by Team Snapbac
When it comes to the diet of an athlete, the suggestions and diet plans are as diverse as the field of sports itself. There are food plans for bodybuilders, endurance competitors, losing weight, gaining weight, performance enhancement, post-game repair and so much more. Those plans then break down into personal eating beliefs and practices for the vegan athlete, vegetarian, lacto-, lacto-ovo-, ovo-, pescatarian, flexitarian, gluten-free, non-GMO, raw, semi-raw and so on. Next, you get into the superfoods, power nutrients, key supplements, minerals, essential and non-essential, vitamins, herbals, capsules, tinctures and powders. Once you finally compile a personal list of the best energy building foods for your athletic performance, you must then begin to break down the nutrients. Not only the basic macros, fat, protein and carb, but also the micros, vitamins and minerals. Lastly, a proper nutrition program must consider all of the athlete’s varied medical needs such as glucose balance for diabetics, animal fats for cholesterol and heart health and basic food allergies and sensitivities. Each of these details must be considered in your daily consumption and then aligned with your daily energy output. The old weight management adage has not changed, energy in, energy out, so what are you wanting your food to do for you?
We will get into the nitty gritty of diet in service to athleticism and health as soon as we have you clear up a few things. Your daily recommendations will not be the same every day of the week, all year long. They will shift and find balance with your activities. As an athlete you put a high demand on your body, so it will require a higher quantity of energy fueling foods, but those foods must also work to meet your physical goals. For example, a bodybuilder will need different macro and micro nutrient quantities than a long-distance runner, and a female athlete will have different requirements than a male. If you already know what you need for your sport, your sex, and your body size, then check in and see if you know how your requirements change pre-, during, and post-season. How should your diet look three months before the season, three weeks and does it need to change three days before the big game or event? Does your body need fuel directly before you kick it into gear? Will you need energy foods during your sport? How does your body feel directly after?
You must know these things in order to put together the ideal nutrition plan including meal timing. This is the very reason numerous books exist on creating individualized athletic food plans. It is why diets comprised of foods athletes should eat are so profuse and distinct. We all need different things based on our bodies and our activities each and every day. Things can get even more complicated when you need to put on bulk but keep off fat or lose weight but maintain energy levels.
We want to help you lay a foundation that will serve as a guide to creating your best form, performance and health, but we also recommend meeting with a licensed sports nutritionist if you are unable to get the results you want. It’s important to remember that no diet or exercise plan works overnight. Most professionals recommend following a new plan for a minimum of two weeks, but even that is highly subjective. If you are very close to your performance goals, you may notice changes faster than someone who is looking for physical changes. If you feel certain that you’ve got the right foods in the right amounts for prime athletic performance, give yourself eight to twelve weeks following your plan exactly and then reevaluate.
During that time, try adjusting your supplements. Are you getting enough vitamin-C? Are your omega-3s and omega-6s in balance? Should you take branched-chain amino acids, creatine or glutamine? As an athlete, you are putting your body under severe stress which increases free-radicals, so supplementing with higher antioxidants is important. If you’ve increased certain B-vitamins like B-12 and B-6, remember that the B vitamins work together and supplementing one or two can cause deficiencies in the others. It is better to take a B-complex or rely on your diet to provide the right amounts.
You must also consider your liquids. An athlete’s best energy food is water! Our bodies are around 60% water, and when you spend your time sweating, you’re losing a lot of it, fast. Throw in a coffee or two, an alcoholic beverage, a soda, an energy drink or even a tall glass of sweet tea and your body quickly falls into the H2O negative. Water is what allows your body to sweat which cools it down and prevents overheating, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It also helps to flush toxins from your body, lubricate the skin and tissues and comprises the majority of our blood transporting cells around the body. Poor circulation leads to poor performance.
We understand that plain water can get boring after a while, but the ends certainly justify the means. There a few things you can do to add variety to your hydration. Try putting a quarter fruit juice in with three-quarters water. This blend can be really good for endurance athletes giving the body a fresh intake of glucose to fuel tired muscles. If you can get pure, organic coconut water, this provides 95% water with natural sugars and flavoring to keep you energized. Herbal, caffeine free teas make a nice change when sipping throughout the day.
Many athletes opt for sports drinks, but it’s actually better to avoid these. They are often full of sugar and carbs, not to mention artificial flavors, colors and chemicals. Salt tablets are also best to cut from your regime. As an athlete, your body is your tool, for some it is your profession and it’s what lets you do what you love, so try to eliminate things that don’t serve you. Opt for natural and healthy sources of electrolytes which are key to an athlete and must be replaced after a particularly hot workout.
