Oct 20, 2017
DIY Nutrition
Ingrid Skoog

Do you remember the first time you tried to prepare your own meal? Learning to cook is an exercise in trial and error, and sometimes there’s quite a bit of error before you start producing meals you actually want to eat.

Athletes must fuel themselves for performance with a proper mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and micronutrients. If their “kitchen literacy” is lacking, they’re likely setting themselves up for diminished performance and poor overall health. Furthermore, many student-athletes have incredibly busy schedules and limited funds, which too often makes eating healthy–and sometimes eating at all–little more than an afterthought.

But with the right guidance, athletes who prepare their own food can fuel themselves effectively, even without any serious kitchen skills. The keys are to provide essential and realistic information on what a healthy and balanced meal consists of, and then offer specific, easy-to-follow advice on how to follow through from the grocery store to the plate.

As a sports dietitian, my first instinct when talking to athletes about preparing their own meals is to discuss carbohydrate-to-protein ratios, ways to obtain the full spectrum of amino acids, and myriad other things important to optimal fueling. For athletes who are adept in the kitchen, that’s an appropriate conversation to have. But for those who aren’t, it’s better to keep things as simple as possible.

I tell these athletes that every meal should include three essential components:

  1. A source of quality protein
  2. A source of fiber
  3. A complex (starch-based) carbohydrate.

If a meal covers these three areas, the odds are very good it will meet an athlete’s nutrient needs.

Most athletes understand which types of foods fit those categories, but I don’t assume. If I find they’re not sure, again I keep things simple for them with short lists of staples that can be incorporated into many different meals.

For protein, the list includes lean chicken, beef, peanut butter, beans, and eggs.

For fiber, I’ll mention high-fiber cereals, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds.

The complex carb list has a lot of crossover with the fiber list, and I’ll also include items like oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat bread, and even low-fat popcorn.

To ensure that athletes meet their energy demands, it’s also important to talk about when they eat. Too often, student-athletes who aren’t skilled at preparing food for themselves simply skip meals, and consume more processed low nutrient-dense foods to get through the day, and then have one large meal at night when they’re extremely hungry. Sports dietitians call this back-loading.

We want them to do the opposite–to front-load their food intake by starting with a healthy breakfast and then eating meals and snacks throughout the day, so the energy and nutrients they consume all day long can be used to improve training and recovery.

The benefits of front-loading are obvious. Athletes will find they have more energy during workouts and practices, they’ll be more alert in class and throughout their daily tasks, and they’ll generally feel better. But nutrition research suggests other advantages as well.

Athletes who front-load their food intake tend to have better body compositions to meet their sport’s unique training and competition needs, and they respond faster to weight management plans. They’re also better hydrated during the day, perform better during workouts, recover more quickly afterward, and even experience an immune system boost that helps ward off common illnesses such as colds.

Once you’ve covered these big-picture basics with athletes, the next step is to get specific with simple, nutritious meal and snack ideas for all times of the day. Offer them ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack. The simpler, the better.

Ingrid Skoog, MS, RD, CSSD, is a sports dietitian in Eugene, Ore., specializing in performance nutrition for collegiate and elite athletes.

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