The impact of diet in high-performance athletes living with diabetes

21 July 2022

By Charlotte Hayes, Head of Diabetes, Wellness & Education

Charlotte Hayes is a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist with many years of career experience focused on exercise, nutrition and lifestyle choices that promote fitness, health and well-being.

In her role as Head of Diabetes, Wellness and Education at Team Novo Nordisk, an all-diabetes professional cycling team, she works across a team of coaches, physicians and researchers to support athletes with type 1 diabetes as they compete with the world’s best.

In high-performance sports, the importance of meeting nutrient and energy needs to support the demands of training and competition is well recognized. This is equally true for athletes with diabetes. Thus, combining sound sports and diabetes nutrition principles into a nutrition plan is key to success with both exercise performance and diabetes management. Paying close attention to types, amounts and timing of nutrient intake is important for fueling and recovering from exercise and for keeping glucose in range. 

Team Novo Nordisk athletes apply periodized nutrition plans, recognizing that training plans vary from day-to-day and week-to-week and that nutrient and energy intake must be flexible and adaptable to meet, and not exceed goals for specific types and amounts of training. Timing of meals, snacks, and sports foods before, during and after exercise is a key part of a nutrition plan. With respect to blood glucose management, thinking about timing of exercise in relation to meals and snacks and adjusting insulin dosages in anticipation of the amount of planned exercise is essential to keeping glucose in range. 

Accounting for carbohydrate intake is a focus since this nutrient is central to fueling muscles and keeping blood glucose from falling too low, especially as exercise intensity and duration increase. Having a hydration (drinking) plan that outlines types and amounts of fluids to consume before and during exercise is also important to performance and glucose management. 

Recovery nutrition is a crucial point of focus. The first one to four hours after an intense or long-duration exercise session is a time to maximize nutrient intake – focusing on replenishing glycogen stores and maintaining blood glucose in an optimal range, repairing and building muscle and rehydrating. A recovery meal or snack should combine high-quality carbohydrate and protein sources along with fluids and electrolytes. During this time, when insulin sensitivity is heightened, it is essential for athletes with diabetes to carefully match insulin dosages to recovery meals to minimize glucose highs or lows.

The influence of nutrition on performance is a focus for many athletes. TNN cyclists share this focus. The team provides nutrition guidance that applies science-based nutrition strategies to optimize both individual and team performance.  For our athletes, all living with type 1 diabetes, nutrition plays another central role in helping keep glucose levels in an optimal range and maintaining health and well-being for a lifetime.  So, I would say that TNN athletes have a unique appreciation for the impact of foods and nutrients on both performance and health.

Take a positive approach to nutrition 

One of the most important aspects of managing diabetes is to develop a healthful way of eating and an understanding of how foods affect health and blood glucose. At the same time, it’s important to continue to enjoy eating good food. A variety of eating patterns have been shown to support success with diabetes management. These patterns have similar features including emphasizing non-starchy vegetables (which add color, flavor, texture, and interest to meals), minimizing added sugars and sweeteners, and encouraging the use of whole as opposed to highly processed foods. Develop a personalized eating plan that includes these features and that enables you to achieve your glucose, body weight and overall health goals.

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