Jan 29, 2015
To Each His Own

Will is trying to gain weight, Alan is too busy to eat, Donna needs to cut alories while she rehabs, and Liu is unaccustomed to American foods. This article offers seven case studies of athletes and their nutritional needs.

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.

Regardless of the sport, eating is as important a part of being an athlete as training and conditioning, and the foods athletes choose are as powerful a predictor of their performance as the work they do in team practices. But while few athletes want to waste time on training techniques that don’t boost performance, many continue to make food choices that detract from their on-the-field success.

There is no list of magic foods and no one-size-fits-all eating plan that will lead to optimal performance. The formula that will produce the best results for an individual athlete depends upon the bigger picture of his or her practice routine, schedule of competitions, and body goals. What time of the day does he or she train? At what intensity? For how long? Does the athlete compete once a week at one event, or have several competitions within the same week?

Add to this is the athlete’s agenda. Many are not only competing, but are also studying, participating in extracurricular activities, and holding jobs. And in addition, many athletes are also attempting to make changes to their body composition.

Below, we consider six individuals whose scenarios represent some of the most common nutrition challenges student-athletes face. For each, we’ll provide specific tips on what, when, and how much the athlete should eat for optimal performance.

Making Gains

Will is a high school basketball player who is trying to increase his weight. He says he eats a lot, but can’t eat before practice and often isn’t hungry for several hours after practice. Before games, he gets nervous and finds that anything he tries to eat doesn’t stay down. How can Will achieve his goals of fueling for games and increasing weight?

Since there are always more practices than games in any given week, Will’s first priority needs to be what happens before and after practice. He needs to learn how to “train his guts” so that he can eat more food. I would also suggest he ingest more beverages, since they empty more quickly than solids. I would recommend the following strategies to Will:

    1. Eat a larger breakfast, perhaps adding an extra slice of toast with peanut butter or a waffle with butter and syrup, and a large glass of milk or juice.

    2. Eat something between breakfast and lunch while moving from one classroom to another. Portable foods such as cereal, cereal bars, dried fruit, nuts, and crackers work well, and are not messy to eat.

    3. Eat a larger lunch with an extra beverage and food item such as a soft pretzel, bagel, or slice of pizza if eating in school. If packing a lunch, add some extra snack items such as crackers or pretzels and an extra half of a sandwich.

    4. Before practice, have a few gulps of sports drink instead of nothing at all. If that is not available, have about eight ounces of lemonade. 5. Immediately after practice, have something to drink other than water, such as a sports drink, lemonade, fruit punch, and if tolerated, a snack such as a handful of pretzels, crackers, or a Rice Krispies treat.

    6. Three to four hours before games, eat easy-to-digest foods such as cereal, bagels, waffles, pancakes, rice, and pasta. Foods such as macaroni and cheese, pizza, fried chicken, and burgers are fattier and more likely to cause an upset stomach at game time.

    7. If solid foods are too difficult, try smoothies or meal replacement drinks such as Boost or Ensure.

Looking To Lose

Lateesha is a volleyball player who wants to lose some weight. She has tried dieting without much success and has recently decided to skip breakfast, thinking that this will be a great way to cut calories. Much to her surprise, she isn’t losing a pound, is starved by the end of the day, and feels lousy during practice. What can Lateesha do to achieve her weight goals and also optimize her performance?

    1. Eat breakfast daily. This helps to replete muscle and liver glycogen stores after an overnight fast so that the body has fuel available for activity. Eating breakfast also helps to control appetite throughout the day.

    2. Eat a breakfast that has some staying power, such as oatmeal or a breakfast burrito.

    3. Include some protein and fat as part of breakfast, as they take longer to digest and will help her to feel fuller for longer. Add some nuts to cereal, or add cheese to eggs.

    4. Include some fiber at breakfast for the “fill” factor. Choosing fiber-containing foods such as fruit instead of juice, or Cheerios instead of corn flakes, will increase satiety and may also help the body burn calories more efficiently.

