Nutrition for athletes: science and myths
The right diet is one of the basic foundations for achieving the best athletic performance.
Unfortunately, there aren’t special diets or “magic” foods.
Athletes, as the rest of the population, should follow a Mediterranean-type diet, so providing an adequate intake of energy, of mineral salts, vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and water, keeping at the same time good balance of caloric intake by wisely splitting it during the day.
Finally, they should avoid as much as possible industrial foods or fast foods.
Nutrition for athletes and the distribution of meals and calories
Still more than sedentary man, because of his greater caloric intake, athlete will have to consume more meals during the day to avoid concentrating an excessive amount of calories (and food) in one meal.
In this way, he will:
- avoid reaching lunch-time and especially dinner-time with an excessive hunger;
- digest foods more easily, not engaging the digestive system with too much abundant meals.
- avoid any increases in blood chemistry parameters associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, such as hypertriglyceridemia and hypercholesterolemia.
Of course, in nutrition for athletes, the distribution of the meals will have to consider also training and competition times. The best distribution might be: breakfast, lunch and dinner plus two snacks, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
It is of one of most important and often underestimated meals of the day, that should never be skipped.
Typical breakfast foods are milk and/or yogurt, fruit juice (better if freshly squeezed seasonal fruit; when you buy a packaged fruit juice, select it without added sugar/sweeteners and with a caloric content of about 45 kcal/100 g), freshly made tea,bread, dry cookies without cream (however moderately), corn flakes without addition of syrup, honey, fresh/dry fruit, chocolate, and jam/honey (the last three in moderation).
Breakfast will be consumed considering the time when physical activity, and still more the competition, is made.
In nutrition for athletes, as for sedentary population,the breakfast should represent about 15% of the daily caloric intake, to pass to 20% without mid-morning snack.
It should represent the meal in which the major part of complex carbohydrates is taken up that is pasta, rice, barley, cous-cous, oats, millet, etc (better if “al dente” with a light seasoning), based on personal preferences.
To limit glycemic increase it is advisable to eat, after a dish rich in carbohydrates, vegetables, fresh or cooked (in the latter when possible, better if steamed), but avoiding potatoes, cooked carrots and onions (foods with an high glycemic index). Bread, if present, should be eaten moderately.
At the end of the lunch a fruit can be eaten as well (if it doesn’t cause feelings of bloating when eaten at the end of the meal; in the case, fruit may be eaten during snacks) and/or a dessert without cream.
Seasonal fruit and vegetable will ensure an adequate intake of mineral salts, vitamins, fiber and water.
It is advisable having lunch at least two-three hours before the start of training sessions/competition, in order to allow a complete digestion, normalization of postprandial glycemic peaks and of insulin response before starting workout.
In nutrition for athletes, the lunch should represent 25-30% of the daily caloric intake.
In this meal, it is advisable to give priority to proteins rather than carbohydrates, hence fish, white or red meat (the last one lean and less frequently) or legumes (rich in slow absorption carbohydrates, fiber and mineral salts) will be present, with seasonal vegetables, fresh or cooked, (recommended is also a vegetable soup, that will help in restoring liquids), moderate bread, and fruit (if it doesn’t cause feelings of bloating when eaten at the end of the meal, as seen for lunch).
It is advisable to eat legumes at dinner to avoid bothersome bloating during training.
In nutrition for athletes, the dinner should represent 25-30% of the daily caloric intake.
In nutrition for athletes, to ensure adequate distribution of calories, often much higher than in the sedentary man and avoid an excessive accumulation at major meals, at least two snacks must be present, one at mid-morning and the other at mid-afternoon. Assume preferably fruit (moderately also dry fruit, advisable walnuts and almonds), yogurt/milk, dry cookies or a sandwich with lean sliced salami (e.g. lean raw ham or cured raw beef), cottage cheese (soft fresh cheese) or simply with extra-virgin olive oil and tomato or other vegetables (always choose seasonal vegetables).
The snack should represent 10-15% of the daily caloric intake.
Daily caloric intake
In nutrition for athletes, caloric intake must be matched to energy consumption that, in turn, depends on:
- growing phase;
- physical structure;
- level of physical activity (training plane, competition, recovery);
- even possible pathological states.
Athlete’s diet must consider energy consumption due to workload sustained during training sessions.
In fact, if there are sports (as swimming, running, rowing or cross-country skiing) whose training sessions cause an increase of energy requirement in excess of 50% compared to needs referred to a moderately active lifestyle, in other sports (as artistic or rhythmic gymnastics, shooting etc.) the consumption related to the activity may be modest.
So, the only difference in nourishment between a sedentary or moderately active man and an athlete engaged in sports causing a large increase of energy requirement will be of quantitative type: the greater is the energy expenditure linked to physical activity, the greater will be the caloric intake.
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Jeukendrup A.E. Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling. J Sport Sci 2011:29;sup1, S91-S99. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.610348
Mahan L.K., Escott-Stump S.: “Krause’s foods, nutrition, and diet therapy” 10th ed. 2000
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