Eating for Athletes: Part 2

I wrote a blog post back in May called, Eating for Athletes, in which I provided some eating tips for just before, during and after a big athletic event, like a marathon. In a later post entitled, Real Food for the Real Runner, Emily provided some great, practical ideas for event day meals. Because I’ve had some recent questions from guests regarding healthy eating tips for athletes or very active people, I decided to provide some general, overall information about healthy eating for athletes.

There is a lot of information available concerning the balance of nutrients athletes should be consuming, and there are some misconceptions regarding this. For example, some people believe that in order to build and maintain muscle, athletes need to eat large amounts of protein. While protein is an important component of a healthy meal plan and does assist in building and repairing muscle, people have a tendency to consume more than they actually need. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, tend to be somewhat downplayed, particularly carbohydrates coming from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates are, in fact, protein-sparing. This means that if an athlete eats enough carbohydrates for energy, the protein can then be used to build and maintain muscle, rather than being used for energy. In other words, if not enough carbohydrates are consumed, the body will start breaking down protein and using it for energy, which is not particularly efficient.
For athletes, it is generally recommended that carbohydrates make up 55-65% of the total daily calories. The focus should be on healthy carbohydrates–those coming from whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. The remainder of the daily calories should then come from lean proteins and healthy fats. Interestingly, by following the plate method that we advocate here at The Resort, (1/2 of your plate fruits/vegetables, 1/4 of your plate whole grains, and 1/4 of your plate lean proteins) these proportions can be met. An athlete would just use a bigger plate, thus increasing the portion sizes of all the food groups.
I was interested in an article I recently read in the Washington Post about a dietitian who works for the Washington Redskins professional football team. She provided a sample healthy menu for one of the players. Of course, professional football players have very high caloric needs, so this day’s menu was about 4,000 calories. But what I found interesting was the balance of foods. The menu included lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with moderate amounts of lean protein. For example, breakfast consisted of oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts, an omelette made with egg whites and lots of veggies, and a big fruit salad. In essence, the menu followed the plate method. Click here for a link to see the whole day’s menu.
Below are some general healthy eating tips for athletes:
  • Follow the plate method for planning meals (as discussed above)
  • Eat a variety of foods from all the food groups
  • Include calcium-rich foods (both dairy and non-dairy sources of calcium). It’s important to meat calcium needs to prevent osteoporosis later in life. This is especially important for teenage athletes who are still developing their bone mass. In general, you can meet the minimum daily calcium recommendations by consuming 3 servings of dairy per day.
  • Base your meal plan on healthy carbohydrates, including whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose lean protein options (fish, poultry, lean cuts of beef and pork, eggs, beans, low-fat dairy, etc.)
  • Include healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive and canola oils, avocados, natural nut butters, etc.)
By following these tips, you can properly fuel your body and provide it with the nutrients it needs to both perform athletically as well as maintain overall health.
Rachel Cope MPH, RC, CD