Jan 29, 2015Taking Care of You
Keeping athletes healthy is your job, but that shouldn’t mean shortchanging yourself. Wholesome nutrition can fit into your hectic schedule, and our expert shows you how.
By Leslie Bonci
Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, is Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and serves as a consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pitt athletics, and several area high schools.
If you’re like most athletic trainers, you wake up in the morning to a schedule that would make weaker souls pull the covers over their heads and go back to sleep. By the time you crawl back between the sheets at night, you will have a very full answer to the question, “What did you accomplish today?” But if asked “What did you have to eat?” you might draw a blank.
For all the time athletic trainers spend taking care of other people, many forget the importance of taking care of themselves. And one of the biggest areas of neglect is nutrition.
Being on the run all day in a demanding setting makes it difficult to find the time to eat right, which means you’re often running on empty—or burning suboptimal fuel. You start out with the best of intentions, but two treatments, eight phone calls, and three injuries later, you realize your day’s sustenance has turned into a candy bar from the snack machine and a doughnut from a staff meeting.
The human body is remarkably resilient. It can function for a while on handfuls of potato chips grabbed between tasks, but there is a breaking point. I work with many athletic trainers who experience burnout, and I believe that their failure to adequately fuel their bodies for the job contributes to and expedites that process. If you want career longevity and satisfaction, you need to commit to feeding yourself right, every day. Your life isn’t going to slow down, so here is a gameplan for healthy fueling when you’re eating on the run.
A GOOD START
To develop an effective eating strategy, it helps to think in terms of energy. You’re going to work hard all day, so the fundamental goal is a consistent flow of energy that stays with you from the first task of the day to the last. To achieve that, you need to consume regular meals and snacks, starting with breakfast.
If you skip breakfast or grab something devoid of nutrients, you’re already behind in the energy game, and the body is not good at playing catch-up. Therefore, it’s important to make the commitment to eat something with calories within one hour of getting up. The good news is that you don’t have to prepare a three course meal, as tempting as that may sound. There are countless healthy breakfast options that don’t require you to sit down, and some don’t even require a spoon. A container of yogurt and a granola bar, a peanut butter sandwich, or a ham and cheese wrap all work very well and take minimal time to prepare.
A bowl of cereal with low-fat milk is another excellent nutritional start to the day and doesn’t require much time. When choosing a cold cereal, go for those with whole grains. If you like volume, choose a flake or puffed cereal instead of granola, which packs a lot of calories into a small serving. To add some protein, toss a few nuts on top, or try a high-protein cereal brand like Kashi. For a change of pace with the added benefit of a longer shelf life, try substituting regular milk with calcium-fortified soy milk.
Cereal bars and granola bars are another speedy choice, but be careful which ones you select. Varieties with fewer grams of sugar and more grams of fiber are good choices. Steer clear of frosted or chocolate coated bars.
If your mornings are especially busy, try getting the food prep out of the way beforehand and eat in the car. Stock your freezer with peanut butter and jelly or lunch meat sandwiches (without mayonnaise) and take one out the night before to eat on the way to work. A frozen waffle, toasted and spread with peanut butter and jam, is another healthy breakfast that can be eaten in the car.
If the idea of chewing isn’t appealing in the morning, how about a yogurt smoothie? If you’re an in-advance kind of person, hard boil a few eggs and peel them once they’ve cooled. They will keep for a few days in the refrigerator, and you can grab one on the way out the door along with a whole wheat roll or bagel for another healthy breakfast option. If you don’t eat dairy, try a trail mix of whole grain cereal, dried fruit, and nuts. You can mix up a large batch, portion it into Ziploc bags, and eat one on your way to work.
Take some time to think of other quick, low-prep or no-prep combinations based on your food preferences. Stay away from things that take too much time or that don’t truly appeal to you—the key is to come up with items that will fit into the real-world morning rush.
ALL DAY ENERGY
Okay, that takes care of breakfast, but you still need to keep the healthy fuel coming at regular intervals throughout the day, and that can be the hard part. To avoid running an energy deficit, it’s important to eat every three to four hours. The best food combinations are those that include all of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat), because they produce a slow, steady rise in blood glucose that sustains your energy level and keeps you feeling full longer. Fiber and fat also enhance satiety, meaning you’ll feel satisfied.
I am a big believer in the Field of Dreams mentality when it comes to eating: If it is there, we will eat it. If the only foods you have handy are chips, soda, and a candy bar, that’s what you’ll reach for. If you have nutritious options available in the athletic training room, your glove compartment, or your sports bag, it is much easier to avoid being tempted by unhealthy items.
