Background: Nutrition plays an important role in athletic performance and athletes should adopt specific strategies according to their sport characteristics before a competition.
Among which, to avoid unknown foods and to apply previously tested nutrition strategies.
Methods: Aiming to understand how athletes cope with their food choices in different food culture contexts, in this cross-sectional study, nine athletes (six Spaniards and four
Brazilians) with international experience, from different sports (four gymnasts, three martial arts athletes and two water polo players), were interviewed about their food experiences when competing
Results: Brazilian athletes reported experiences in Bulgaria, Chile, and Uzbekistan while Spanish athletes in Finland, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, and Turkey. All athletes reported
difficulties in choosing food in these countries and additional stress regarding the search for 'adequate food'. There was a lack of food choices which respected their cultural background. Athletes
did not recognize foods, or did not like the flavors available. Athletes’ strategies were adopted when they were responsible for their own food or when a food service was available by the competition
organization: a) when responsible for their own meals, athletes looked for buffet style restaurants or known/preferred cuisines; b) to buy food locally: this strategy leads to other challenges, such
as the identification of unknown products, reading labels in another language and additional expenses. Moreover, it is not always possible for the athlete to go shopping or to find places close by. A
solid knowledge on food composition and nutritional equivalence is necessary; c) to take food and supplements: this practice is limited by customs legislation, and weight of bags; c) adaptation to
what is offered: to eat what is acceptable/possible, often leads to changes in habitual dietary pattern. There is a greater possibility that intake falls short of energy and nutrients regarding
pre-competition demands; d) to eat unfamiliar foods: increased risk of developing gastrointestinal symptoms; e) request to modify menu: not always the food service available is able or allowed to
Conclusions: Modifications in pre-competition nutrition strategies due to the difficulty in finding habitual, planned, preferred, suitable, safe and within budget foods increases
stress before competition and may have other important consequences for sports performance. Athletes have to be prepared to make the best food choices when faced with a new cultural environment:
learning beforehand about local food choices and label interpretation, testing different food strategies approaches and having a good knowledge on food composition can help athletes achieve their
pre-competition nutrition goals in foreign countries. Food services should be motivated to offer wider options of food, respecting athletes’ cultural background. Nutritionists should be part of the
professional team working with athletes.