Jan 29, 2015
Fueling for Football

As your athletes perform summer workouts to prepare for a new season on the gridiron, their nutrition choices may determine the success or failure of their training programs.

By Dr. Kris Clark

Kris Clark, PhD, RD, FACSM, is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Sports Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, where she coordinates nutrition planning for more than 800 varsity athletes. She can be reached at: [email protected].

In March 2009, Penn State quarterback Shane McGregor came to me for advice. He wanted to cut body fat and gain weight by increasing muscle mass, so we began with a body composition analysis. It revealed that of his 211 pounds, 165 were lean mass, leaving his body fat at roughly 22 percent. That was our starting point, and after talking through his goals, I put him on a comprehensive nutrition plan.

By October, Shane was 17 pounds lighter, but that didn’t tell the whole story. His body comp test showed a loss of 22 pounds of fat, accompanied by a gain of five pounds of lean muscle. He looked fitter and felt better than ever. In fact, he was so happy with the results that he came to me again this spring, this time wanting to add 12 more lean pounds by August while keeping his body fat in its new range of roughly 10 percent. He’s now on pace to accomplish that goal.

In football, every pound matters. Players can make major performance gains by adding “good” weight, dropping “bad” weight, or like Shane, doing some of both. And the optimal ratios vary greatly depending on position, playing style, body chemistry, and a host of other factors.

As your football players prepare for the upcoming summer, they should know this is the best time of year to optimize their nutritional habits and thereby improve body composition. A successful plan to do so focuses on energy consumption and expenditure, nutrient timing, and willingness to pay attention to a few key nutrient categories.


One of the most common off-season goals for football players is to add strength, so many of them hit the weightroom with intensity over the spring and summer. They often don’t realize how much their success depends on their fueling strategy.

To increase strength and mass, athletes must be in a state of positive energy balance–they must consume more calories than they’re burning. Even if it’s unlikely that a player will make a habit of counting his daily calories, examining energy expenditure creates an important guidepost around which to set goals for meals and workouts.

To make this calculation, you must first determine baseline resting energy expenditure (REE), then multiply it by an activity factor. The Harris-Benedict equation calculates REE as follows:

66.5 + (13.75 x weight in kg) + (5.0 x height in cm) – (6.78 x age in years) = REE

For example, with a 199-pound athlete (90.4 kg) who is 6-foot-3 (190.5 cm) and 20 years old, you’d come up with 66.5 + 1243 + 952.5 – 135.6 = 2126.4, which we’ll round to 2,125 for simplicity. Standard activity multipliers for football players are:

Little/no strenuous activity = REE x 1.6-1.7 Moderate strenuous activity = REE x 1.8-1.9 Heavy strenuous activity = REE x 2.1-2.4

Assuming this athlete is performing highly strenuous off-season workouts, we’ll use the activity multiplier of 2.1 to 2.4, making for a calorie range of 4,463 to 5,100 per day.

That figure represents energy expenditure–the amount that the athlete must eat to avoid a calorie deficit. To gain weight, he must consume even more energy.

If he understands that calories from all five food groups are essential for getting the full spectrum of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals–that is, if he’s a generally healthy eater–then the extra calories in his diet should come from the same types of foods he’s already eating every day. When a football player is looking to gain weight, I typically suggest increasing energy intake by 500 to 700 calories per day. About half of the “new” calories should come from foods high in carbohydrates, a quarter from protein-rich items, and a quarter from healthy sources of fat. (For some easy ways to add more healthy calories to a diet for weight gain, see “Stacking Calories” below.)

If an athlete isn’t already a fairly healthy eater, you should take a step back and explain the basics of healthy macronutrient balance. One of the most critical areas to address with these athletes is carbohydrate consumption, because carbs provide the bulk of energy that’s available to the body during daily workouts.

As a general rule, 55 to 60 percent of all calories in a football player’s diet should come from foods rich in carbohydrates. Remind athletes that carbohydrates are not their own food group, but rather a class of nutrients found in all five basic groups. In fact, the vast majority of food sources contain at least some carbs.

Roughly 80 percent of calories from foods in the grain and vegetable groups, 100 percent of the calories in fruit, and approximately 60 percent of the calories in dairy products come from carbohydrates. Even some foods traditionally thought of as protein sources, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and nut butters, contain a significant amount of carbs. With the exception of animal tissue (meat) and eggs, carbs are plentiful everywhere, so eating an adequate supply should never be difficult.

