Jan 29, 2015On the Road Again
Eating on the go can be challenging for athletes, but making the right choices simply requires a little knowledge and planning ahead.
By Lindsey Remmers
Lindsey Remmers, MS, RD, CSSD, LMNT, is the Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Nebraska. She can be reached at: [email protected].
Athletes’ schedules can be summed up in one word: busy. Whether it’s practice, class, a team meeting, a weightroom workout, a study session at the library, or traveling to an away game, they always seem to be headed somewhere. With so little time to sit and eat, fueling on the go is vital.
It is especially important when on the road. Not only is proper nutrition critical for maintaining energy levels, but it also helps fuel the body to fight the fatigue and dehydration associated with traveling. Unfortunately, when long hours on the bus and odd flight schedules prompt a stomach growl that says, “I’m hungry,” athletes are often not as prepared as they should be.
But they certainly can be. The trick is planning ahead. Here at the University of Nebraska, we often pack food for the trip, scope out the grocery stores located nearest the team hotel, and see which restaurant options are available–and if any of them will deliver to the playing site. And if a team has to go the fast food route, the athletes are educated on the options so they know what to look for.
BROWN BAG IT
Many athletes view traveling as a vacation or getaway and give themselves more leeway with what they eat. But when teams are on the road, that means they’re competing, and it isn’t a good time to compromise nutritional intake.
The best option is to bring familiar, healthy, and nutritious snacks and drinks when traveling. We purchase food items in bulk, then send our athletes on the bus with their own individual-size servings.
Teams can also easily pack a small soft-sided cooler with bags of ice to keep perishable foods cool. At each gas station or rest stop, they can refresh the bag of ice from a soda fountain. Here is a list of items that will supply athletes with carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats, and are easy to pack on a van or bus trip:
– Whole fruit: apples, bananas, oranges, pears, peaches – Greek yogurt and granola – String cheese – Jerky – Peanut butter and jelly ingredients (100% whole wheat bread, whole fruit jam or honey, natural peanut butter, and plastic knives) – Tuna packets – Triscuits, Wheat Thins, rice cakes, Kellogg’s Cracker Chips – Whole grain Goldfish – Trail mix – Dry cereal (great choices include Kashi cereals, Multi Grain Cheerios, Cinnamon Life, Quaker Whole Hearts, and Quaker Life Crunchtime) – Horizon low-fat chocolate milk (shelf stable) – Dried fruit – Protein shakes – 100% juice boxes – Clif and Kashi bars – Fruit cups – Yogurt parfait cups – Water.
Traveling by plane is a bit trickier as teams have to not only pack within luggage restrictions, but also cannot bring semi-solid foods like yogurt through security. Still, athletes can pack a small soft-sided cooler and empty Ziploc bags in their carry-on, then fill the bags with ice and purchase any perishables they want to have with them after landing. Here are some good choices for air travel:
– Instant oatmeal packets (coffee shops in the airport usually have hot water you can use to make the oatmeal) – Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – Whole fruit (choose ones that won’t get crushed easily like apples, oranges, and pears) – Energy bars (Clif, PowerBar, Kit’s Organic, Lärabar, PURE, Kashi, Nature Valley Trail Mix Bars, NRG) – Trail mix – Dried fruit – An empty water bottle (fill after security check and aim to drink eight ounces every hour in flight as airplanes can be very dehydrating).
If competing over a long weekend or multi-day tournament, it may also be helpful to seek out the nearest grocery store after arriving at the team hotel or competition site. Your athletes can research this online ahead of time. Many hotels offer free shuttles, so once the team arrives, athletes can hit the store to load up on snacks and healthy breakfast items. Some hotels will put a mini-fridge in the room if requested so that athletes can store deli meats, yogurt, string cheese, and milk.
Though a lot of hotels offer free breakfast with a night’s stay, it often consists only of cereal, pastries, doughnuts, muffins, and canned fruit. If cereal is available, athletes should go for Cheerios, Mini-Wheats, or Raisin Bran and avoid the pastries and doughnuts at all costs. These choices offer little nutritional value and digest rather quickly, leaving athletes with a rumbling stomach close to game time. Or if athletes have brought instant oatmeal packets, adding a glass of milk, fruit, egg (if available), and toast with peanut butter makes a well-rounded breakfast. In general, athletes should stick with foods they’ve had before that don’t cause any negative side effects.
It’s easy to see why teams often flock to fast food restaurants when on the road. They are quick, convenient, and cheap. But what a lot of athletes don’t realize is that their food offerings can have a direct negative effect on performance.
Most fast food is void of many vital nutrients, and although it supplies the body with calories and energy, the type of calories can actually promote inflammation rather than fight it. If the majority of calories consumed are from high-fat burgers and French fries, athletes’ bodies may not perform optimally. Fatty foods take longer to digest, potentially leading to an upset stomach or “heavy” feeling when competing.
