Eating healthy isn’t just for swimmers and wrestlers anymore.

Athletes in a variety of sports are turning to nutrition in an effort to reach optimum performance on the field or court.

Columbus East running back and track athlete Steven O’Neal and Columbus North top girls cross-country and track runner Rachel Brougher are among local athletes who have cut out most of the junk food in their diets and try to eat healthy.

Meanwhile, Brown County senior Corrissa Proctor has reached the state cross-country meet the past two seasons eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

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So does nutrition have an effect on performance? Laura Alexander, a registered dietitian at Columbus Regional Health, thinks so.

“Obviously, what you’re putting in your body is your fuel source,” Alexander said. “It’s very important to make sure you’re eating a very balanced, healthy meal.”

Running on high

In East’s sectional-opening win at Franklin, O’Neal carried the football 17 times for 351 yards and five touchdowns. The next week, he carried a career-high 33 times for 168 yards and a score in a win against Whiteland.

The senior knows he has to prepare himself for all that running, so he eats a lot of meat, including grilled chicken and steak. This year, he led the Olympians to an 11-1 record, a Hoosier Hills Conference title, a No. 2 ranking in Class 5A and a sectional runner-up finish.

“It makes me feel a lot better and healthier,” O’Neal said. “I’ve noticed sometimes during the day, if I have homework, and I don’t have enough time to eat well and I just get something real fast, I won’t feel very well at practice.”

While he tries to avoid fast food, candy and sugary drinks, O’Neal, who is also wrestling for the first time this year, does have a weakness for Skittles.

“I don’t know what it is,” O’Neal said. “I try to stay away from candy, but I eat Skittles all the time. I have a sweet tooth, so every now and then, I’ll try to sneak something in sweet. But I like to try to stay as healthy as I can.”

The Nutritarian Diet

Soon after picking up cross-country in seventh grade, Brougher adopted Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Nutritarian Diet.

The diet includes a lot of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts and seeds and beans. Brougher stays away from sugar and greasy foods.

The results have been staggering. Brougher has earned All-State honors the past two seasons and won Conference Indiana, sectional and regional titles this year. The junior finished 11th in the state finals for the second consecutive year.

“I noticed a complete difference,” Brougher said. “I feel good all the time, and I honestly think it helps me a lot in running. It gives me the energy that I need.”

Proctor eats a lot of pasta, including spaghetti, and will eat steak two days before a race. She’ll sometimes eat some form of protein, including bananas, before she runs.

Most days, Proctor eats at least two or three Smuckers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — one before lunch, one before practice and sometimes one after practice.

“I usually eat healthy,” Proctor said, “but there’s sometimes when I want a cupcake, so I’ll go eat a cupcake.”

The nutrition craze

Rick Weinheimer has led North to five boys and one girls cross-country state title. He said eating a lot of carbs was once considered a good idea, but now says it’s important to get protein in the body very quickly after a hard workout because that starts to rebuild the muscle quickly.

“I would say if you’re only going to do one thing to be good at cross-country, you run,” Weinheimer said. “But if you’re serious about being really good, you pay attention to lots of things, including nutrition.”

Weinheimer said the same philosophy holds true for other sports, including football. The first step for athletes is sport-specific training. Then comes strength, core and flexibility training. Now, nutrition is the hot topic.

While North and East don’t have formal nutrition programs in place for their athletes, their athletics directors said their coaches are well versed in the importance of proper nutrition.

“The majority of our coaches do research, and they will explain the latest research toward sports and nutrition and how they’re related,” North AD Jeff Hester said.

First-year East AD Pete Huse said the same thing happens at his school.

“Our coaches are talking to our kids about what they eat,” Huse said. “Our cross-country coaches are going to talk to our kids about carbs 36 or 48 hours before a big meet. You don’t want to eat a lot of red meat before a competition. You don’t want to drink a lot of pop or caffeinated drinks because it’s just not good for you.”

To be a certified coach (head or assistant), individuals must take two classes that are approved by the IHSAA. One class offered is a sports and nutrition class through National Federation of High Schools in Indianapolis.

“When I started 15 years, ago, it wasn’t really mentioned,” Hester said.

Recipe for athletes

When it comes to training for athletic endeavors, Alexander has a few tips:

— Avoid caffeine. Caffeine could lead to dehydration, as opposed to water or Gatorade.

— Avoid high-processed sugar and anything greasy.

— Eat high-protein foods such as nuts, meats, dairy products and carb source (whole grains).

— For snacks, try protein bars or cliff bars.

Eating carbohydrates provides energy. Then after a workout, protein helps replace muscle.

“Anytime you work out, you’re breaking down muscle fibers, and you need to replace that,” Alexander said. “The protein helps with that healing process.”

At a glance

Ten good and bad foods to eat, according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, father of the Nutritarian Diet:

The best

— Green Leafy Vegetables (e.g. kale, collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, lettuce)

— Non Leafy Cruciferous Vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)

— Berries

— Beans

— Mushrooms

— Onions

— Seeds (e.g. flax, chia, hemp, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin)

— Nuts (e.g. walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, almonds)

— Tomatoes

— Pomegranates

The worst

— Sweetened Dairy Products (e.g. ice cream, low-fat ice cream, frozen yogurt)

— Trans Fat Containing Foods (e.g. stick margarine, shortening, fast foods, commercial baked goods)

— Donuts

— Sausage, Hot Dogs, and Luncheon Meats

— Smoked Meat, Barbecued Meat and Conventionally-Raised Red Meat

— Fried Foods including Potato Chips and French Fries

— Highly-salted Foods

— Soda

— Refined White Sugar

— Refined White Flour

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.