If an athlete needs further reinforcement on the importance of carbs, try pointing out that many of the best sources are plant-based foods, which also provide other significant “perks.” For instance, orange vegetables, citrus fruit, and green leafy vegetables are rich in antioxidants and hundreds of phytochemicals, which research shows can prevent muscle damage due to intense exercise. In addition, these compounds help stabilize free radicals, which essentially means they neutralize harmful chemicals formed when they body is under physical stress. So besides greater energy stores and support for muscle growth, a carb-rich diet will help speed recovery during periods of intense training.


The only macronutrient with a recommended daily allowance (RDA) is protein. That fact underscores its importance for overall health, but for football players, it’s even more critical. Without an adequate supply of protein and the amino acids it provides, the body can’t translate hard work in the weightroom into substantial muscle growth.

The RDA for protein in the average healthy adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. For athletes, the overwhelming consensus of published research supports a higher daily figure for muscle maintenance, tissue growth, and optimal recovery.

In football, research has produced a few different target numbers, but one of the most common recommendations is a protein intake of up to two grams per kilogram per day. Besides all the benefits of the protein itself, this level practically ensures a positive nitrogen balance in the body (since protein provides nitrogen), which will also aid in muscle growth.

Many football players have the misconception that more protein always results in more muscle. They may consume massive quantities of protein shakes, lean meat, and other protein-rich items during intense off-season weight training hoping to maximize new muscle, only to be disappointed when it doesn’t produce the desired outcome.

The truth is that excess protein (beyond about two grams per kilogram per day) will not produce additional muscle growth. Even worse, too much protein can have negative side effects. If it displaces carbohydrates in the diet, athletes will have less energy for workouts and daily activities, and they may even experience muscle loss. Research has also linked excess dietary protein to increased risk for lower bone density, dehydration, and kidney stress.

The key, once again, is macronutrient balance–optimal muscle growth occurs when protein works together with a ready supply of dietary carbohydrates. For years, researchers have debated whether carbohydrates alone, protein alone, or a combination of both promotes faster recovery, greater strength gains, and more mass, and while the debate still exists, more and more researchers are coming on board with the combination approach. A recent study from the University of Texas provides the latest evidence: It showed that carbohydrates and protein together, consumed immediately after an intense two-hour weight training session, increased insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) and improved amino acid absorption by muscle cells more effectively than protein only.

The study also highlighted another crucial component of protein and carbohydrate consumption–timing. For football players looking to add muscle and recover quickly from lifting sessions, it’s essential to provide the body with protein and carbs as soon as possible after a workout to promote glycogen replacement and other main aspects of recovery. I always advise our players to eat something containing protein and carbs immediately after working out, even if it’s as simple as cereal and milk, a cheese sandwich, or yogurt and a bagel. Post-workout shakes, bars, and gels are other convenient and effective options.


Fat is probably the most misunderstood macronutrient among athletes. It plays a vital role in strength building, yet fear of gaining “fat weight” prevents many young people from eating enough of even healthy fats. This often proves counterproductive–several studies have demonstrated that diets in which less than 20 percent of total calories come from fat result in decreased serum testosterone, androstenedione, and free testosterone. That’s a huge drawback for football players looking to get stronger.

Some of the best options for getting an adequate supply of monounsaturated fats (the healthier alternative to saturated fat) are olive and canola oils, nut-based oils, peanut butter and other nut butters, fish, lean meat (beef, pork, chicken, and turkey), dairy products, and eggs with yolks. Besides healthy fat, many of these foods contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can benefit athletes during intense training by helping to regulate the inflammatory response in muscles after a workout.

The athletes most likely to restrict fat to an unhealthy degree are those actively trying to lose weight in their off-season. For these individuals, it’s essential to stress that the way to drop unwanted pounds is by moderately reducing calorie consumption–not avoiding healthy fat intake.

For football players, I typically recommend reducing daily calories by 200 to 500 below the range needed for weight maintenance, which results in the loss of half a pound to one pound per week. Anything faster than that, particularly when an athlete is actively training, and the weight loss will likely come from muscle and not just adipose (fatty) tissue.

Of course, most athletes aren’t adept at counting calories on the fly, so when one of our players is looking to lose weight, I ask him to keep a three-day log of all foods and beverages he consumes. When reviewing the results, it’s often easy to cut out those 200 to 500 calories without significantly upsetting his diet. Sometimes it’s just a matter of cutting out sugary soft drinks, replacing the afternoon junk food fix with a healthy piece of fruit, or switching from sports drinks to water for hydration throughout the day.

