Jan 29, 2015
Nutrition and football: What you need to know
Lisa Dorfman, contributing writer

Like a race car needs fuel, football players need the right foods to play their best. Are your athletes getting the best nutritional information?

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Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the book Performance Nutrition for Football by Lisa Dorfman.

For the general population, it is easy to sum up the key to good nutrition. One simply needs to consume a balance of nutrients from a variety of healthy foods to meet but not exceed daily calorie needs.

If you’re a football player, however, that formula will only get you so far. Because of the need for immense strength, short bursts of power, and the ability to recover from hard hits, football players require a more specialized nutrition plan to excel on the field.

This plan must work in concert with a strength and conditioning program to produce lean muscle mass. It must focus on finding the right fuel to prepare for and recover from practice and games. And it must take into account individual needs–a quarterback, for example, needs a different nutritional strategy than the center he lines up behind.

But before we get into many of the specifics behind fueling for football, it’s important to first understand the basics. On the field, you need to know how to catch the ball before you can learn to run hitches, slants, curls, and post routes. In this chapter, we’ll explain overall nutritional game plans for athletes, which will prepare you for understanding how it becomes specialized for certain positions and times of the year.

Food as energy

To be successful as an athlete, your body must be continuously supplied with food energy, called calories. If calorie intake exceeds needs, you’ll gain weight and body fat, which will make you feel heavy, play slower, and increase your risk for injury. If calorie intake does not meet demands, you won’t be able to maintain your muscle mass and speed, and your recovery will be slow and incomplete.

The number of calories needed to maintain a certain weight varies greatly among individuals. For example, a 220-pound high school fullback who is still growing would need between 4,000 and 5,000 calories a day in-season. His 45-year-old, 140-pound mom, whose only exercise is cheering loudly during football games, would need less than half her son’s amount of calories.

There are four basic reasons why nutrition is important for athletes:

  • As an energy source
  • For building lean muscle mass
  • To achieve ideal body composition
  • To aid in staying healthy and reducing injuries.

As a serious athlete, you are asking your body to do a lot. Like a race car needs the correct type of fuel to maximize its effectiveness, so does an athlete. You need to understand and think about what you are putting in your body if you want it to reach optimal performance.

While for some athletes, talent can overcome less-than-ideal dietary composition for some time, it tends to catch up with everyone eventually. The risk for weight issues, injury, illness, and cramping are greater for those who do not meet and maintain adequate intake and stores. Energy from the right fuel also translates to staying strong throughout the entire season, which is what every coach wants to see, especially if the team has a playoff run.

  » RELATED: Fueling for football: Putting athletes on a proper diet

football playerOverall, there are three types of nutrients that give the body calories: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. These energy-giving nutrients can be found in varying amounts in foods. Essential nutrients that also help the body to use energy, but do not have calories, are called vitamins, minerals, and water. Let’s take a closer look at how they all work together. According to the 2009 Position Statement of The American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and The American College of Sports Medicine on Nutrition and Athletic Performance, athletes do not need a diet substantially different than percentages recommended for non-athletes. The dietary percentage ranges recommended are:

  • 45-65% from carbohydrates.
  • 10-35% from protein.
  • 20-35% from fat.

Those are pretty large ranges, and they do get more specific for football players based on time of year, training goals, and position played on the field. In addition, using ranges only goes so far in being effective. Ideally, players should calculate their carbohydrates, protein, and fat needs in grams, based on bodyweight.

Carbohydrates are king

For all athletes, including football players, fueling should primarily come from carbohydrates. There is a longstanding myth that football athletes should bulk up by consuming lots of protein, but nothing is further from the truth. While small amounts of protein are essential, carbohydrates are recommended for fueling most of the training during practices and games for all positions.

Why are carbohydrates so important? All carbohydrates we consume are turned into glucose in our bodies, which resides in our cells. When we need energy, our bodies utilize the glucose in our cells to function. Glucose not used immediately is then stored in the liver and muscles and is called glycogen. When we need energy, and the glucose in our cells is depleted, the liver makes glucose from its glycogen stores.

But if there is nothing in the store, there is no energy. Without a diet high in carbohydrates, you end up running on empty — meaning you aren’t running very well at all.

In addition, carbs are the main nutrient to help our bodies recover after a tough workout. Especially during tough preseason workouts, a football player needs carbs continually to realize complete recovery. Without recovery, the hard work you’re putting in does not translate to increased strength gains.

When athletes don’t have enough carb stores in their bodies, they have glycogen depletion. The consequences are feeling flat, an inability to build muscle, and even depression. Ongoing depletion can also lead to overtraining syndrome.

An ideal dietary intake of carbohydrates for football players is 50% to 60% of total daily caloric intake. Therefore at each meal, about half to two-thirds of your plate should be filled with carbohydrates.

