Most athletes want to have strong muscles to be more powerful, help prevent injuries, add protection for contact sports such as rugby or (American) football, and yes, to look buff. They wonder: What can I eat for more muscle, strength and power? The standard belief is eat extra protein, but more fundamental than food is doing some form of resistance exercise. Lifting weights is far more powerful for building muscle than is eating extra protein (unless you have been eating a protein-deficient diet).
While some athletes have cast iron stomachs and few concerns about what and when they eat before they exercise, others live in fear of pre-exercise fuel contributing to undesired pit stops during their workouts. Be it stomach rumbling, a need to urinate or defecate, reflux, nausea, heartburn, or side stitch, how to prevent intestinal distress is a topic of interest to athletes with finnicky guts. Here are tips to help you fuel well before/during exercise while reducing the risk of gastro-intestinal (GI) distress. For more in-depth information, you might want to read The Athlete’s Gut by Patrick Wilson or listen to this podcast.
- Stay calm. Being anxious about intestinal issues can exacerbate the problem. Think positive. Trust that your gut is adaptable and trainable. Record what, when, and how much you eat, as well as the duration and intensity of your exercise. Use that data to help you figure out what foods and fluids settle best. Building body trust can reduce anxiety—and that can reduce GI issues. That said, precompetition nerves can affect any athlete, regardless of GI hardiness!
- Athletes in running sports are more likely to suffer GI issues than, say bicyclists or skiers. With running comes intestinal jostling; the longer the intestines are jostled, the higher the risk of upset. Ultra-runners know this too well…
- If you experience gut issues every day—even when you are not exercising, you want to talk with a GI doctor. Celiac disease, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and blood in your stool need to get checked out now! They are serious issues and differ from exercise-induced GI problems.
- The higher the intensity of exercise, the higher the risk of intestinal distress. Add heat and anxiety to intense exercise, and many athletes experience transit trouble. During hard workouts, blood flow diverts away from the gut to transport oxygen and glucose to the working muscles and carry away carbon dioxide and waste products.
- Low intensity training that can be sustained for more than half an hour is less problematic. The GI tract gets adequate blood flow, can function relatively normally and is able to digest, absorb, and metabolize pre-exercise fuel. Athletes tend to have fewer GI issues on easy training days, given better blood flow to the intestines, lower body temperature and less anxiety.
- Carbohydrate is the easiest-to-digest fuel before and during exercise. Carbohydrate gets broken down into simple sugars in the stomach, then absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine. Specific transporters carry each sugar molecule (such as glucose or fructose) across the intestinal wall. Hence, consuming a variety of carb-based fuels helps minimize a “backlog” if all the transporters for, let’s say, fructose get called into action.
- With training, the body creates more transporters to alleviate any backlog. That’s one reason why you want to practice event-day fueling during training sessions. Your body gets the chance to activate specific transporters. The foods and fluids you consume before and during training should be the ones you’ll use for the event. Some popular carb-based pre-and during-exercise snacks include fruits (banana, applesauce), vegetables (boiled potato, roasted carrots), and grains (sticky rice balls, pretzels, pita)—as well as commercial sports foods (sport drinks, gels, chomps).
- Athletes who experience gas and bloat want to familiarize themselves with FODMAPs —Fermentable (i.e., gas-producing) Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols. These are sugars and fibers that some people have trouble digesting. Commonly eaten sport foods high in FODMAPs include milk (apart from lactose-free milk), bread, pasta, onions, garlic, beans, lentils, hummus, apples, and honey.
- By choosing a low FODMAP diet for a few days before an important event, an athlete might be able to reduce, if not avoid, digestive issues. (Of course, first, experiment during training to be sure the low FODMAP foods settle well!) Low FODMAP foods include bananas, grapes, cantaloupe, potato, rice quinoa, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses, and maple syrup. For more information on FODMAPS, refer to KateScarlata.com.
