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Football nutrition: time to help the planet win
25 Jan 2024   ·   

Nutrition within elite football is typically focused on ways to improve health and performance of players, ultimately helping the team to win matches, and rightly so. However, we believe that also helping the planet win (i.e. sustainable planetary health) should be brought to the fore. The 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (figure 1), outline the blueprint for a more sustainable world for human and planetary health,1 with the food system directly related to at least seven SDGs. The recent Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)’ Expert Statement on Nutrition in Elite Football also raised the importance of this area.2 With this commentary we bring together experts from elite football, sports nutrition, agriculture and sustainability to discuss the potential for football nutrition to help the planet win.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Figure 1: UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF THE FOOD SYSTEM

Climate change is regarded as the greatest global emergency of our time, and The “Paris Agreement” aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C, working towards a net zero carbon world by 2050.1 The current food system exerts large environmental impacts, with food production generating 26% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GhGe), 32% of global terrestrial acidification, and 78% of eutrophication from agricultural emissions, all of which are drivers of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss.3Animal-sourced food, particularly red meat, has the highest environmental impact (EnvI) as assessed by a life cycle assessment (including a range of relevant environmental impacts, not just GhGe). For example, beef (from a beef herd) requires 23x more land and causes 9x more GhGe per 100g protein compared to poultry.3 The EnvI remains highest for proteins from animal-sourced foods, even those with the lowest impact (e.g., milk and eggs) are more damaging than most plant-based proteins (with the exception of nuts).

WHAT CAN SOCIETY DO?

While there are many solutions to reduce EnvI of the food system, consuming less animal-sourced foods is one of the most impactful approaches in developed countries where meat intake is high.3 Other areas, including a reduction in food loss (during production and processing) and waste, as well as processed foods must also be addressed, as these areas have additional mitigation potential for planetary health.3 Furthermore, giving preference to local and seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as reducing food miles, and in particular, avoiding air freight are further routes for action to mitigate environmental impacts of our food system.4

CLUBS INFLUENCING COMMUNITIES  

Shaping eating habits to support both human and planetary health is not a new concept and has been previously raised by The Eat-Lancet Commission and specifically within sport nutrition.5 

It has been estimated that vegetarian diets would reduce GHGe by ~30%, land use by ~50%, and water use by ~35%.6Assuming one vegetarian day per week, this would result in savings of 4%, 7%, and 5%, respectively. 

Any changes made by players in clubs can be promoted to shape practices in the wider community (table 1). If we consider that the football community represents approximately 265 million playing football, with approximately 1.5 billion people watching the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final, any shift by the wider football community to consume less animal-sourced foods can achieve a positive impact for the environment. Indeed, reduced meat consumption by the football community was stressed as a high-impact mitigation action on climate change in a recent review by Mabon.7

NUTRITION IN FOOTBALL

Nutrition plays a valuable role in optimising health and performance of players, with recommended protein intakes to support musculoskeletal tissue repair and remodelling, almost twice as high as for non-athletes.2 Because of the higher quality of animal-sourced foods, plant-based proteins have historically received little attention. However, recent evidence shows that plant-based proteins may not differ in their capacity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis during recovery from exercise, when ample amounts of protein are consumed by healthy adults.8 Nutritional support from sports nutrition professionals will be required to effectively integrate more plant-based and plant-forward dietary strategies (i.e. flexitarian). 

With up to 60% of elite teams consisting of expatriate players, prioritization of shorter supply chains (i.e. seasonal and locally sourced food) and recognising that increased globalisation and player migration warrants culturally-responsive approaches. Clubs should encourage the provision of global cuisines but using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible.

CONCLUSION AND CALL TO ACTION

We are calling for a paradigm shift for nutrition professionals, support staff and all stakeholders working within elite football (e.g. clubs and federations) – changing the ethos to ensure we always consider the EnvI as well as the impact on player and team performance (a ‘win-win’). We encourage practitioners within federations and clubs to create their own ‘sustainability policy’ as part of the overall nutrition service provision, covering each of the key themes in Table 1 and lead on the education of staff and players throughout the entire organisation, and amplify to their communities both local and global to influence wider societal change.

5 key sport/football nutrition issues and possible solutions for a positive impact on the environment for players

 

Table 1: 5 key sport/football nutrition issues and possible solutions for a positive impact on the environment for players

Authors: James Collins1, Alan McCall2, Luc J.C. van Loon5, Thomas Nemecek4, Alba Reguant-Closa4, Asker Jeukendrup6, 7, Nanna L. Meyer3

AFFILIATIONS:

1 Intra Performance Group, London, UK

2 Arsenal Performance & Research Team, Arsenal Football Club, London, UK

3 Department of Human Physiology and Nutrition, William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center, University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), USA

4 Agroscope, LCA Research Group, CH-8046 Zurich, Switzerland

5 NUTRIM School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism, Maastricht University Medical Centre+, Maastricht, the Netherlands

6 School of Sports Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK

7 Mysportscience, Birmingham, UK

REFERENCES

  1. United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Available: “https://sdgs.un.org/goals”.
  2. Collins J, Maughan RJ, Gleeson M, et al. UEFA expert group statement on nutrition in elite football. Current evidence to inform practical recommendations and guide future research. Br J Sports Med. 2021 Apr;55(8):416. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2019-101961.
  3. Poore J. and Nemecek T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 2018;360:987-992.
  4. Li M, Jia, N, Lenzen, M, et al. Global food-miles account for nearly 20% of total food-systems emissions. Nature Food. 2022;3(6), 445-453. 
  5. Meyer NL, Reguant-Closa A, Nemecek T. Sustainable diets for athletes. Curr Nutr. Rep. 2020;1-16.
  6. Aleksandrowicz L, Green R, Joy EJM, et al. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(11): e0165797. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165797.
  7. Mabon L. Football and climate change: what do we know, and what is needed for an evidence-informed response? Climate Policy. 2022. https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2022.2147895
  8. Hevia-Larraín V, Gualano B, Longobardi I, et al. High-protein plant-based diet versus a protein-matched omnivorous diet to support resistance training adaptations: a comparison between habitual vegans and omnivores. Sports Med. 2021;51:1317-1330.

 

 

 

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