Digestive health is key to high performance in sports, says Chicago Fire FC defender

Jonathan Bornstein prepares to pass | Chicago Fire FC

Health is a big factor in professional sports. A short-term injury or illness can leave an athlete on the bench upon return, while more serious injuries could prematurely end a career. Although injuries can sometimes occur at random, they can also be caused by poor conditioning and nutritional habits.

The average career length of a Major League Soccer (MLS) player is only a little over three years, often cut short by injuries, intense competition, and poor habits. Overcoming the odds is what makes Chicago Fire FC defender Jonathan Bornstein a special case. The 2021 MLS season is his 16th as a professional, a career spanning seven teams in three different countries.

While Bornstein has seen a lot of changes since his 2006 MLS rookie season, there is one constant — his focus and commitment to nutrition and careful eating habits. His meals have always included lots of lean proteins like chicken and fish, low-FODMAP grains like rice, and greens like spinach, kale, and lettuce. Despite his early success in developing healthy eating habits, he says his rookie teammates are more knowledgeable about health and nutrition than he was at their age.

“Back then, players didn’t think much about the link between nutrition and performance,” Bornstein said. “They have since become more aware of the science behind why eating certain foods can either benefit you, or consequentially affect you in a negative way.”

Bornstein credits his own dedication to healthy eating to his family. Having two young children at home has made him pay closer attention to digestive health, often monitoring what they eat and how they feel afterward. His wife, Juliana, ensures the family consumes a diet filled with seafood, lean meats, fresh produce, beans, and nuts.

Jonathan Bornstein | Chicago Fire FC

“She’s from Southern Brazil, a region known for its cuisine,” said Bornstein. “Meeting her at 28 helped me focus on my nutrition. I owe a lot of my good eating habits to her.”

His life as a parent is often reflected on the field. Like any parent, Bornstein often tells his children to go to the bathroom before embarking on a long drive, knowing fully well that “having to go” often is not feasible or comfortable while on the road. As a captain on the Fire, he shares a similar advice to his teammates before playing a 90-minute game. Aside from checking equipment, stretching, and eating, he also makes sure to go to the restroom well before the game. The consequences of not doing so can have a significant impact on performance.

“It takes away from the mental aspect of the game,” said Bornstein. “You can’t be as focused and concentrated on the game, and react accordingly, when you’re constantly thinking, ‘I have to go!’”

“The physical sensation can definitely hinder performance, especially while you’re trying to run and change direction at full speed,” he said. “You need to take care of that before the game so you can get on the field and perform at your highest level.”

Borstein recalls a time when his gut affected him on the field. During a tournament in July 2020, Bornstein had stomach issues immediately before a game. Despite taking medications and drinking plenty of water, he was forced to make a tough decision.

“Because of the humidity, the sweat, and all the fluids I lost earlier,” said Bornstein, “I had to ask the coaching staff to take me off at halftime. My stomach was hurting too much. I learned the hard way that keeping my gut healthy is part of getting ready for game day.”

While Bornstein doesn’t suffer from chronic digestive issues, such as IBS, he does believe in the importance of keeping the gut healthy. Bornstein hopes that his teammates, both present and future, can focus on their digestive health more closely to enjoy lengthier careers.

“I would tell any young athlete that it’s all in the details, especially in digestive health,” said Bornstein. “You need to replenish what you lose from your body in the proper way. If you notice you’re not doing well, then you need to figure out what’s wrong.”

Bornstein suggests getting help from a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to develop a dietary routine that fits the needs of the specific sport or athletic endeavor. He adds that the job of a professional athlete involves losing an incredible amount of calories and fluids just from training alone. Replenishment is very important, he says, and is often the key to avoiding injury and maintaining good fitness. Bornstein insists on talking to your doctor to find what work best for your body.

“Find what works best for you and go for it,” said Bornstein. “Never give up on your dreams and work your hardest to get where you want to go.”