- Fatty foods (butter, cheese, nuts) tend to slowly leave the stomach and are metabolized slower than carb-rich foods. If you will be exercising for only one to two hours, think twice before reaching for a handful of nuts or a chunk of cheese for a quick fix before you exercise. A banana or slice of toast will digest quicker and be more available for fuel.
- Eating fatty foods on a regular basis can speed-up gastric emptying a bit but you won’t burn much pre-exercise dietary fat during your workout unless you are an ultra-athlete who will be exercising for more than three hours. In that case, a bagel with nut butter or cheese will offer long-lasting fuel.
- Some athletes chronically under-eat during training. This includes dieters trying to lose weight, and athletes with anorexia. Under-eating can impair GI function; the gut slows down with inadequate fuel. Delayed gastric emptying means food stays longer in the stomach and can feel “heavy” during exercise (as well as is less available for fuel). Slowed intestinal motility easily leads to constipation, a common problem among under-eating athletes.
- Highly active athletes, such as Tour de France cyclists and ultra-runners, need to consume a large volume of food to support performance. If they are eating “healthy” foods before and during endurance exercise, they can easily consume a lot of fiber —and that can easily contribute to rapid transit. Endurance athletes needing a high calorie diet often benefit from eating some so-called less-healthy foods (such as white bread, white rice, cookies, candy) for low-fiber muscle-fuel.
- Given each athlete is has a unique GI tract, be sure to experiment during training to learn what works best. Eat wisely—and enjoy miles of smiles.
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (6th edition, 2019) can help you eat to win. For more information, visit NancyClarkRD.com.
Among athletes, “turning vegan” (or vegetarian) is not a passing fad. Given the most popular ages for embarking upon a vegan lifestyle are 19, 20 and 21, many college athletes are asking me how to eat a meatless sports diet.
First, I want to understand why they are choosing to cut out animal-based foods. The standard reasons are:
1. Vegan and vegetarian diets tend to be healthier than a diet based on burgers and bacon. Indeed, plant-based meals with beans, veggies, and whole grains are nutrient dense, fiber-rich, and abundant in healthful phytochemicals and healthy fats. (Yet, vegan diets are not always healthier. Coke, Oreos, Skittles, Doritos are vegan-friendly…)
2. Vegans/vegetarians are leaner than omnivores, so some athletes embark upon a vegan lifestyle in hopes of losing weight. That might happen if your vegan/vegetarian diet coincides with limiting your intake of calories. Knocking off 300 calories of ice cream and replacing it with 100 calories of berries creates a significant calorie reduction.
3. Plant-based diets address concerns about animal rights and the environment. Hence, vegan/vegetarian diets appeal to animal lovers and folks who want to help save the planet. Reducing animal agriculture is one small way to curb global warming (and every little bit helps). But according to Frank Mitloehner PhD professor and air quality specialist at UC-Davis, industry and transportation are far bigger polluters— as is wasted food. (Forty percent of food we produce never gets to the table.) This podcast with Dr. Mitloehner offers science-based climate-change facts.
4. Though not verbalized as a reason to go vegan, meatless diets, unfortunately, are a popular way for athletes with anorexia to cut out chicken, beef, fish, eggs, dairy… to the point they are living on little more than fruits and veggies. Eating disorders can change healthy vegan meals into diets deficient in not only protein, but many nutrients, including iron, calcium, zinc, B-12, vitamin D, iodine, and omega-3 fats. Within a few months, good health can dwindle into injuries, hair falling out in clumps, low energy, and poor athletic performance.
Considerations when building a vegan sports diet
The busy lifestyle of vegan athletes can create nutrition challenges. For example, when eating on the run, vegans may find Oreos are more readily available than, let’s say, roasted chickpeas. Grab-and-go snacks of just a bagel or a banana should get balanced with some protein — but is hummus or soymilk readily available? All this means vegan athletes have to be responsible and plan ahead.
When listening to my vegan/vegetarian clients, I often hear “red flag” statements that signal misinformation. Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions and correct some myths related to vegan/vegetarian sports diets.