Just like with breakfast foods, there are ways to get a balanced meal or snack without sacrificing your productivity. Start by evaluating the tools at your disposal. Your two biggest allies are a microwave and mini refrigerator. If you don’t have these in your office or athletic training room, price them and see if your athletic director can budget for them. Let him or her know that this is not just advantageous for you—if your athletes see you eating well, they will be more likely to do the same.
Next, stock your office with items requiring little or no preparation that you can grab over the course of the day. Try to ensure that both the meal and snack foods you buy can be combined to include a source of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Try hummus and crackers, yogurt with granola and nuts, a peanut butter sandwich, cheese and crackers, or a yogurt smoothie. To get in the fiber and fat, opt for whole grain bread, or have a small handful of almonds with the yogurt smoothie. For lunch, a good example of a meal containing all the macronutrients is a can of lentil soup with baked tortilla chips and string cheese.
To add fruits and vegetables to your diet without much hassle, get the preparation out of the way in batches, or go for bite-sized. Try putting together a Ziploc bag of cut up broccoli, celery sticks, baby carrots, or radishes. Another time-saving option is to buy your vegetables at a supermarket salad bar, since they are already cut and you can buy as much or as little as you want.
Frozen vegetables are also a good choice, as you can refreeze what you don’t use. Canned vegetables are a healthy long-shelf-life alternative, as long as you check the label to avoid those high in sodium. Try tossing half a can of diced tomatoes into soup for a filling, tasty nutritional kick, or add canned beans for a great source of protein.
Frozen microwave meals can also offer nutrition on the run, if you choose wisely. Select those with a source of lean protein, like grilled chicken, and avoid the fried ones. Microwave meals are usually short on vegetables, so add a salad or microwave some fresh vegetables to go with your meal. And look out for excess sodium—if that’s a concern, choose “light” brands like Healthy Choice or Smart Ones, and check the labels.
Try to avoid the common mistake of going all day without eating, arriving home on an empty stomach, and attempting to fulfill your energy needs with a giant meal before bed. You won’t be energized during the day, you may be more irritable, and the day will seem endless because you’re drained. Once you do get to bed after a giant meal, you may not sleep as well. This makes you more fatigued the next day, and starts a vicious cycle.
Of course, there will be times when you can’t help but eat the last meal late because you were covering a night game. At those times, just try to not make it the first and only meal of the day. Never wait until you’re famished to eat. Be prepared with a snack in your bag, car, or office, so you can have something before you get home and prevent a frenzied dash to the fridge.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
A well-stocked mini fridge is great when you’re home, but what about when you’re traveling with a team? No matter where you stop to eat, there are healthy options if you know where to look.
At a fast food restaurant, there’s no rule that says you have to order the large size items. As I tell my clients, biggie fries equals biggie thighs! Instead, try downsizing. Ordering small fries, a regular burger, and a small drink is a step in the right direction. For even healthier fast food choices, consider:
- A wrap
- Chili and a baked potato
- Grilled chicken salad
- Six-inch turkey, ham, or chicken sub
- Egg sandwich
- Thin crust vegetable pizza.
Believe it or not, diners can be great for on-the-road nutrition, because they usually serve breakfast around the clock. Consider these macronutrient combining choices:
- A vegetable omelet with whole wheat toast
- Scrambled eggs with ham and a whole wheat English muffin
- Two pancakes, butter on the side, with eggs or ham
At sit-down restaurants, opt for meals that provide low-fat protein, vegetables, and a high-quality carbohydrate:
- Grilled, baked, blackened, Cajun, or Creole chicken or fish with baked potato and steamed vegetables
- Small fillet or strip steak with potato and a side salad
- Stir-fry meat and vegetables over steamed rice
- Chicken or beef fajitas with salsa, sour cream, and guacamole (go light on the cheese)
Do remember that finger foods often found on restaurant menus can pack a wallop in terms of fat and calories, and you won’t be satisfied eating just one or two:
- Onion rings
- French fries
- Chicken wings
- Fried cheese sticks.
If you’re eating at a buffet, remember that you don’t have to try everything. Before you get in line, mentally divide your plate into thirds and make one third the meat, one third the starch, and the rest fruit and vegetables. If you go back for seconds, go for soup, salad, or fruit.
