The Nutrition Basics You Need to Know
By Colette Harris
Athletes know they need to eat healthy and well-balanced meals to build strong bones, lean muscle mass, fight fatigue, and bolster their immune systems, among other benefits.
But what does it really mean to eat healthy? A quick Google search turns up dozens of diets and healthy foods to try. It can be hard to know what’s right for you!
Perfect nutrition really is different for everyone, but the basic science of nutrition remains the same. Essential nutrients can be divided into two categories - macronutrients and micronutrients. We need both for optimal health, but registered dietitians often focus on making sure athletes get enough of the macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – before they start evaluating the micronutrient – vitamin and mineral – needs of an individual.
Maggie Ward, MS, RD, LDN at The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, MA says athletes need a mix of nutrients at each meal. Whole foods, those that have undergone little to no processing, contain a combination of macronutrients and micronutrients, making them ideal choices. While it’s not uncommon for athletes to try to cut out carbohydrates, fats, or protein to achieve a desired weight, Ward cautions that eliminating even one of the macronutrients from your diet can lead to decreased energy, a weakened immune system, and poorer recovery times.
Athletes Need All the Macronutrients. Here’s Why:
Think of protein as helping build the body. Ward says we often think of protein as building muscle, but it also builds your immune system and amino acids that build protein, like tyrosine, help develop norepinephrine and dopamine, two neurotransmitters responsible for keeping you alert, energized, and feeling good. Athletes need to get enough protein to build these areas of the body and have enough left over to build muscle as well. “If you’re deficient you’re going to have trouble building muscle,” says Ward. Developing lean muscle mass is crucial for sports performance, but it’s also important for girls as they age since that lean muscle protects their bones later in life.
Good sources of protein: lean animal meat (chicken, fish, lean red meat), grains such as quinoa, beans, and seeds and nuts including chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds.
Signs you’re Not Getting Enough Protein: fatigue, poor recovery time, more likely to develop colds or illnesses due to a weakened immune system. Ward says these could also be signs that you're not getting enough overall calories and micronutrients as well.
Carbohydrates are what our bodies use quickest for energy and, although there’s debate about how much of this macronutrient each individual needs, Ward says ingesting carbohydrates in some form is essential. The key is eating carbs in their most whole and purest form. “Pastas, breads, and bagels are not probably not the best way to go because we want other nutrients, like the fiber and minerals, that come with whole-based carbohydrates,” says Ward. Carbs, like pastas and white breads, are often stripped of their fiber and other nutrients during processing, making them less filling and less nutritious. Next time a teammate suggests a pasta party before the big meet, offer to bring millet or quinoa instead, both of which contain good amounts of fiber, minerals, and protein.
Remember that fruit, especially sweeter varieties like bananas, apples, and berries, are great sources of carbohydrate and contain the vitamins and minerals necessary for keeping your body and immune system working efficiently, says Ward. Starchy root vegetables and leafy greens also pack a carbohydrate punch.
Good sources of carbohydrate: whole grains, bananas, apples, berries, carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, and chickpeas
Signs you’re not getting enough carbs: If you’re deficient in this macronutrient, your body will start using protein for energy, especially if you're deficient in overall calories and fats. From there your body will tap into your muscles for energy, especially if your protein intake is also low. As an athlete, Ward says that’s the last thing you want. “Obviously the more muscle you have the more powerful you’re going to be and faster and stronger as well,” says Ward.
Fats are not a bad food group, especially since fats are more calorically dense per gram and provide athletes with energy needed to sustain long workouts. Look to add healthy fats to your diet, like those found in avocados, nuts, and seeds, and extra virgin olive oil. As with most foods, avoid fats that have been processed. “Lets say you make sunflower seed oil. That oil’s really not that good for you because it’s been processed now,” says Ward. “If you eat a whole sunflower seed and you get the fat that way, it’s very good for you. In the raw seeds the oil hasn’t been damaged, they’ve actually been protected so those oils are really good for us.”
Good sources of fat: avocados, sunflower seeds, extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed or pasture-raised butter, coconut oil, coconut milk, animal meat
Signs you’re not getting enough fat: Fats, as well as carbohydrates, are the body’s main energy sources. If you’re not getting enough of either, your body starts losing protein, which leads to a decrease in muscle mass, fatigue, and possibly amenorrhea (missing one or more periods).
Ward says athletes should strive to eat balanced meals or snacks every three to four hours to maintain their blood sugar levels. Drizzling a little bit of healthy fat in the form of olive oil or butter on a sweet potato for example, slows down the absorption of sugars found in the sweet potato, meaning you’ll get a steady rise and leveling off of your blood sugar instead of the up and down spikes in blood sugar that can occur when eating carbs on their own without protein or fat to buffer their effects. “You want to be eating more whole, less processed foods and getting more protein, carbohydrate, and fat at each meal. By doing that you’re going to keep your blood sugar more balanced,” says Ward.
*consult your physician before trying new foods or diets. GOLD does not recommend a specific diet plan or replace doctor’s advice. Seek guidance from a physician or dietitian before beginning a new eating plan.
Image at top created via Canva.com