“Carbs” are fattening, a waste of calories? False!
Plants are carbs! While you want to limit nutrient-poor carbs (like Frosted Flakes, Pop-Tarts, ramen), wholesome carbs (preferably called grain-foods) should be the foundation of every meal to fully fuel muscles. Athletes who train one to three hours a day can easily end up with needless fatigue if they try to thrive on fruit and salads. Grains (and all “carbs”) are NOT inherently fattening. Excess calories of any food can be fattening.
As a vegan/vegetarian athlete, you would be wise to eat grains (such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice) as the foundation of each meal/snack. Combine them with a colorful assortment of fruits and/or vegetables for more muscle-fuel, and of course, a dose of protein.
Lunchtime salads are a healthy vegan meal? Sometimes.
While salads can be nutrient-rich, they can also be protein and carb-poor—but high in calories given a “little bit” of olive oil on a big salad ends up being a lot of dressing. Filling up on calories from fat will not refuel depleted muscle glycogen. Vegan athletes could better refuel their muscles with a grain-protein combination such as a hummus wrap or beans and rice.
Quinoa can be the “protein” in a vegan meal? No!
Quinoa is reputed to be a protein-rich grain, containing all the essential amino acids needed to build muscle. It is not a stand-along protein-rich food. If you compare quinoa to other grains, you’ll see it offers only 6 grams of protein per 200 calories, similar to rice (4 g), and less than pasta (7 g). Most athletes should target 15 to 25 grams of protein at each meal. That means, you want to add more than just quinoa to your salad. How about tofu? beans? lentils?
Almond milk is a replacement for dairy milk? No way!
Almond juice (it is not milk) has far fewer nutrients than dairy milk. Milk’s 8 grams of high-quality protein is life-sustaining. The 1 gram of low-quality protein in almond beverages is not. Soy or pea milk are acceptable dairy-free alternatives to cows’ milk.
Soy causes cancer and man-boobs? Wrong.
The latest research indicates soy is cancer preventive and is safe— even for women with breast cancer. As for man-boobs, the one case study about unusual male breast development refers to a person who routinely drank three quarts of soymilk a day. That is a LOT of soymilk. For the latest soy updates, enjoy this podcast.
Protein bars and powders can replace real foods? Not really.
Protein-rich foods are preferable to highly processed bars and shakes. Nutrients in natural foods interact synergistically Instead of yet-another bar or shake for a meal or snack, how about cereal + (soy) milk, crackers + hummus, or banana + nut butter? Aren’t these real foods more in keeping with the spirit of veganism?
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area. Her updated (2019) Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you optimize your eating. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for information about appointments, books, and teaching materials.
Once upon a time (before WWII), daily life revolved around structured meals: enjoying a hearty breakfast, dinner (at noon), and supper (at night). When women entered the workforce, eating patterns changed — lighter breakfasts and lunches, with bigger family-focused dinners. Fast forward to pre-COVID 2020, youth sports and life’s busy-ness totally disrupted dinner-times; structured meals got lost in the shuffle.
Today (week #8 of COVID shut-down), our stay-at-home lifestyle has gifted many of us with time to cook breakfast, enjoy lunch, and have family dinners. Yet, many athletes are feeling confused and/or uneasy about how they are eating:
“I’m sleeping until 11:00 a.m. Should I eat breakfast — or lunch — when I get up?”
“I now have easy access to food given I’m working at home. I spend too much time grazing. Seems like I am hungry all the time.”
“My eating habits are weird. How should I be eating? What is “normal” eating?”
Sound familiar? To add a supportive framework, joy to meals, and answer the question What is normal eating?, I turn to eating authority Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (a book every parent should read; EllynSatter-Institute.org).
Here is her definition of “normal eating”:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it — not stopping eating just because you think you should.