I’m frequently surprised by how many athletes don’t know how to read food labels, so I keep some in my office–things like a box of cereal, a jar of peanut butter, and a bag of potato chips–to give them a basic primer on keeping track of calories. Once my players know what to look for, they find it’s easy to keep a rough count of their calorie consumption throughout the day, and they can also keep an eye on carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake while they’re at it.

Sometimes, talking about foods or beverages in terms of activity is a powerful motivator for helping athletes cut excess “empty” calories. For instance, I’ll tell a player that he’d have to run about 1.5 miles to burn off the calories in one 12-ounce beer, or three miles to burn off a couple servings of potato chips or a high-calorie energy drink. These translations make it easy for athletes to improve their nutritional choices on a daily basis, replacing abstract numbers with a more concrete relationship between intake and physical impact.

For all aspects of off-season nutrition, education is the key to athletes’ success, no matter what their body composition goals are. As your football players prepare for the upcoming season, now is the perfect time to talk to them about simple changes that can have a huge impact on their ability to rise to the challenges and demands of their sport.

Sidebar: 5,000-CALORIE MENUS

Football players looking to gain weight may need to consume 5,000 or more calories per day for optimal fueling. That might seem like a Herculean task, but it’s not difficult if an athlete focuses on calorie-dense food and beverage choices throughout the day. These sample daily menus each provide roughly 5,000 calories.


BREAKFAST: 1,095 calories 2.5 cups of raisin bran 1 banana 1 cup of 2% milk 2 cups of orange juice 1 cup of chocolate milk

MID-MORNING SNACK: 760 calories 1 bagel 2 tablespoons of peanut butter 2 cups of 2% milk

LUNCH: 815 calories 1/4-pound cheeseburger with whole wheat bun, lettuce, and tomato Side salad with veggies, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, and reduced-fat dressing 2 cups of 2% milk

AFTERNOON SNACK: 550 calories 1 cup of cottage cheese 1 cup of applesauce 1 cup of fruit juice 2 full-size graham crackers

DINNER: 1,420 calories 2 cups of pasta 1 cup of marinara sauce 6-ounce chicken breast 1 cup of green beans 1 cup of 2% milk 1 cup of ice cream with chocolate syrup

LATE-NIGHT SNACK: 360 calories 20 pretzels 1/2 cup of grapes 1 cup of 2% milk


BREAKFAST: 940 calories 2 packs of instant oatmeal 1 banana 1 cup of 2% milk 2 cups of apple juice 3 scrambled eggs

MID-MORNING SNACK: 610 calories 2 ounces of almonds 1/2 cup of raisins or other dried fruit 1 apple or pear

LUNCH: 895 calories Sandwich with whole wheat bread, six ounces of chicken or turkey, lettuce, tomato, two slices of cheese, and two tablespoons of mayo or salad dressing 2 cups of vegetable soup 2 cups of lemonade

AFTERNOON SNACK: 815 calories 1 bagel 5 ounces of tuna (packed in water) with a tablespoon of mayo 1 slice of cheese 1 cup of applesauce

DINNER: 1,340 calories 1 1/2 cups of rice 6-ounce chicken breast 1 1/2 cups of peas and carrots 2 cups of 2% milk 1 cup of ice cream with chocolate syrup

LATE-NIGHT SNACK: 630 calories 1 apple 2 tablespoons of peanut butter 1 cup of chocolate milk


One challenge for athletes looking to gain weight is that they’re usually eating as much as their appetite allows, so they don’t see obvious ways to add extra calories without feeling overstuffed. In these instances, I recommend a practice called stacking calories–making minor tweaks to existing food and beverage choices to increase their caloric content. Healthy fats are more calorie-dense than carbohydrates or lean protein, so here are a few suggestions I offer to athletes who need to stack their calories:

• When making a peanut butter and jelly (or banana) sandwich, apply a thicker coating of peanut butter, and try adding a third piece of bread for an extra layer. Two extra tablespoons of peanut butter provide roughly 190 calories, and the third slice of bread can easily add over 100.

• Drizzle four tablespoons of olive oil over cooked noodles before adding tomato sauce. Each tablespoon contains about 135 calories, so this adds more than 500 to the meal.

• Make rice or oatmeal with whole milk instead of water, and add chopped nuts or dried fruit. Each of these adjustments can add roughly 200 calories.

• Instead of eating salsa with tortilla chips, switch to guacamole. Each serving of guacamole typically packs over 150 calories, and avocados are a great source of healthy fat and omega-3 fatty acids.

• Add extra cheese or meat to any sandwich or wrap. Each extra slice of cheese or ounce of meat can add about 100 calories.

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