For modern-day sportspeople, scientific support is an imperative part of their development, and it includes critical interventions pertaining to nutrition.
The role of a sports nutritionist is becoming increasingly important, and Sportskeeda caught up with Shona Prabhu, co-founder of NutrifyMyDiet, to learn more about the organization, her role as a sports nutritionist, and the importance of the right diet for an athlete.
The inception and journey of NutrifyMyDiet
Shona was an athlete herself and had been curious about nutrition from a young age. That, combined with an interest in meeting new people and adding value to their lives, convinced Shona to take up sports nutrition as a serious career option.
Speaking about the events that led to her co-founding NutrifyMyDiet, Shona said:
“Back in 2016, I was already working with a firm as a nutritionist but my aim was to work with athletes. Unfortunately, the adoption of sports nutrition support as a full-time requirement at national-level training centres has only been a recent development. So, back then, it seemed like the best option for me to do what I really wanted was to have my own organization.”
Shona aims to make NutrifyMyDiet the leading name in sports nutrition in the country, and there are two key areas where she wants it to stand out. Shona explained:
“We want to be an extensively research-based nutrition advisory organization – there is still a certain anecdotal aspect to sports nutrition today, but we want to base it on analyzed data from real cases. Another area that we are focusing on is onboarding of interns who can get hands-on experience working with athletes – when I was studying, such opportunities were limited. I want to change that because these interns will become valuable professionals in the field in the future.”
Sports nutrition being a topic that is still maturing within the Indian sports ecosystem, it is natural that a lot of effort has to go into raising awareness. Speaking about the advisory component of her work, Shona said:
“We do a lot of awareness building when we visit academies and through our social media platforms. ‘More is better’ is still a prevalent mindset, and when these athletes are training at such intensity, it is important to advise them on smarter ways to approach their diet. An aspect which we put heavy focus on is making people understand that diet is an important aspect even at a young age, and not just for elite athletes.”
Through her work with athletes at all levels, Shona has also observed a concerning trend which she hopes to address and change over time. She said:
“There is still this belief that sports nutrition deals primarily with supplements – it is absolutely not so. We work to ensure even the basic food habits of an athlete are conducive to achieve high-performance – without the right food and nutrition intake, supplements cannot produce efficient results!”
Shona also spoke about the need to develop awareness regarding expectations that people have pertaining to sports nutrition, saying:
“Everything is a process – we try to raise awareness regarding the fact that results will not show overnight – it is sometimes a three-month process, sometimes six… It depends on the specific needs. And while we educate athletes, we also urge an athlete’s support ecosystem to have reasonable expectations from the athlete and her/his diet plan and to accord sufficient time for results.”
Sports nutrition in the west and working with Indian elite athletes
Sports in India are still catching up with some of our global counterparts, and we often look outwards for reference and expertise. Shona, through her exposure to sporting ecosystems in the West, particularly the UK, has observed several aspects which set them apart. Shona said:
“In countries like the U.K. and the U.S., there is a norm of collecting extensive data on an athlete’s body – that allows them to take decisions which address even minute albeit critical issues - we need that. We need to first understand Indian athletes, their body composition and other aspects to a great detail – then we can develop indigenous interventions and not seek to adapt existing western solutions.”
Shona further added:
“Another thing we need to appreciate is the need to tackle basic human conditions before focusing on high-performance – almost 60% of athletes I have worked with have anaemia, especially female athletes. If we don’t address the issue of iron deficiency, next-level nutrition interventions may not yield satisfactory results. This awareness is very in-built in the U.K. or U.S. and that allows them to mitigate such issues in athletes from a younger age, which in turn slowly builds that awareness culture.”
Shona has been working with elite athletes for a while, and her recent stints with the Indian National Men’s Hockey team and Delhi Capitals IPL team have been both exciting and insightful. Speaking on the difference in approach to nutrition for the two sports, Shona explained:
“With hockey, it was a long-term process, focusing a lot of endurance, strength and looking beyond short-term results to ensure peak performance capacity during the Tokyo Olympics. Being a highly intensive sport, we had to dive a lot deeper to develop plans which could help the athletes long-term. However, with Delhi Capitals, it was a three-month engagement which was mostly focused on getting the players match-ready, and we only got to work with players around their training schedules. Taking nothing away from cricket, due to the nature of the sport, a less stringent plan would also work.”
Shona further added:
“It was also a case of difference in resource availability – while the IPL players stay at five-star hotels, we were working with the hockey players at a SAI centre. Although SAI did a stellar job in ensuring the athletes' needs were met, the access to certain food types or components could not be the same as at a five-star.”
Shona further explained how the diet plan is highly dependent not just on the nature of the sport but also on the individual. So even for a team sport, working with individual athletes is a major part of the job – while some need to work on food type for endurance, others may need a separate hydration strategy to address recurring cramps.
It is imperative that younger athletes adopt good dietary practices to enhance their performance. Speaking on some key factors for athletes to keep in mind, Shona said:
“Skipping of meals is not encouraged at any level – rather, meals can be broken into large meals and snacks but intake at regular intervals is important. Similarly, timing of intake related to training times is also crucial. Plus, Indian athletes need to work on their protein intake – not through supplements, but through basic food types so that supplements can then get activated better.”
Strict as that may sound, Shona does account for cheat meals. Shona said:
“Athletes are humans, so cheat meals are almost necessary. It helps them break the monotony and its like an incentive to continue the diet plan otherwise. What is important is ensuring the cheat meal is not harmful in any way and is also timed correctly – cheat meal on a Sunday night before a hard day of training on Monday may not be the smartest move!”
Shona also explained how dieting is not only an important part of an athlete’s development plan during their playing career, but also after they stop playing. This is because their body continues to demand a lot of nutrition even without training. Hence, a smooth transition also requires a certain level of hand-holding.
Indian sports is taking a more scientific approach going forward, and nutrition will continue to be an important aspect. Shona hopes the field will soon see more standardized education, stronger research capabilities, increased awareness, and encourage more and more aspiring professionals to take the leap of faith. She believes there is massive potential in the field to make a meaningful impact not just for individual athletes, but for the overall perception of nutrition in sports.