Can Off-Season Weight Issues Affect a Player's Performance?

Ross Edgley@@rossedgleyFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2014

HAMBURG, GERMANY - DECEMBER 13:  Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima (Ronaldo) attends the  After Match Dinner of 'Match against Poverty' at the Restaurant 'Das weisse Haus' on December 13, 2011 in Hamburg, Germany.  (Photo by Christian Augustin/Getty Images)
Christian Augustin/Getty Images

Throughout football's history, there have been some notable players who struggled with their weight.

Diego Maradona weighed 266 pounds before his gastric bypass in 2005, as reported by ESPN, and Brazil's two-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo is now widely referred to as "fat Ronaldo" to differentiate him from the more slender Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo.

But it's recent events at Newcastle United that have brought football's weight-related issues to the mainstream media.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Hatem Ben Arfa "faces [the] axe from Newcastle United's pre-season tour after returning to training overweight."

This is despite Ben Arfa's best efforts to convince manager Alan Pardew that his 1.5 kilograms extra bulk is in fact muscle and not fat.

SCOTT HEPPELL/Associated Press

But while this additional weight is clearly far from ideal, should players really be held accountable for their off-season diet and was Ben Arfa's £1,580 fine justified? Or, like most other jobs, is the contents of a footballer's fridge—when he's essentially on holiday—no one's business but his own?

From an ethical perspective, it could, of course, be argued both ways. However, from a sports science point of view, it seems Ben Arfa could be committing the same form of "nutritional suicide" that claimed much of Paul Gascoigne's career.

To quote Italian legend Dino Zoff, via the Daily Mail, when asked about Gascoigne, he said:

The pity was we saw the beauty he was capable of only so rarely. He destroyed that beauty with his drinking and his eating. He ate ice cream for breakfast, he drank beer for lunch, when he was injured he blew up like a whale. But a player? Oh, beautiful, beautiful.

3 May 1998:  Paul Gascoigne and Paul Merson of Middlesbrough celebrate a return to top flight football after a Nationwide Division One match against Oxford United at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, England. Middlesbrough won the match 4-1 to earnp
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Exploring the relevant research, here we decide if Newcastle were right in their treatment of Ben Arfa and his expanding waistline.

Undernourished and Underfed  

While most people understand that gaining weight usually means you're eating more calories than you're using, studies show that, at football's elite level, it's not as simple as that. This is because there is a big difference between calorie-dense foods and nutrient-dense foods.

As an example, a 500g chocolate bar will contain roughly 2,730 calories—that's more than the 2,500 calories a day recommended by the NHS, yet provides very few of the vitamins and minerals needed to support a professional player's health and performance.

In comparison, 100g of broccoli contains only 34 calories yet is a great source of vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc, vitamin K and B vitamins—all smaller micronutrients needed for optimal performance, both during training and on matchday.

To highlight the severity of this, researchers from the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute in Florida actually stated that high-calorie diets can lead to nutrient deficiency or a new form of malnutrition.

This in turn can leave your body underfed and so, based on this theory, Ben Arfa could be starting this season at a distinct disadvantage and almost undernourished.

Nutritionally Hindered

While it's true alcohol was the main nutritional hindrance in Paul Gascoigne's career, the ice-cream breakfast mentioned by Dino Zoff probably didn't help either. This is because ice cream isn't exactly known for being a great source of minerals.

But what's worse is that a lot of ice creams contain phosphates which, according to scientists from the Department of Food Science at the University of Goteborg in Sweden, have been shown to deplete the body's iron stores.

Iron is obviously hugely important to athletes since it's vital for the transportation of oxygen by haemoglobin and muscles using oxygen by myoglobin. Having less iron in the body means less oxygen can be delivered to the working muscles, which means Gascoigne's ability to last 90 minutes at full pace would be greatly affected.

Again, what this means is the junk food a player eats in his off-season has a much greater impact than a visibly expanding waistline.

Fat Loss

When all players turn up for preseason training, it's the job of the strength and conditioning team to refine their skills and improve their speed, strength, endurance and other fitness components needed to play at the top level.

Obviously in the case of Ben Arfa, the training protocol would have to be altered ever so slightly to cater for his additional bulk. But again, studies show this might not be as simple as cutting a few calories out of his diet.

This is because some high-calorie junk foods are very high in trans fatty acids. Often they are responsible for that "melt in your mouth"-type feeling you get from a really nice cookie or doughnut.

But while it tastes great, research published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition Supplements found that: "There is evidence available in humans indicating that dietary fat quality influences insulin sensitivity and associated metabolic abnormalities."

Put more simply, insulin sensitivity is closely linked to how effectively your body uses carbohydrates as fuel and doesn't store them as fat. Bad insulin sensitivity means the body will release more of the hormone called insulin, which in turn reduces lipolysis (the burning of fat) and increases lipogensis (the storing of body fat.)

All of this means, depending on what Ben Arfa ate during his off-season, it might take more than a few extra hill sprints and salads to lower his body fat since the nutritional damage caused could be much more complex.

In conclusion, based on the research, it seems a player's off-season dietary habits could have an impact on his performance throughout the season.

In the case of Ben Arfa, if he was able to prove the extra bulk was in fact muscle and was a result of carefully planned, nutrient- and calorie-dense diet, then the £1,580 fine should be cancelled.

However, if it's the result of him overindulging on junk food, then the fine, media criticism and pressure from his teammates, as reported in The Guardian, are justified.

It also supports the idea of teams exercising a greater degree of control over the player's off-season diet and activities, even when on holiday.



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