That is, did you stop eating breakfast today because the oatmeal in your bowl was all gone? Or were you truly satiated? At the end of lunch, did you stop at your one-sandwich allotment, even though you wanted more? If you are “feeling hungry all the time,” you likely ARE hungry; your body is requesting more fuel. Trust it. You’ll end up eating more sooner or later, so please honor that hunger and eat more now.
Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. That is, have you put yourself in food jail and banned “fun foods” like cookies, cupcakes, and chips, out of fear of over-eating them? Ideally, your meal plan includes 85-90% quality foods, with 10-15% fun foods. You need not eat a perfect diet to have an excellent diet. Some “fun food” in the midst of a pandemic can be, well, fun!
Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. Yes, food is a way we celebrate, mourn, and entertain ourselves. Sometimes we even need a hug from food, despite being not hungry. One bowl of ice cream will not ruin your waistline nor your health forever. That said, routinely overindulging in ice cream as a means to distract yourself from life’s pain will not solve any problem. If you are using food as a drug, to not start eating can be easier than stopping once you have started.
Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. Most athletes require fuel at least every 3 to 4 hours. Those who “graze all day” commonly under-eat at meals. If you stop eating because you think you should, not because you are satiated, you will feel the urge to graze. Solutions: eat the rest of your breakfast-calories for a mid-morning snack, eat an earlier lunch, or better yet, give yourself permission to eat enough satiating food at breakfast. Living hungry all the time puts a damper on your quality of life, to say nothing of impairs athletic performance.
Normal eating is leaving cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. If you are banning fun foods from your house because you can’t eat just one cookie, think again. Denying yourself permission to enjoy a few cookies boosts the urge to eat the whole plateful. I call that “last chance eating.” You know, “last chance to have cookies, because tomorrow I am back on my cookie-free diet.” Depriving yourself of cookies leads to binge-eating. Try planning in forbidden foods every day. They will soon lose their power.
Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Yes, even normal eaters overeat. It’s normal to have too much birthday cake, too much Sunday Brunch, too much ice cream. When competent eaters overeat, they listen to their body’s signals – and notice they take longer to get hungry again. That is, if you have a hearty brunch, you will be less hungry that evening. Trust me. Rather, trust your body.
Hunger is your body’s way of telling you it has burned off what you gave it, and now it is ready for more fuel. You want to honor hunger and eat intuitively, like kids do. Kids eat matter-of-factly; they stop eating when they are content. Adults (especially weight-conscious athletes), don’t eat when they are hungry, then don’t stop when content. Rather, they “cheat” and guiltily stuff themselves with forbidden foods —last chance before the diet starts again!
Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. If you are spending 90% of your time thinking about food, you are likely hungry 90% of the time. (If humans didn’t think about food, they would never think to eat.) If you eat until you are satisfied, you will stop incessantly thinking about food. That said, food-thoughts can be a way to distract yourself from stuff you really don’t want to think about. In that case, talking with a counsellor might be helpful. Smothering your feelings with chocolate will not solve any of your problems.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food, and your feelings. Many athletes very rigidly eat the same foods every single day. A sports nutritionist can help add variety (more nutrients), flexibility, and more joy to eating. Food can and should be one of life’s pleasures, both when training and in the midst of the pandemic.
Boston-area sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes, helping them learn how to eat competently. Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a helpful resource. For more information, visit NancyClarkRD.com.
As I write this column, the date is April 10th, 2020, three weeks into the coronavirus shut-down here in Boston. I continue to counsel clients from my virtual office. I am talking with gym rats and athletes alike who are stuck at home, hating what they see when staring at themselves during Zoom meet-ups, and are spending too much time fighting with food (Do I eat? Don’t I eat? Am I hungry—or just bored?). They are feeling anxious and self-critical.
When life feels out of control, athletes commonly end up trying to control other things, such as food, exercise, and weight. Some may be striving to chisel themselves into a perfect body (no excess body fat) and eat a perfect diet (no fun foods). Unfortunately, the same dedication and discipline that help them be top athletes are the same traits that foster eating disorders. For example, perfectionism is common to both athletes and people with anorexia. How else could figure skaters or gymnasts rise to the elite level without demanding perfection from themselves?
