The Nutritional Requirements for an Athlete

The Nutritional Requirements for an Athlete

by Peak Performance

As with any athletic performance, the health and nutrition of an athlete is all about decision making and making the right choice. Some choices are better than others but, overall, we want to make consistent good decisions more than bad ones. But just satisfying oneself with a good pre-game meal and making poor/bad choices for the rest of the week, will not have the desired effect on any athletic performance. Here I consider the nutritional requirements for an athlete, and provide details of what you should eat, how much, and what to avoid.

Do not be afraid to eat the foods you like. Even professional athletes are not perfect 100% of the time when it comes to food choices. A more realistic figure that all athletic performers can achieve might be 80%. If you totally avoid the foods you like, it may lead to eating binges and possibly guilt! Keep the portions small and enjoy the experience. While you ‘indulge’ in these ‘forbidden foods’, you should take time to savour the experience… Sit at a table, use cutlery… make it an experience to remember. Do not rush it. Do not eat while standing. This will leave you unsatisfied and may lead to overeating.
By having breakfast, you are making the best decision of each and every day! Eat small meals throughout the day. Eating breakfast will keep you from playing catch-up the rest of the day.
Eating breakfast will also help you make better choices at your next meal or snack. When you have that starved feeling from skipping meals, you are more likely to overeat at your next meal and choose ‘fast foods’ that are of poor quality. Instead of big ups and downs in your blood sugar level with only three big meals each day, eating five or six smaller meals and snacks will keep energy levels steadier and boost your metabolism. Think of your body and metabolism like a furnace. You want to keep warm by stoking the fire all day with smaller pieces of wood rather than burning it all at once.
Following a training session or game, athletes should not miss the ‘carb window’, (30-90mins) after performing and the timeframe in which muscles are most receptive to replacing muscle glycogen.
The editors of Men’s Health magazine published a book titled The Abs Diet detailing a very sensible nutrition plan for active people. This plan takes a more positive approach by focusing on what foods you should eat, as opposed to highlighting ‘forbidden’ foods… Their ‘power 12’ foods are:

  • A: almonds, other nuts, seeds, and avocado
    • B: beans and legumes, lentils, peas, hummus
    • S: spinach and other green vegetables
    • D: dairy products, fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese
    • I: instant oatmeal, unsweetened and unflavoured (use berries or fruits to flavour)
    • E: eggs or egg beaters
    • T: turkey and lean steak, chicken, or fish
    • P: peanut butter, all natural and sugar free
    • O: olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sesame oil
    • W: whole grain breads and cereals
    • E: extra protein (whey) powder
    • R: raspberries, other berries and fruits.

Overall nutrition and the food choices an athlete makes are what count! No single food or food group can make or break our eating plan. Make changes one meal at a time. Start by eating a healthy breakfast or just adding breakfast, if you do not already have one. Add healthy snacks or switch to healthier snacks during the day. After conquering breakfast, dinner is the next priority – make your own meal five nights per week. Plan all five meals in advance and shop for the whole week at one time. Lunch is probably the hardest change to make because we do not typically have the benefit of being in our own kitchen. Try to bring or make your own lunch at least one or two times per week – maybe bring some leftovers from the healthy dinner you made the night before.

