the counties in Ulster were selected receive support through the Institute in Jordanstown and I would have been working with the county Derry team at that stage as well. So, yeah, I have a long number of years experience of working with GAA players and teams, probably too many counties and clubs to mention. I've worked with a lot of great managers and coaches at county and club level and worked with both codes, men’s and women’s teams so I'd have a good range of experience.

GAA.ie: Is one of the main goals of the new Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group to drive a healthier message around nutrition to younger people through the GAA?

SM: At the level county teams and club teams are at we're probably looking at some gains that can be made in terms of performance, but we're also looking at just the actual long term health and wellbeing of our players as well. That's our fundamental starting point.

When you get to the level of an All-Ireland or national league the managers and coaches are looking to get as much as they can get out of the player. The player is looking to get as much as they can from their own performance. Nutrition can play a big part in that.

When you're talking about underage, both of my kids used to play for clubs in Down and Antrim and both have hundreds of kids at all age levels there.

Gaelic Games has such an opportunity to promote really good, healthy messages when it comes to nutrition. The club senior players and county players of whatever code can really encourage those messages down to those age-groups because they're hanging on their every word. They're watching everything they do and they want to be the same.

The Eatwell Guide.
The Eatwell Guide.

GAA.ie: Young people who use social media in particular are bombarded with unfiltered information on how to achieve a perfect body and what supplements they should use to help them. How damaging can it be for young people to be exposed to this?

SM: I just think there are so many mixed messages out there. The big problem that we are struggling with is that a lot of individuals are very focused on what they see on Instagram or other social media outlets.

Unfortunately, the body beautiful does influence a lot of our athletes across every sport, not just the GAA. And I think some of those messages are filtering down to our players at U-10, U-12, U-14, and U-16. Some of those messages are not appropriate and a lot of them are quite unhealthy.

Supplements for me are the sprinkles on the cake. You have to have your cake right first with all of the basic ingredients there and the basic ingredients for someone who is 14 or 15 are very different than for someone who is 24 or 25. If the 14 or 15 year olds don't get the basic ingredients right, then they're going to run into trouble at 24/25. Because you're building resilience in particular in your bone health. At that age you're effectively paying into your bone pension in the teenage years and if they are following habits which can negatively affect that then it is a cause for concern. That's why calcium and iron rich foods are very, very important for boys and girls at that age group.

That's why some of the messages that are coming out are so dangerous, messages like dairy isn't good, bread is not good for you or you could have an intolerance to it. Some people could have intolerances, don't get me wrong, but it's highly unlikely. But if people are substituting dairy with non-dairy alternatives, like rice milk and almond milk, and they think they're getting a like for like product they need to be aware that that is not the case when it comes to nutrition. We need to get across that it's the long-term health and wellbeing that's important, not the kind of short, sharp shock that's going to get you something tomorrow but is not lasting.

GAA.ie: How big an issue is the growing obsession with body image having on the mental health of young people?

SM: I've seen significant changes as the years have progressed. I'm now seeing more and more issues in terms of body image with boys and men as well as girls and women. There are issues here in terms of how people are thinking about their body image and the anxiety and stress that that is causing them because they're now so concerned with developing a six-pack or how they look in a shirt. Although most people will laugh it off, there are a significant bunch of people for who it causes some serious mental health issues. Many young sportspeople just aren't eating enough or are scared to eat because the messaging they're getting is not to eat too much because they'll become overweight.

Quite often young players I work with seem very unsure when I come in and give them the message that they need to eat more to fuel what they're trying to do. I've seen some players in Universities who also play for their counties have breakfast at 10am, going into classes, going straight from classes to University training from 1pm to 2.30pm, getting into a car and driving to wherever county training is, doing that training, grabbing a quick sandwich if they're lucky and then getting back in the car back to Belfast and not eating again until 10am the next morning. And then they wonder why they have burn-out and suffer injuries.

Supplements can have a place in sport and for some a really important place, but people don't know enough about them and understand how they work best and what is appropriate.

I remember a few years ago a supplement was doing the rounds, all the rage, a stimulant, which had been implicated in a number of athlete deaths. That was on changing room tables at half-time for club level teams, and they didn't have a notion what it was going to do to them.

GAA.ie: Is there much of a correlation between incorrect nutrition and injuries in sport?

SM: I believe there's a link between injuries and energy intakes and potentially links with bone injuries and low carbohydrate diets. I always try to educate players using the image of a fuel tank. So you have your fuel tank for training and your food gives you the fuel tank. Your food also fills up other tanks for good health, bone health, soft tissue health, blood health, hormones, immunity, et cetera.

What a lot of players do in terms of their routine is to do the same thing every day and seem to forget on the day that they're training they will use more calories. They eat the same amount on those days or even less because they don't have the time to eat properly. So over a period of time the fuel going into those other tanks gets depleted to make sure there's enough fuel for the training tank. Then, 'bang', something happens. You'll find that the players who pick up colds during the winter are also the ones that get the hamstring and groin injuries.

Some of them will say to you that they're cutting back on what they're eating because they want to lose weight and then they're also training very hard, but it's very difficult to do both at the same time.