What exactly are electrolytes? When we work out and sweat, our bodies go through stores of minerals much faster than when we are sitting in an air-conditioned office. We need to replenish these to stay strong and fit. We most often hear about potassium, chloride and sodium because these are the primary minerals that are lost through the sweat glands and play a key role in muscle function and nerve impulses. We’re also going to throw magnesium and calcium in with necessary electrolyte replacement.
Just because these get lost via a liquid doesn’t mean they need to be consumed in a liquid. You can get the electrolytes you need in whole foods. Bananas, avocados and spinach are rich in potassium. Sodium and chloride together make salt, and the standard American diet is actually too high in salt. Simply enjoy it in your condiments, canned, packaged and restaurant foods. If you control all of these sources, you can be a bit more liberal with the salt shaker next time you prepare a meal. Calcium is in most fortified foods and dairy products as well as certain leafy greens, canned fish, seeds and some beans.
If you want to refuel your electrolytes quickly and prefer to drink rather than eat after a hard workout, there are some healthy and natural sources. Try squeezing a bit of lemon in your water for extra potassium, calcium, magnesium and some vitamin C. Chloride, magnesium, potassium and sodium are all found in hibiscus tea which is delicious cold and is a great thirst quencher. When on the go, you can opt for packaged, powdered electrolytes. Look for brands that are sugar free, low to zero calories, made without harmful chemicals or colorants and offer natural or organic ingredients. Please remember that too many electrolytes can cause an imbalance and make you ill.
Let’s start taking a look at the nutrition basics for a standard athlete. There are a vast amount of food and diet misconceptions on the internet and television, and for an athlete, this can destroy dreams, goals and change the outcome in a fraction of a second. Furthermore, with all the pills, powders and extras, getting it wrong could even be dangerous and ultimately fatal. You already have a higher activity level than the average individual which means you put more strain on your body and experience more tissue damage and wear, place more stress on your skeletal and nervous system and have a greater risk of injury and greater need for efficient repair. The foods you choose and their proportions need to be correct for you to perform at your highest potential.
That being said it’s also important to remember, no matter how devoted and passionate you are about your sport, you will not be an athlete forever. Never choose a food or supplement that gives you results at the cost of your health or longevity. Using banned substances is obvious, but we must also pay attention to things like not exceeding your protein intake. While it’s true that surplus protein is simply eliminated from the body, it must first go through your kidneys. Too much protein can damage your kidneys and create a build-up of toxic metabolic compounds in your colon.
Another unnecessary and yet common additive is salt. Salt tablets are nearly always something we don’t need in our bodies and can cause havoc with our blood pressure. We get enough salt in our diet, and if you’ve chosen a healthy electrolyte blend, you will get plenty of sodium. Fats may be burned for energy, but too much fat leads to a host of medical conditions and at the least, obesity when unbalanced in a well-rounded diet. Carbohydrates have received a terrible reputation over the years, and once more, too many will lower your conditioning and slow down performance. Yet, they are an essential food for athletic energy!
So, your diet starts with determining your needs and then taking a look at the best sources for those needs. Though science has come a long way, it is still best to leave it out of your kitchen and off your plate. If you can get what is necessary through natural, organic, and whole food sources, that will always be the better choice. We realize that bodybuilders and bulking athletes require enormous amounts of protein and eating that much can be difficult while maintaining caloric and macro restraints. It is in situations like these that a high-quality, well-vetted protein powder can be an excellent supplement, but it does not need to be a daily choice. Living nutrients or macros and micros that come from sources which at one point were alive, plant or animal, will always supply the body with a better balanced and higher quality nutrition.
This means you must know food. It will take time, but learning what foods provide which nutrients and in what quantities is the best way to fuel your body with the energy sources that will make you a better athlete and a healthier human. To begin you need to figure out some basic calculations and get a routine put in place for food prep, weighing and tracking. There are several apps out there that can make this setup a breeze, or you can go old-school and start a food journal as you begin to note all the things that work and don’t work. We recommend keeping a calculator and kitchen scale handy at all times. This is key in developing the ultimate athletic food training program!
If you’re just starting out, this can seem confusing, but it’s nothing more than a little math and some life observations. Calories are energy and your body needs a certain amount of energy simply to survive, added energy to sustain your lifestyle and then a caloric deficit to lose body mass or a caloric surplus to gain body mass. To determine the right amount of energy or calories for your needs, we will need to calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). You will start with determining your basal metabolic rate or BMR. This is the lowest number of calories you need each day simply to sustain your body’s basic functions. This does not include any movement, not even getting out of bed. To get an accurate BMR, you must know your current lean body mass (LBM) and your fat mass (FM).