    5. Have something to eat at breakfast that requires chewing, and make sure to sit down for the meal. A cereal bar on the way out the door is not really a breakfast and may actually result in overeating later in the day. An 8-ounce container of yogurt, a whole grain English muffin with crunchy peanut butter, and a piece of fruit might seem like a lot, but it’s an ideal breakfast for weight loss. The yogurt contains protein and calcium which may help with fat loss. The English muffin has fiber, and the peanut butter provides protein and fat to help Lateesha to feel fuller longer. The fruit also contains fiber and requires chewing, so that she won’t be as likely to overeat at night, and may actually end up eating less throughout the day than she is currently.

The Long Haul

Lisa is a middle-distance high school track athlete who works hard in the classroom as well as on the track. She also holds a part-time job and helps her mother with the care of three younger siblings. After school, she has practice for two hours, rushes home to play with her brothers and sisters while dinner is being prepared, eats quickly, and goes to work for a few hours after dinner. Then she comes back home, studies, and goes to sleep. She is an excellent runner, but the coach has noticed that her times are not as good as they used to be, and Lisa has said that she sometimes runs out of gas. What nutritional strategies should she try?

    1. Eat something immediately after practice, such as 32 ounces of sports drink, two handfuls of trail mix, or a granola bar and 16 ounces of sports drink.

    2. At dinner, add a little more food and an extra glass of juice or milk.

    3. Take something discreet to eat at work, such as peanut butter crackers, a handful of nuts, or a cereal bar.

    4. Eat something while studying at home, such as yogurt, a small bowl of cereal, or a peanut butter sandwich.

    5. For races, Lisa should start increasing intake two or three days prior to the race, instead of eating a lot more the night before, since eating more food the night before a race may interrupt sleeping and make her feel uncomfortable. Making an effort to eat more food, particularly carbohydrate-containing food, two or three days before a race provides a more gradual increase without the discomfort. For instance, a runner may decide to have a slightly larger bowl of cereal at breakfast, or a sandwich at lunch on a bagel instead of bread, and a larger serving of rice, pasta, or potato at dinner.

Suddenly Sidelined

Donna is an NCAA Division III goalkeeper for her soccer team. She sustained an ankle injury that will put her on the sideline for the next six weeks. She has become very concerned about maintaining her weight since her activity will be limited to rehab. How can she maintain her weight while promoting healing?

    1. The goal is to discriminate, not eliminate. Her calorie level will need to decrease, since she is not expending as many calories per day. However, the goal is not to restrict. She still needs to eat at least 13 calories per pound of body weight. For Donna, a 135-pound athlete, this would mean an intake of approximately 1,800 calories per day.

    2. To help with healing and promote satiety when trimming calories, increase protein and fiber intake slightly. This will provide “fill” and “chew” factors and also may boost metabolism slightly so that the body burns calories more efficiently. A meal might consist of the following: one-half of the plate as protein (fish, chicken, lean meats, eggs), one-quarter of the plate as fiber (vegetables), and one-quarter of the plate as higher fiber carbohydrate (brown rice, whole grain bread, a sweet potato, or ear of corn).

    3. Trim down on some hidden high calorie items such as dressings, beverages, cheese, and crackers—or use half of what she normally would.

    4. Donna would normally snack on fat-free pretzels or dry cereal at night, not really thinking about the amount she was consuming. Suggest that she put the cereal or pretzels in a small bowl instead of eating out of the bag or box. This will cut down on intake.

    5. To help promote healing, she should increase her intake of Vitamin C through vegetables such as tomatoes or broccoli and fruit (oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, melons) which are higher in fiber and lower in calories than the juice. Potatoes are an excellent source of Vitamin C as well. Zinc is also an essential mineral for healing. Good food sources include whole grains and meats such as beef, fish, and poultry.

