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What is integrative sports nutrition?

What is integrative sports nutrition?

Ian Craig explains what integrative sports nutrition (aka functional nutrition) is, how it differs from traditional sports nutrition and why it matters now.

It started in 2007 when as a nutritional therapy practitioner and lecturer, Ian was asked to put together a course in sports nutrition for the Centre for Nutrition Education in the UK.

Fast forward 10 years and the course Personalised Sports Nutrition that Ian initially developed is still running. He is now the editor of Functional Sports Nutrition magazine and is putting together a new postgraduate course which will arrive in 2018.

Things have moved on quickly over the last 10 years in our understanding of the human body and how it interfaces with food, but most practitioners are still wrapped up in a quantitative understanding of nutrition: e.g. how many calories, how many grams of carbs, proteins and fats should a particular athlete be consuming? Nutrition is individualised only to the point of quantity, but the same poor quality breakfast cereals, bread and commercial meat and dairy products are still being promoted by some quite esteemed sports nutrition experts, without notable respect for the concept of quality.

Ian CraigIan believes a qualitative view of sports nutrition starts to focus on food sources, as represented in the pyramid below. Considerations of human health include certain keywords, including; organic, seasonal, local, grass-fed, soil quality, traditional practices, fermented foods, stocks etc. If we can nourish our athletes with very high-quality foods, it by-passes many of the health complaints that arise from lack of micronutrient and phytonutrient intake and long-duration toxicity, which resides in our commercial foods.

What is integrative sports nutrition?

Integrative sports nutrition pyramid

Moving to the next level of the pyramid, functional or integrative practitioners view athletes as complete genetically individual beings with unique health requirements. These include; gastrointestinal, biotransformation and detoxification, immune, musculoskeletal, endocrine, nervous, emotional and psychological needs. It is no longer acceptable to paint each athlete with the same one-size-fits-all brush with the only discernment of difference being that of macronutrient quantity.

An example might be an athlete, who after detailed computer analysis, is recommended to eat x grams of carbs per day spread over x number of meals and snacks, is given dietary suggestions of Bran Flakes or Weetabix for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and pasta-based dinners. What would happen to his health (and therefore stability of his performance pyramid) if he has a chronic sensitivity to modern wheat products? When Ian was a competitive runner 20 years ago he experienced this, dutifully following dietary software outputs to the tee. He blamed his constant gut issues on the stress of my training, but he now concedes that the cheddar cheese sandwiches at lunch probably didn’t help too much!

To ‘grow’ as an athlete, we need to go way beyond simple dietary observations and adjustments. Click To Tweet

To ‘grow’ as an athlete, we need to go way beyond simple dietary observations and adjustments. Due consideration for his or her genetic polymorphisms, amino acid metabolism, endocrine function, bioenergetics, neurotransmitter pathways, intracellular infections and mitochondrial health, is how an integrative practitioner practices. They aim to understand their client, their athlete (whether elite or recreational), as fully as possible so that he or she is allowed to flourish health-wise. Only then are we able to load them with heavy daily training and specialised sports nutrition strategies (as shown in tier 3 of the pyramid), such as nutrient timing. If their health is good, their adaptability to training will be good. If their health is shaky and if, for example, they are suffering from borderline adrenal or thyroid fatigue issues or pituitary imbalance, or sympathetic nervous system over-functioning, they will burn out or injure themselves or become ill before they can reach their potential. Many athletes meet this fate and do not get the chance to see how good they can be and that is a crying shame.

Integrative sports nutrition has the vision of helping athletes, who are under our care, to experience a long and healthy sporting career, with sporting excellence and enjoyment as their ultimate outcomes.

Ian recently did a four series webinar for us here at Human Kinetics and the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES). You can view these here:

  1. What is Integrative Sports Nutrition?
  2. Overtraining from a Functional Health Perspective
  3. DIY sports drinks and gels that nourish, not deplete
  4. A case study of an adrenally fatigued, nutrient-depleted professional athlete

Read more about Ian Craig and the Centre for Integrative Sports Nutrition postgraduate course.

Also, check out our latest and most popular nutrition books.

 Nutrition for sport, exercise and health ACSM Complete guide to health and fitness  Endurance sport nutrition Performance nutrition

This entry was posted in: Fitness & Health, Sport & Exercise Science


Hi, I'm Ryan, the Marketing Manager and chief blogger here at Human Kinetics Europe Ltd. As somewhat of a washed-up athlete I've always had a passion for health, fitness and sport science. I now find myself working at the world’s biggest independent publisher of sport, health, dance and fitness resources. This means I get unrestricted access to all the best, most interesting, scientifically-proven writing on sports science. Of course I'm going to share this with you!

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