Yes, discipline, dedication, and perfectionism are driving forces that help good athletes become great. But genetics is fundamental, as is adequate—but not necessarily perfect—fueling. That is, eating a cookie will not contaminate an athlete’s health nor ruin one’s ability to perform well.
If you are relentlessly pushing yourself hard right now out of fear of getting fat and losing fitness, please consider being gentler on yourself. This is a difficult time for many folks. Little is wrong with a bit of comfort food in the midst of chaos and crisis. Perhaps you can allow yourself to be “bad” and do something out of character, like bake cookies and enjoy some for an afternoon snack. Giving yourself permission to enjoy some comfort food is normal, assuming you also have other coping skills, such as writing in a journal and relaxing yourself with yoga.
When food has power over you
If you are spending too much time trying not to eat (Fill in the blank) ____ (cookies, cheese, ice cream, chips?) because you can’t eat just one serving, think again. Depriving yourself of your favorite foods makes them even more enticing. They can needlessly become too powerful. To take the power away from a “binge food,” you need to eat it more often. (Trust me!) Here’s the analogy:
Pretend you are caring for a four-year-old boy. You take him into a room filled with toys and tell him he can play with all of the toys except for the green truck. You leave the room and then look through the two-way mirror. What is he playing with? The green truck, of course! The same analogy holds true with food.
If you give yourself permission to eat, let’s say, some Oreos every day, after a few days, you’ll either have little interest in yet-another Oreo (because other foods actually make you feel better) or you will be able to eat just one Oreo; it will no longer have power over you. Yes, to gain control over foods that have power over you, you have to allow the food back into your life and eat it more often. Be curious; give it a try.
When the mirror makes you feel sad
Are you spending too much time these days critically evaluating your body in the mirror? Or hating what you see in the Zoom meet-up? Please, just, stop the body-hatred talk. Few humans have a perfect body. The imperfections you see are perfectly beautiful and acceptable.
Instead of being self-critical, be grateful that you are healthy. Grateful that you have two strong legs that help you be a good runner. Grateful that you have two hands that help you row crew. Grateful that you have a body that produced healthy babies that are now your beloved children. You could even apologize to your body for having tortured it with skimpy diets and excessive exercise in your efforts to control how it looks.
Rather than focus on how your body looks, turn your attention to how your body feels throughout the day, particularly before, during and after you exercise. Does your body feel hungry? Tired? Sore? Respond appropriately to that feeling by nourishing it with food, rest, a warm bath. Daily killer workouts that feel like punishment for having excess body fat inevitably end up with the athlete being injured and depressed.
Now is a good time to practice looking in the mirror (or the Zoom screen) and saying nice things about your body, such as, “I have pretty blue eyes.” “I like my silky hair.” “I have strong legs.” You can intentionally pay less attention to the crooked teeth, frizzy hair, and “too big” tummy. Do you really think others care about that stuff?
When mindless eating gets out of control
If you find yourself grazing on snacks incessantly throughout the day and have fears about getting fat, try scheduling regular meals and snacks. Also give yourself permission to eat enough breakfast and lunch, so that you are fully satiated. Don’t stop eating those meals just because you think you should but rather because you actually have had enough to eat. Athletes who graze all day rarely feel fully fed.
Hunger is a physiological request for fuel. Hunger does not mean “Oh no, I’m going to eat and get fat. Rather, hunger is your body’s way of saying it has burned off what you fed it and now needs more fuel. Yes, food is fuel, not the fattening enemy. Honor hunger.
Another way to bring control to your eating is to eat only when 1) you are sitting in a specific place (kitchen table?), 2) the food is on a plate, and 3) you are tasting it mindfully. (i.e. you are not standing in front of the open cupboard, wolfing down handfuls of chocolate chips.)
My hope is the above tips will help you find peace with food and your body. Enjoy food for nourishment and survive the coronavirus shut-down with sanity.