The International Athlete

Liu is a volleyball player from China. He was recruited to an NCAA Division I university and is having a lot of trouble with American food. There are many unfamiliar items, which he states he has never tried, and he often comes to practices hungry because he hasn’t eaten. How can you help this athlete to fuel for his sport?

    1. As a starting point it is important to sit down with Liu to get an idea of the foods he usually eats. Even though the dining hall may not be able to match this exactly, it may be possible to work with the dining hall manager to come up with some good substitutes.

    2. Accompany Liu on a tour through the dining hall. This can be an eye opening experience and will familiarize him with the choices.

    3. If away-game meals are typically fast food, perhaps an arrangement can be made with the dining hall for Liu to take something that he feels comfortable eating.

    4. It would also be worthwhile to find out if there is an Asian market in the community so that he can get some familiar foods to have on hand.

No Time To Eat

Alan is an NCAA Division I swimmer. In addition to the demands of his sport, he has a double major and does some tutoring. Since he has to be in the pool at 6 a.m., he usually skips breakfast. He goes from morning practice to classes, is back at practice from 3 to 5 p.m., grabs a bite to eat, tutors for two hours, and then hits the library, with virtually no free time in between. Alan feels that he would perform better if he had a little more energy. How can he work more food into his busy schedule?

    1. Before morning swim practice, have a sports drink, a packet of honey, or something light such as yogurt, a smoothie, or chocolate milk.

    2. Port-a- meal to have after morning practice and before classes such as a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, cereal and a piece of fruit, or a sports bar and sports drink.

    3. If lunch is in the dining hall, a sub, pasta and salad, or grilled chicken sandwich with yogurt and fruit would be quick items to grab. If he doesn’t have time to go to the dining hall, he can bring some snacks to eat over the course of the day such as nuts, raisins, dry cereal, or crackers.

    4. One hour before practice, a great snack is two cereal bars, a bagel with jelly, or a snack-size bag of pretzels and a piece of fruit. Again these foods are portable, do not have to be refrigerated, and are available in most dining halls and campus food stores.

The Restrictive Eater

Molly is a gymnast at her university. Throughout high school, she worked hard to manage her weight, and now that she is in college, her focus on weight control has increased. She appears to be under-eating for the amount of exercise she does and her teammates say that they hear her say that she is afraid food will make her fat. Not only does she work hard during practice, but she spends at least two hours a day in the gym, primarily doing cardio activities. She is often exhausted during practice and a bit withdrawn. What can you say to help Molly realize that she is allowed to eat and needs to fuel her body?

    1. As a first step, it is important to sit down with Molly and have a heart-to-heart chat about eating and weight. There are many sources of misinformation, especially for the athlete who is trying hard to keep weight low. It is important to explain that the body needs a certain number of calories just to survive, to fuel the basal metabolic rate. Very simply, this would be body weight (pounds) x 10. Molly weighs 115 pounds, so assuming she did no physical activity at all, her body would require 1,150 calories per day. Because she exercises strenuously six or seven days a week, Molly actually requires body weight (pounds) x 17 daily, or 1,955 calories per day.

    2. Suggest that Molly keep a food journal for a few days to get an idea of her daily energy intake and that she also log her exercise. This way, Molly can see in black and white what she consumes compared to what she expends.

    3. Make changes slowly. It is overwhelming and incredibly scary for someone who has restricted for so long to eat more liberally. Give her the permission to eat, but one bite at a time. If she is currently consuming 1,000 calories per day, the goal is to get her to increase to 1,100 for a week, and then 1,200, etc. Even though she needs about 2,000 calories per day, if she went from 1,000 to 2,000 calories immediately, she would see a change on the scale that might upset her. Granted, this is probably water weight, but it would be very discouraging and chances are that she would immediately return to restrictive eating.

    4. Add protein first. With her restricted intake, she has probably lost some muscle mass, which she needs to replace. Protein sources lower in fat such as yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, tuna, and chicken are good suggestions, and she doesn’t have to eat a lot. Any of the following are approximately 100 calories: 4 ounces yogurt, 8 ounces skim milk, one-half cup cottage cheese, 3 ounces water packed tuna, or 3 ounces of skinless chicken.