Even if the only on-the-road option is a convenience store, you can still get a healthy meal or snack. Choose yogurt, string cheese, fruit, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, jerky, a small box of animal crackers, or a small bag of pretzels and nuts.
EAT YOUR AGE
Healthy eating at 40 is not exactly the same as it is at 25. Those who have been in the field for awhile may not be able to keep up with younger colleagues or athletes in the eating department. Sad but true, you can’t eat the same way in middle age as you did when you were in college and expect your body to respond as efficiently. So, if you find that your pants are a little tighter than you want them to be, don’t eliminate, but do discriminate when it comes to food choices. To trim calories, try the following:
- Eat breakfast daily. Your metabolism will thank you by functioning at a 10 percent higher rate throughout the day, and you will be less hungry, so you’ll be less likely to fall for tempting and calorie-dense snack foods.
- Include some lean protein as part of every meal or snack. Try low-fat dairy, jerky, canned fish, soy nuts, and eggs.
- Add more fiber to your diet for the chew factor and the fullness factor. Good choices are beans, fruit, and whole grain breads, cereal, and crackers.
- Be careful what you drink. Cut back on soda, juice, sweetened teas, high-fat coffee drinks, and alcohol. Opt instead for flavored water and sugar-free beverages, and use sports drinks only during activity. Remember, low-carb beer still has calories, and alcohol is an appetite stimulant.
- Try to downsize portions. Food manufacturers have flooded the market with portion-appropriate snack items like 100-calorie popcorn and cracker packs, making this step easier. If you are buying for one, steer clear of large boxes of cereal, crackers, and snacks. The more you buy, the more you will eat.
MAKE THE COMMITMENT
Eating healthy in a fast-paced profession is challenging, and it does take some commitment and planning. In the long run, it’s about making healthy eating a priority and simply making it happen.
You are on call 24/7 when you work, and people are depending on you to take care of them. But taking care of yourself means remembering that everyone is entitled to a little downtime during the day. Five to 10 minutes of fueling time every three to four hours is not going to cause havoc in the athletic training room, and you’ll be energized and better able to make it through the rest of the day. If you don’t want to eat in front of your athletes, close the door, put up a sign that says “back in 10 minutes,”and dig in.
Remember, no one can eat for you. You’ve got to nourish yourself to best nurture your athletes. Schedule fueling into your day and you’ll feel better physically and mentally. As an added bonus, you’ll be a great role model for those you take care of on a daily basis.
Sidebar: ENERGY BOOST
When you’re short on energy and there’s still a lot of work ahead of you, the idea of an energy drink or a grande coffee can be very tempting. But should you reach for a caffeine jolt?
Using caffeine occasionally to increase energy isn’t a horrible idea, but if it’s becoming a major part of your diet, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Realize that your body can be truly energized only through consumption of calories, not caffeine. Caffeine can improve mental alertness and delay fatigue in the short term, but since it is not a source of energy, it cannot replace food. If you’re regularly reaching for caffeine to get through the day, ask yourself whether you are consuming enough energy from food by eating a balanced meal or snack every three to four hours.
If you do use caffeine, remember that the maximum effect takes place about 30 minutes after ingestion and plan accordingly. And if you are concerned about calories, choose beverages such as coffee or unsweetened or artificially sweetened tea or soda. Beware of energy drinks—they pack a lot of calories in the form of sugar.
Sidebar: SMART FOODS
When it comes to nutrition on the run, having healthy items within arm’s reach is half the battle. Stock up on your favorite foods from the list below, keeping them readily available at home, in the car, and in the athletic training room. You’ll be well on your way to making better nutrition part of your routine.
- Non-Perishable Items
- Individual packs of whole grain crackers
- Fruit and nut granola bars
- Packets of tuna or salmon
- Dried fruit
- Peanut butter
- 1-ounce packets of nuts
- Cans of chicken
- Whole grain cereal
- Packets of oatmeal
- Cans or jars of bean dip
- Cans of soup
- 4-ounce containers of cottage cheese
- Small containers of hummus
- Baby carrots
- String cheese
- Cheese wedges or cubes
- Fresh fruit
- Celery sticks
- Cans of tomato or V8 juice
- Flavored water
- Packets of sugar-free lemonade that can be added to water
- Packets of light hot cocoa or soup that can be mixed with hot water
- Small packets of nuts
- Small boxes of dried fruit
- 150-200 calorie bars
- Flavored, roasted soy beans mixed with cereal or pretzels in one-cup servings