We do know that males are much more at risk of an injury happening just out of the blue. Females, because of the menstrual cycle, will have red flags that will be telling them that's something is not right, but they may not listen to it or they don’t know that it is a red flag. Whereas males don't have that. Now, let’s look at a player with a significantly labour intensive job, about 6' 5'', maybe 96 kilos. I would say easily for him his daily calorie expenditure was between 5000-7000 calories on a training day. And for lunch had had two packets of cooked chicken, some salad, and just one bread roll. He didn't want to eat carbohydrates because he wanted to keep his six-pack, and that's when you run into problems. There were lots of injuries.

A female's menstrual cycle must be taken into consideration when it comes to sport and sports nutrition. 
A female's menstrual cycle must be taken into consideration when it comes to sport and sports nutrition. 

GAA.ie: What different considerations need to be given to the nutrition of female athletes compared to male athletes? You mentioned the menstrual cycle, is that something you have to take into consideration?

SM: It is. Girls, like boys, would be concerned about body weight and body image. People mature and change body shape, particularly in their teenage years, at very different rates. So if you've got a girl that hasn't maybe matured as much at 12 or 13, she's maybe trying to do something different to a friend who has a different body shape. It can be hard at that age and you'll have girls who are cutting back on what they are eating and don't recognise how hard they are training. The overall cost is that they can end up actually not having a menstrual cycle. I have seen so many girls at the age of 16 or 17 who have not had a period because they're playing so much sport.

What you have at the moment is a lot of young people doing extra running during this lockdown because they want to get fit and they think the way to achieve a change in body composition is to cut back on food. That's the first thing that goes when they're trying to change their body shape. Whereas if you eat appropriately and train appropriately, that's the best way to change your body shape. And when they don't have a menstrual cycle that is so important because that will tell us they're much more at risk of bone injuries and bone-health problems down the line because they haven't protected those bones. The other thing is that iron levels for females are different up to the age of 18. And their calcium becomes very important as well. So there are some considerations for females that are not massively different, but there is some difference there all the same.

GAA.ie: There is little that can be done about all the mixed and misleading messaging that’s out there, but can the GAA at least strive to ensure its messaging in terms of nutrition is the best in class?

SM:100 per cent. I think the key thing for us is that the messages that are being put out are appropriate for the age-group and the level that people are playing at. And also that the people who are delivering those messages are qualified to do so.

That for me is a tricky situation because there was a long period of time when we didn't have the courses in Ireland to qualify people to deliver those messages, but we do now, and we have a lot of people who have gone away to do appropriate qualifications who have come back to Ireland.

When I was working for any county team my first responsibility was the safety and wellbeing of the player. But I always felt I had a significant responsibility to the county board. If a county board buys supplements for players and those supplements are not appropriate or safe, then they're bringing a whole load of problems down on themselves.

There are too many people swimming outside their lane across too many disciplines. I have called out colleagues and coaches when I felt they were saying things that were completely inappropriate. I think nutrition expertise can bring a lot to the party in terms of the health and wellbeing and safety of players at all levels. And it's not just about performance, it's the wider picture around nutrition for well-being throughout your life.

GAA.ie: Can a system be put in place to make sure every GAA club has access to a qualified nutritionist they can go to for the right messaging?

SM:That's one of the things we're looking at. We're looking first of all at what counties have that expertise in place already and whether those individuals could work across a region.

As a starting point we would like to look at having appropriately qualified people within the provinces to figure out operationally what is required and support those practitioners within the counties. And then to try to build that up with all the people who are coming out of third level now with qualifications in sport, exercise, and nutrition.

They can help deliver education programs for players, coaches and parents. They can add value to the overall multidisciplinary team. Ten years ago the big topic of conversation was burn-out, and part of that was due to this but we never really engaged the conversation that players weren't eating enough because maybe it sounds too basic.

GAA.ie: You sound enthusiastic about the plans the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group has and the potential impact of those plans?

SM: Absolutely. There are enough people with appropriate qualifications in the country if we could just harness that in the right way.

We've got a great sub-group of four people, two of which are based in third level and two of which are based in the Institute. We all come with a lot of experience with a range of counties, clubs and sports. All are practitioners.

I don't know how many referrals I've had over lockdown of young boys and girls getting in trouble over over-training and under-eating. Some serious issues through the last six months which have been really very sad and so many people looking for help.

There is a big body of work to be done and it can be a bit overwhelming when you look at it. The key is to start with evidence based recommendations and build and deliver on that so that all Clubs and Counties have access to appropriate resources for all their players.

There are a lot of cowboys and snake oil salesmen out there and this group is aiming to produce guidance for the GAA to help sift them out.


The four members of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group's nutrition sub-group are :

Sharon Madigan - Head of Performance Nutrition with the Sport Ireland Institute

Laura Mahony - Performance Nutrition Consultant with the Sport Ireland Institute

Catherine Norton - Lecturer in Nutrition for Sports Performance in UL and Performance Nutritionist with Munster Rugby.

Ronan Doherty - Performance Nutrition Consultant with the Sport Ireland Institute and Lecuter in LYIT.