    5. Be there to provide support. Expect her to be resistant, because she is scared. Ask her to log not only what she is eating, but also how she feels. She may notice that she is less tired, not as cold, or happier. These changes cannot be measured on the scale, but will certainly impact her quality of life. If she is not able to change her eating habits or continues to seem withdrawn, do not hesitate to refer her to a mental health professional trained in helping athletes with eating disorders.

The Bottom Line

There is no one right way to fuel the body for sport, but no matter what activity one does, there is always a need to be fueled. The athlete should strategize, not just about his or her sport, but also about capitalizing on times of the day when food is most available and appetite is best. Focusing on the combination of the food (what the athlete eats) plus the eating (why, when, where, and how much) may very well be the recipe for success when it comes to optimizing performance.

Sidebar: Tips for Athletes

It’s easy for athletes to forget that good nutrition is about enhancing performance. The following “performance” acronym is simple, but its tips can add up to big improvements in strength, speed, and stamina.

Prioritize fueling. Athletes need to give the same priority to eating as they do to their sport. Eating should not be an afterthought, but part of a training plan. New eating behaviors have to be practiced regularly, just like one’s sport.

Energize your body. Athletes need to avoid shortchanging themselves on calories. At a minimum, active females require about 15 calories per pound of body weight, and active males require a minimum of 18 calories per pound of body weight.

Relax when you eat. Athletes are always on the go, and not just while they are practicing and competing. Most athletes find it difficult to eat and move, so to ensure gut comfort as well as body fuel, it helps to sit while eating, and to eat the largest meal at the time of the day when the athlete feels most relaxed and least pressured.

Frequent meals are better for performance, weight, and health. An active body should be fueled every three to four hours no matter what body goals the athlete has. Energy breaks, eating episodes, and mini-meals are food lingo that the athlete should put into his or her vocabulary. Five-a-day is not just about fruits and veggies, but is also a healthy guide for the number of times an athlete should eat over the course of the day.

Owe it to yourself. Many athletes compete not just for themselves but for their coach, teammates, and their school. Eating, however, is a solo competition and something that only the athlete can do for him- or herself. Athletes need to be reminded that being well-fueled and well-hydrated is as important a contribution to the sport as their talent and training.

Relish the foods you eat. If it doesn’t taste good, why are you eating it? Since eating is an experience we have several times a day, it should be a pleasurable one. A steady diet of sports bars and shakes gets old fast, as does eating grilled chicken salads every day. Even adding one new food or beverage to the routine makes meal time something to look forward to. Different tastes, textures, colors, and temperatures make food much more enjoyable.

Multi-nutrient meals are best. Each meal should be a mix of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Although carbohydrate and fat are the primary fuel substrates for activity, the athlete needs protein for bone health, muscle growth, and muscle repair. Combination foods such as sandwiches, cereal and milk, pasta with meat sauce, and a trail mix of dry cereal, nuts, and raisins are examples of multi-nutrient meals and snacks.

Accountability is important. Many athletes log miles, laps, or weight training sessions to monitor their progress. The athlete who is trying to eat for better performance also needs to keep a log. Keeping track of what, when, and how much one eats can provide baseline information and allow the athlete to track positive changes.

Nourish yourself. Athletes have busy lives, which can result in erratic eating behaviors. But skipping meals affects the body negatively. Meals and snacks need to be part of the athlete’s schedule.

Cravings are normal. Everyone has particular foods that they really enjoy. There is nothing wrong with craving a certain food, and all types of foods can fit into an athlete’s diet. If an athlete really desires a brownie for lunch, he or she might decide to have a grilled chicken salad, forego the roll, and have the brownie instead. In addition, eating at regular intervals can help prevent a food craving from turning into an eating orgy.

Eat to meet your needs. Eating is not one-size-fits-all. An athlete’s eating may need to change depending upon age and activity.

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