What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are composed of three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are created through a process called photosynthesis in which water, absorbed by plant’s roots, donates hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon dioxide gas absorbed in leaves donates carbon and oxygen. Water and carbon dioxide combine to yield the major energy source for the body called glucose.

football running backBut not all carbs are created equal. One type is simple carbohydrates, which are broken down by the body quickly, and found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups, and soft drinks. No more than 10 percent of your calories should come from simple sugars because they are lower in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients (which help your body to use fuel, stay fit, recover faster, and reduce the risk for injury and illness) than complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbs are our heroes. They take longer to break down and have more nutrients, such as fiber and vitamins. Fiber is key because it slows down the passage of food through the digestive tract and the release of sugar into the bloodstream. That leads to better blood sugar control and more even energy levels, as well as regularity of stools. For those athletes who want to lose weight, fiber provides a feeling of fullness. It also has a cholesterol-lowering effect, for long-term health. Fiber is found in whole grain bread and cereals, fruits and vegetables, beans, oats, nuts (almonds, pistachios and others with the woody shell), popcorn, brown rice, potato skins, corn, and peas.

Protein for power

While protein is not an athlete’s primary fuel for training, it is a crucial part of the support system. It’s equivalent to how essential it is to wear your pads and uniform — they offer protection, but don’t play the game for you. Athletes should look to get 10% to 35% of calories from protein.

Protein is important for football players because it helps to build and repair muscle, helps the muscles contract and relax, builds ligaments and tendons that hold muscles and support bone, and assists with recovery by preventing muscle breakdown. Protein is also needed for building hormones like insulin that regulate blood sugar and the thyroid for metabolism, for supporting the immune system, and for regulating the digestion of food. Without adequate dietary protein, you run the risk of injury, illness, or just feeling run down. Protein also provides energy in times of extreme need when carbohydrate stores are depleted. This occurs when your total calorie expenditure is greater than your consumption and/or when your body is healing after injury.

Another important thing to know about protein is that you need it in small amounts throughout the day, especially if you are trying to increase muscle mass. A lot of busy athletes make the mistake of consuming all their protein at dinner, snacking on easy-to-grab and low-protein foods at other times of the day. It’s important to make sure protein is a part of breakfast, lunch, and snack foods, too, because it helps to prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle building. It also helps keep you feeling fuller than if you just had carbohydrate-based meals and snacks alone.

Protein can be found in chicken, fish, turkey, red meat, eggs, cheese, milk, and soy products. These foods contain all the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. The best protein sources are low-fat, but that can be tricky to find. Meat and dairy often contain fat in large amounts. Therefore, look for lean cuts of meat and low-fat dairy products.

Fewer fats

Most people know that fat is not a good thing in a diet. But it is not quite that simple. Football players do need some fat in their diets. In fact, as much as 35% is okay if the athlete is not overweight, although as little as 20% of one’s diet is also fine.

Fat can be used as a long-term energy source — a stored form of calories when you run out of carbohydrates and protein. This is especially true for leaner athletes who burn a lot more calories or in preseason when training can more than double your calorie needs. But fat is a very inefficient source of fuel because it is used at a much slower rate by the muscles and cannot keep up the quick energy demands of high intensity training.

Fats are needed as a transporter of the fat soluble vitamins A, E, D, and K, which are essential for building muscles and the immune system, and building red blood cells and healthy bones. Fats are also a provider of the essential fatty acids, the omega-3s and omega-6s required for brain function, healthy skin, normal blood pressure, blood clotting, and as an anti-inflammatory against aches and pains.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that research suggests football players often consume more than the recommended percent of total calories. In fact, one study of college and pro football players found some players averaged 43% of calories from fat. When more fat is consumed than needed, it can lead to unnecessary weight gains and negative changes in body composition.

It also means the athlete is probably not eating enough carbohydrates and protein. For example, if an athlete eats a 1,000-calorie meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes swarming with butter, high-fat biscuits, and gravy, it will contain about 49% fat, 22% protein, and 29% carbs. If, instead, he eats a 1,000-calorie meal of grilled chicken breast with a low-fat BBQ sauce, oven-roasted potatoes, whole-wheat rolls, tossed green salad, and stir-fry vegetables, he’ll be consuming 26% fat, 20% protein, and 54% carbs. So, with the same amount of calories, the athlete increases the ever-important carbohydrates in his diet.

The two major dietary fat groups are called unsaturated and saturated fats. The saturated fats are hard at room temperature. These fats have been shown to increase the unhealthy low-density lipoprotein blood cholesterol levels and compromise performance. Trans-fats, those you find in processed foods like some types of crackers, cookies, and margarines, are also saturated and can compromise performance and health.

It’s much better to consume monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This includes vegetable oils and fats found in fish, nuts, and avocados.

Vitamins & minerals

If players follow the above guidelines of consuming primarily complex carbohydrates along with healthy forms of protein, vitamin and mineral needs are usually met. This is important because a lack of vitamins and minerals impact energy levels, recovery, inflammation, bone strength, and muscle contraction. Deficiencies in minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium can cause cramping and muscle spasms.

While there are about 40 vitamins and minerals that we need daily to perform all healthy body functions, the ones most commonly seen in deficiency are Vitamins A, C, and D, and the minerals potassium, magnesium, and calcium. In addition, during puberty, young men need extra folic acid, calcium, iron, zinc, and Vitamins A, B, C, and E.

The best way to meet vitamin and mineral needs is from whole foods. But the reality is that no one eats perfectly. Sometimes life gets in the way of eating your best. In this case, a daily vitamin supplement, fortified shake or bar can help you to meet your daily needs.

Lisa Dorfman is the Director of Sports Nutrition & Performance in the Department of Sports Medicine at the University of Miami, as well as a personal nutritionist to several NFL players.

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