Feb 24, 2017
On Empty
Dr. Pamela Hinton

A few years ago, I conducted research on the eating behaviors of a sample group of NCAA Division I athletes. The final study revealed some troubling trends. While the reasons why vary between genders and across sports, we found out that the vast majority of athletes do not eat enough calories to fuel their performance.

Only 15 percent of the athletes we studied consumed adequate carbohydrate, and only 26 percent consumed adequate protein. Nearly two-thirds of the female student-athletes reported wanting to lose weight, which is almost always at odds with fueling for athletic performance. Many male athletes, while falling short on overall calories, were consuming more than the recommended amount of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

Low energy intake can be a big concern for athletes who are trying to not only meet their calorie requirements on a daily basis, but prioritize nutrition before and after workouts to maximize training and recovery. For athletes who are looking to gain lean muscle mass, boosting calorie intake is even more important. Most athletes need an additional 500 to 1,000 calories daily during periods of training to increase muscle.

One way to get athletes to improve their energy intake is by asking them to study their own behavior. Have athletes select three days — two weekdays and one weekend day — when they will be following their typical diet. Ask them to keep a written food diary for those three days. They should record what they eat, how much they eat, and how the food is prepared. Beverages can significantly affect energy and nutrient intake, so athletes should remember to record what they drink as well. In addition, athletes should log their training and/or competition information — the duration, intensity, and time of day they perform their workouts.

Once the diary is complete, have athletes visit this link on the USDA’s Web site, which is equipped with assessment tools to determine the quantities of calories, carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals they consumed. Next, have athletes divide their weight in pounds by 2.2 to obtain their weight in kilograms. Finally, have them calculate their specific needs based on body weight according to the following formulas, and compare their actual intake to the results:

• Carbohydrate: 6-10 g/kg of body weight.

• Protein: 1.2-1.7 g/kg of body weight, depending on sport.

Another way athletes can start to assess the adequacy of their nutrient intake is simply by paying attention to how they feel physically and psychologically. If an athlete experiences fatigue that doesn’t resolve with rest, can’t finish workouts, or has a drop-off in performance, lack of dietary energy may be to blame. If an athlete is hungry all the time or is obsessing about food, he or she is probably not eating enough. Mood changes such as depression, irritability, anxiety, and marked emotional ups and downs can also signal inadequate food intake. If these symptoms are present, advise the athlete to keep a food diary and conduct the self-assessment outlined above to pinpoint areas where he or she are under-eating.

Pamela Hinton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri.

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