For exact energy, you would need to calculate your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) which are the little unconscious movements you do all day like talking with your hands, petting your dog, tapping your foot, etc., and your calories come from thermic effect foods (TEF) which actually burn energy in the digestive process. Some nutrients like fiber and protein take a greater amount of energy to digest essentially utilizing a percentage of the calories they contain. Finally, you would input your thermic effect of activity (TEA) or exercise. This is all very tedious and confusing!
There are many calculators and apps that can easily help you determine all of these numbers. Luckily, a table was created giving a value to equate to your activity factors (AF) to make determining your TDEE much simpler. We should mention that these equations are only accurate for about 60-70% of the population. If your body or career depend on your athleticism, it may be best to see a professional.
Let’s start with BMR. For our purposes, we are using the Müller equation.
(13.587 × LBM) + (9.613 × FM) + (198 × Sex) – (3.351 × Age) + 674 = BMR
LBM is your lean body mass: Lean Body Mass (LBM) = Body weight - Fat Mass
FM is your fat mass: Fat Mass (FM) = Body weight × body fat percentage
Your body fat percentage can be measured in several ways and each one is lacking in perfect accuracy. That is not crucial to your results, but it is imperative that you choose the same method of measurement each time. You can opt for skin calipers, certain high-end scales can make fairly close calculations or even underwater weighing as fat floats.
As for sex, woman will put in the number zero, and men will use the number one.
Now that you have your basal metabolic rate, you can determine your total daily energy expenditure.
TDEE = AF x BMR
Let’s start with understanding what AF values have been determined. This is going to be a basic estimate based on a numbered scale of 1.2 for fully sedentary to 1.9 for ultra-active, those don’t stop all day from training to lifestyle. Most athletes will fall around 1.725, but if you are training and your particular sport is in season you may be hitting closer to 1.9. Multiply this number by your BMR and you will determine your maintenance calories.
Now that you know how many calories you need each day to maintain your current physique, you can choose to enter a deficit or a surplus if you need to make changes to your body. It’s important to remember that calories are not health; they are energy. You can achieve the same loss or gain whether you eat 2400 calories of junk food or 2400 calories of whole, clean foods. The difference will be in your strength, endurance, tissue recovery and repair, overall health and physical longevity. To make choose the right energy foods for your diet as an athlete, you need to get in the habit of counting and noting your macros and micros.
Now that you have your BMR and TDEE, calculating your daily macronutrient ratio is quite simple. It may take a bit of practice at first, but soon you will know how many calories are in your favorite foods and how much of them you can eat. It will start being obvious just by the size of the food on your plate or in your hand, but to get you started, we once more recommend utilizing one of the many high-quality apps or websites, several of which are free, to log and monitor the macronutrients in your daily snacks and meals.
Breaking down your macros and how much you need of each one will be an incredibly specific and personal process. We will give you the tools but the rest will be trial and error as you experiment with high complex carbohydrate diets versus high protein diets or even high fat programs.
Let’s look at carbs. Carbohydrates are the best source of fuel for endurance sports, muscle stamina and instant glucose availability in the form of carbohydrate-loading meals, but you want to choose complex carbohydrates for satiation and health. Think whole grains, legumes, potatoes, starchy vegetables and beans. For each gram of carbs, your body gets 4 calories to burn. If you are choosing a balanced diet with carbs as your primary fuel, they will comprise 50-60% of your total calories with 10-20% coming from simple carbs like fruits and most vegetables and 40-50% being complex from whole grains, legumes and starchy veggies.
Protein is probably the most talked about macro in the athletic world, but arguably it is of equal value in the body as the other two and quite often we consume too much of it. It has gained its popularity due to its many jobs in our bodies. Protein is made up of short and long chain amino acids that build and repair every tissue in our body, and it facilitates numerous processes throughout our systems. Our hormones, kinases, enzymes, transporters, and ion channels are also all protein. Nearly half of the amino acids in protein are considered essential, meaning your body will not produce them. We must eat them! So protein in our diet is incredibly vital, but is it king?
Many current studies are showing high-protein diets to have significant benefits over high-carb or high-fat diets. For starters, protein has a higher TEF, so you can eat a bit more. Protein is considered to be more sating and keep you fuller, longer. Protein is anabolic, meaning it can stimulate muscle protein synthesis on its own. In bodybuilding protein is key as it stimulates weight loss from fat rather than low protein diets which can drop weight from lean body mass. Protein also provides four calories per gram putting it on par with carbs for daily caloric intake.
