March 9, 2018

Student researcher discovers diet deficiencies in Paralympians

Robyn Madden looks at moving nutrition to the forefront for para-athletes

Robyn Madden was caught off-guard by the lack of information. Nowhere could she find nutritional guidelines for Paralympic athletes. Which, given the importance of the information for health and performance, came as a surprise.

"Absolutely, it's crazy," says Madden. "With all the advancements in the Olympic and Paralympic Games when it comes to athletic wear and equipment, like aerodynamic helmets, it's very shocking that sports nutrition remains on the back burner. If these athletes had guidelines, it might make the difference between getting fourth place and getting on the podium or taking one second off the world record."

Currently there is a nutritional guideline for only the general population of able-bodied people. "It's unfortunate," says Madden, "(because) athletes have to default to able-bodied recommendations, which may not necessarily be what they need."

So Madden, a master's student in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, spent two years collecting data from 40 para-athletes — 22 females and 18 males — from nine sports. Assessing their dietary intake could serve as a starting point for the creation of a much-needed nutritional guideline. 

The high-performance subjects recorded in detail what they consumed — food, beverages, supplements — over a single three-day period. What Madden concluded, after comparing their logs to able-bodied recommendations, was that the para-athletes did have adequate diets.

But she uncovered a couple of deficiencies.

"Vitamin D was a major one," Madden says. "Which is very common in anybody, especially in Canada — the northern latitudes, the angle of the sun, isn't quite right for us to soak that up. And for this population, it is harder for certain disabled people to get Vitamin D, for example, those with spinal-cord injuries."

Madden also noted that females failed to meet the recommended daily intake of iron. "This can obviously pose the threat of anemia," she says, "which can cause weaknesses, fatigue, poor concentration, limited physical performance."

One of the study's participants was Suzanna Tangen, a 28-year-old hand cyclist whose legs were partially paralyzed following a spinal-cord infection.

"I was thinking it could have an interesting outcome, so that's why I (volunteered)," says Tangen. "If you dig a little deeper into the physiology and how the body consumes energy when half your body is paralyzed, for example, or if you're missing limbs, you will consume energy differently."

This is where Madden wants to go next with her research. She would like to group the types of impairment and conduct the research again, "to really zoom in to see what those specific athletes need," says Madden. "For example, are those spinal-cord injuries getting less Vitamin D than a visually impaired person?"

She would also like to compare a control group — disabled people who are not athletes — to the Paralympians.

This research project was funded by a Mount Royal University Innovation Grant and the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The study — Evaluation of Dietary Intakes and Supplement Use in Paralympic Athletes — was published in Nutrients. The authors are Robyn F. Madden, MSc (MRU, UCalgary); Jane Shearer, PhD (UCalgary); and Jill A. Parnell, PhD (MRU, UCalgary).