When you do eat out, try to pick restaurants with at least some healthy choices on the menu. Make sure at least part of your meal is nutritious. If you choose a lower quality entrée, pick healthier sides, etc.
How much to eat
When deciding on how much food for each meal, use portion size and food quality to control your calories and food intake rather than eliminating entire foods eg pick healthier versions – red meat is OK, but instead of a hamburger have a small, leaner cut of beef and trim off any excess fat. By excluding foods or entire food groups it can lead to an unbalanced diet and may cut out nutrients that are essential to the needs of your body metabolism. For example, if you eliminate all dairy products from your diet, then you need to find substitutes that will help you get enough calcium, such as fortified soy or rice milk and green, leafy vegetables.
It is OK to eat after 6.00pm, just make sure it is part of your plan and not a binge. Eating a huge meal late at night or just before going to bed is certainly a bad decision. Snacks are perfectly OK and even smaller meals are fine, as long as they are eaten a couple of hours before going to bed.
Eating a larger meal immediately before going to sleep may cause sleep disturbances and may not be efficiently digested and used by the body. You want to wake up feeling hungry, so the worst possible effect of late night eating is not being hungry in the morning and throwing off your whole eating plan the rest of the day.
When eating your meals, especially dinner, remember to eat it slowly… it is not a race. It can take up to 20 minutes before the brain recognises that you have eaten your fill. Put down the fork between bites, chew the food thoroughly and your body has time to better digest it.
When considering fluid, as part of your plan, an athlete should drink lots of water, fruit juice, or vegetable juice. Avoid coffee, tea, soda, and other sugary drinks. Be honest about your alcohol intake, the empty calories add up!
Stick with complex carbohydrates from whole grains. Bleached and enriched grains have their natural nutrients taken out and then artificial nutrients added back in later. A product labelled just as ‘wheat’ (eg wheat bread) is not the same as ‘whole wheat’. Check the list of ingredients on the label and make sure that they include the phrase ‘whole wheat’ or ‘whole oats’, etc. Sweets are mostly simple sugars that often include lots of saturated fat and have few vitamins or minerals.
Eating simple sugars leads to a brief high followed by a big crash.
Try to find natural or fresh versions of your favourite foods. Avoid processed foods that contain a lot of partially hydrogenated oils and excess saturated fat as well as high fructose corn syrup and other simple sugars. These empty calories take up space for more nutrient dense foods that can help your performance.
Do we need fat?
Fat is OK. We just do not need a ton of it! Fat helps make us feel full and the desire for fatty foods is quickly met. Most of the time, low-fat foods may not be any better for you anyway. They often replace the fat with simple sugars, salt, and artificial or chemical fillers. They may have reduced the fat but not the calories, so when you are choosing foods, read the labels on the low-fat or nonfat products. Sometimes, picking the regular version instead of the non-fat version may actually be a better choice. Look for dairy products made from 1% or skimmed milk rather than those just
labelled as low fat. Again, use portion size to control your calories and foods.
Control your portions by getting the added fats on the side. This includes sauces, salad dressings, spreads, mayonnaise, butter, margarine, oils, etc. You can put smaller amounts on your food or you can quickly dip your fork into the salad dressing or sauce and then use the fork to pick up a bite. You can also buy misters/sprayers for oils. Remember that baked, grilled, broiled, poached, or steamed is better than fried.
Try to include as many food groups in each meal or snack as possible. Try for at least two different food groups in each snack. For example, eat a bagel with peanut butter and banana slices, strawberries with yogurt, or pretzels and tomato juice.
Eating the same foods all the time is boring and you may leave out some vital nutrients.
Experiment with new foods or different preparations and seasonings. The following are examples of healthy snacks adapted from Endurance Sports Nutrition by Suzanne Girard Eberle:
• peanut butter and jelly or banana sandwich
• soup and crackers
• trail mix (nuts, raisins, dried fruit, etc.)
• raw veggies with low-fat salad dressing or salsa
• instant oatmeal with dried fruit
• fresh fruit and pretzels or popcorn
• cereal or granola with yogurt and fruit
• banana, pumpkin, or date bread and milk
• fresh fruit with yogurt or cottage cheese
• low-fat cheese and crackers or rice cakes
• pita bread with low-fat cheese
• tuna fish and crackers
• English muffin with peanut butter or almond butter
• low-fat muffin with milk, yogurt or juice
• slice of pizza with vegetable toppings
• baked potato with salsa or low-fat cheese
• rice cakes or crackers and hummus
• oatmeal raisin cookies or fig bars and milk.
Ian Knight (Head coach for Chilliwack Youth Soccer Association, BC Canada)