Lastly is fat, and with the Keto diet this macronutrient has been making a big splash. We are not pro- or anti- any healthy, whole food diet that meets caloric needs and sustains the body’s basic functions. You will need to test them out for yourself. Stored fats are an excellent and efficient source of energy, it helps lubricate and support bodily tissues, stores, transports and assimilates fat-soluble vitamins, controls membrane permeability and much more. The key to fat intake is to avoid saturated fats, those solid at room temperature, at all times. Choose healthy fats like olive oil, lean, white meats and fish, avocados and nuts and seeds.
If you choose to go low-fat, be aware of the role fat plays in our hormones. If your diet falls under 20% fat, your testosterone can drop. Increasing fat will not increase testosterone. Fat needs must be met, but your body does not need a surplus unless you are attempting ketosis. Generally, 25-30% of your total calories should come from fat and over half of that should be from unsaturated sources. If you make fat your primary macro, you will eat less as it contains nine calories per gram, and no matter what you eat, you must stay within your necessary total calories.
Not many people focus on counting their micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, but supplementing the right micros can give you an edge over other athletes and keep your body in better condition. Though we’re not generally fans of powdered, processed miracle concoctions, there are some tested nutrients that have been shown to offer athletic gains. Many of your B vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, thiamin and pantothenic acid are used in greater quantities during physical demands, so a B complex is a great start. We discussed electrolyte minerals above, but others to include would be iodine, manganese, zinc and particularly for women, iron. We had also recommended increasing your antioxidants to fight against the stress of free radicals, so increase your vitamins -A, -C and -E along with selenium and L-cysteine.
Speaking of L- form amino acids, athletes should pay particular attention to carnitine, arginine, lysine, proline and phenylalanine.
Two other excellent supplements to add to your routine would be CQ10 for your heart and aerobic energy production and high-quality branched chain amino acids for muscle growth and repair. The BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Approximately one-third of our muscle tissue is made up of these amino acids. Take them a half an hour to an hour before you work out, train or compete with around 50 mg of vitamin B6 to help with bioavailability.
There will always be some fad food or supplement making waves in the gym and supermarket, and some of them can really make a difference. Others however may be a waste of time, money and effort. When it comes to choosing the foods on your plate and assembling the menu for your athletic diet, always eat whole, fresh, certified organic and locally grown when possible. A good rule is eating the rainbow, so choose many colors in your fruits and vegetables. You also want to eat a large variety. Try to eat a different vegetable every day of the month. Vary your grains, mix up your fruits, and when buying protein sources, be sure to look for clean, chemical and drug free, grass-fed, free-range sources. Also bring as many aquatic foods as possible like seaweeds, tuna, salmon, mackerel, kelp, and hijiki.
Be aware of your snacks too. The portion may be smaller, but it still has a big impact on your health. Consider healthy fats and proteins like nuts and seeds which will satiate you and provide a nutritional punch. When training, include hydrating foods like watermelon, cucumber, celery, oranges, radishes and other juicy, high water content fruits and veggies.
Use healthy fats for cooking like olive, coconut, rapeseed or flaxseed oils. Add in avocados, bone marrow and the skin of fish. Cook up starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash and beans for their flavors and fullness. Eat plenty of whole grains like oats, barley, brown and black rice, and whole wheat pastas.
Enjoy antioxidant rich foods like cherries, blueberries and pomegranates, and once you feel you’ve exhausted your list of familiar fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins, then you can start testing the trends like acai berry, bee pollen, hemp, and cassava!
Hopefully we’ve answered more questions than we’ve created, but if you are feeling overwhelmed or confused, then step back and take in the basics. Energy is measured in calories. Calories in, equal energy out, but if you don’t use that energy, then those calories become excess. Excess is stored for future energy needs, but it also can become too much which creates fat. One pound of fat is 3500 calories, so beware how much extra energy you take in, if you are not using it within your day.
All bottled supplements are naturally found in our foods, so if you are not ready to tackle the aisle of pills and powders, then focus on a large variety of colors, textures and sources of nutrients on your plate. Eat whole, healthy, natural foods that are not sold in bags, cans or boxes unless you’ve filled your freezer with vegetables. Frozen produce was picked at the height of its nutritional potential and is an incredibly viable source of nutrients.
When planning out your meals, try to stick to the 80/20 rule, 80% low-calorie, high-nutrient foods and 20% extra, like sauces, condiments and fats.
Keep it simple. Listen to your body’s needs and don’t give up!