A routine activity for a sports dietitian is to estimate energy and nutrient intake from an athlete’s self-reported food intake. Decisions made by the dietitian when coding a food record are a source of variability in the data. The aim of the present study was to determine the variability in estimation of the daily energy and key nutrient intakes of elite athletes, when experienced coders analyzed the same food record using the same database and software package. Seven-day food records from a dietary survey of athletes in the 1996 Australian Olympic team were randomly selected to provide 13 sets of records, each set representing the self-reported food intake of an endurance, team, weight restricted, and sprint/power athlete. Each set was coded by 3–5 members of Sports Dietitians Australia, making a total of 52 athletes, 53 dietitians, and 1456 athlete-days of data. We estimated within- and between- athlete and dietitian variances for each dietary nutrient using mixed modeling, and we combined the variances to express variability as a coefficient of variation (typical variation as a percent of the mean). Variability in the mean of 7-day estimates of a nutrient was 2- to 3-fold less than that of a single day. The variability contributed by the coder was less than the true athlete variability for a 1-day record but was of similar magnitude for a 7-day record. The most variable nutrients (e.g., vitamin C, vitamin A, cholesterol) had ~3-fold more variability than least variable nutrients (e.g., energy, carbohydrate, magnesium). These athlete and coder variabilities need to be taken into account in dietary assessment of athletes for counseling and research.
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