The general rule of thumb for everyday eating still holds true when consuming fast food. Athletes should be building their meals with mainly carbohydrates for fueling (baked potatoes, pasta, whole wheat buns/bread/hoagie rolls), fruit, a lean protein source (grilled or broiled meats, chicken, fish, eggs), and some vegetables wherever possible (side salad, veggies on a sandwich).
Healthy fast food options do exist, but not in abundance. There may only be two or three good choices at each restaurant, meaning that athletes may have to choose the same thing every time. That’s okay, as long as fast food isn’t their go-to for every meal during travel. We give our athletes the following guidelines, along with lists of approved restaurants and the healthier items to order:
Check the nutrition facts. Fast food restaurants are required to make nutrition facts available to their customers. Entire menus can be looked up online, and brochures or posters with nutritional information are often available in the restaurants. The main things to compare are calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.
Especially if eating near competition time, athletes should choose meals that are higher in carbohydrates (energy source) and low in fat (easier to digest). To determine the leanness of a menu item, athletes can look at the ratio of protein-to-fat grams or percentage of calories from fat. Here are the guidelines we give our athletes:
– Three-to-one ratio or less than 30 percent: Go for it – Two-to-one ratio or 30 to 40 percent: Consider it – One-to-one ratio or more than 40 percent: Skip it.
Choose the least processed items. Processed foods have been altered from their natural state, which tends to make them less nutritious. For example, packaged white bread is made from refined white flour, meaning it loses most of its fiber and nutrients when the bran and germ of the grain are removed via processing.
Processed foods also tend to have longer lists of ingredients. A Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich from Chick-Fil-A isn’t just chicken, a bun, and pickle slices. In addition to 100-percent natural whole breast chicken filet, also listed are approximately 50 other items, including modified food starch, disodium inosinate, and calcium propionate. That’s a lot of “stuff” in one chicken sandwich. Typically, the longer the list, the more processed the food is.
We suggest that athletes skip the most processed foods. For example, instead of fries at Wendy’s, choose the whole baked potato. Or at Starbucks, choose the oatmeal instead of a scone.
Choose chicken. Fast food restaurants don’t use lean beef, so the fat content in a hamburger is higher and contains more saturated (unhealthy) fat than ground beef found at the grocery store. Eating two grilled chicken sandwiches from McDonald’s (700 calories, 84 grams of carbohydrates, 56 grams of protein, and 18 grams of fat) instead of one Angus Deluxe Burger (750 calories, 61 grams of carbohydrates, 40 grams of protein, and 39 grams of fat) offers more calories from carbohydrates and lean protein, along with less calories from fat, and would be the better option.
Skip the fried version. When choosing a sandwich or salad with chicken on it, go with the grilled option instead of fried. Frying chicken (or fish) means it will have more calories from fat instead of lean protein.
Order it your way. Never hesitate to request that the food be prepared in a certain way. The athlete is the one purchasing and eating the food, so he or she shouldn’t be afraid to ask for alterations so that the meal is healthier. For example, if an athlete is really craving a burger, he or she can keep it leaner by requesting no mayo, the bun untoasted (so it isn’t soaked in the fat on the grill), extra lettuce and tomato, and/or a side salad instead of French fries.
When athletes hear the words “fast food” they probably think of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell. But Subway, Quiznos, Panera Bread, other sandwich shops, and the local pizzeria can also be considered fast food. Overall, this second set of restaurants have healthier options, but are still convenient for athletes on the go.
At sandwich shops, athletes can choose whole wheat bread, leaner meats like turkey, ham, roast beef, and grilled chicken, and healthy side options instead of French fries. For example, at Panera Bread, sandwiches come with a choice of apple, side salad, or plain chips. Quiznos has racks of baked chips to choose from. And side salads are usually available at any sandwich shop.
A large slice of cheese pizza usually runs less than 250 calories, and a meat lover’s slice is still usually less than 400 (compare that to an Angus Deluxe Burger from McDonald’s, which is 750 calories). When athletes are choosing toppings at a pizzeria, they can pile on the veggies to add some crunch, fiber, and inflammation-fighting antioxidants, and choose leaner meats like chicken, ham, or Canadian bacon instead of bacon, pepperoni, or sausage. They can also look for hand-tossed crust over original and steer clear of any pizza that is made with alfredo or a cream sauce.
However, athletes shouldn’t just assume that anything they order at a sandwich shop or pizzeria is a healthy choice because it’s not from a hamburger joint. They should still check the ingredients and nutritional information if possible.
Finally, regardless of the type of meal–fast food or not–we tell our athletes to slow down while eating. This ensures they pay attention to how they feel so that they stop eating when they are satisfied and don’t overeat. We also advise them to pay attention to how they feel after the meal and take note of whether a certain food item or amount made them feel sick or lethargic–the idea is to not make the same mistake next time.
The inconvenience of traveling doesn’t have to ruin an athlete’s diet. It’s just a matter of preparing and knowing what the best options are. When athletes choose foods that make their body feel good, they are more likely to compete at the top of their game
Click here for a downloadable print-friendly PDF of the “Best Choices” table.