Boston-area sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD CSSD counsels both casual and competitive athletes, helping them eat to win. The new 6th edition of her Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a best-selling resource. For more information, visit NancyClarkRD.com.
The average American, spends 24 hours a week online. That includes many athletes who spend a lot of time surfing the Web, looking for answers to their nutrition questions. They generally find way too much conflicting information and end up more confused than ever. Hence, the goal of this article is to offer science-based answers to a few popular sports nutrition questions and share some food for thought.
We have all heard trendy comments about carbs: They’re a waste of calories, sugar is evil. Fact? No…
Are carbs a waste of calories, with little nutritional value?
The answer depends on your definition of “carbs.” Many athletes define carbs as sugar-filled baked goods and foods made with refined white flour, such as pasta, bagels, bread. In reality, carbohydrates include all types of sugars and starches. Carbs are in fruit, vegetables, beans (pinto, lima, garbanzo, etc.), grains (wheat, rice, barley, corn), and milk. These “quality carbs” add important nutrients to a sports diet.
Should athletes cut out sugar?
Sure, if that means cutting out EXCESS sugar. But if you plan is to cut out all sugar, technically speaking, you would need to stop eating any form of carbohydrate (fruit, veggies, grains), given those foods end up as sugar (glucose) in your body. That sugar fuels your muscles and brain. You’ll also need to cut out performance-enhancing sport drinks and gels.
Please judge a food based on all the nutrients that accompany the sugar, more so than just the sugar content. Some sugary foods are nutrient-rich. The natural and added sugar in chocolate milk, in combination with the milk’s protein, make chocolate milk an excellent recovery food. (The sugar refuels the muscles; the protein builds and repairs the muscles.)
If your goal is to cut out added sugar, you might want to think moderation, rather than all or nothing. US Dietary Guidelines say 10% of calories can come from added sugar. Eating a small sweet a day will not ruin your health forever.
Athletes who report a desire to cut out sugar commonly have a love-hate relationship with (too much) sugar. While they may believe sugar is addictive, a standard reason for overdosing on sugar relates to hunger. The body of a hungry athlete screams for quick energy: sugar. One way to curb sugar-cravings is to eat a satisfying protein-rich breakfast and lunch. By curbing hunger, you’ll enhance your chances of being able to choose quality carbs later in the day. Yes, eating enough breakfast can (and does) impact and improve your evening food choices. Give it a try?
Many of today’s athletes believe protein should dominate a sports diet. True? Not quite.
What percent of my calories should come from protein?
Dietary guidelines recommend 10% to 15% of daily calories should come from protein. In truth, athletes should base their protein needs on body weight, not percent of calories. The target for most athletes is about 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.0-1.5 g pro/kg) per day. Athletes who restrict calories or are new to lifting weights might need a bit more protein—but most hungry athletes consume that much—plus more—within the context of daily food choices.
Can I get enough protein without protein shakes, bars and powders? Yes!
I rarely meet athletes who consume too little protein. Those who might benefit from a supplement include athletes with anorexia (who consume too little of most nutrients), dieting vegetarian athletes who fail to consume adequate plant protein within their restricted calorie budget. That is, for 125 calories, you can consume 25 grams of protein from a can of tuna but less than 4 g protein from the dollop (0.25 cup) of hummus on a salad.
Can vegan athletes perform as well as meat-eaters?
For certain, as long as they consume adequate protein, iron, calcium and B-12, among other nutrients. Not hard to do if the vegan is eating responsibly (i.e., not living on “vegan” Coke & potato chips). They might even perform better when they shift from a meat-based to plant-based diet. Plant proteins (such as beans, lentils, and hummus) offer both protein (to build and repair muscles) and carbohydrate (to fuel muscles).
To optimally fuel muscles, athletes who train about an hour a day need about 2.25 to 3.5 g carb/pound of body weight, depending on the intensity of the workout. For a 150-pound athlete, this comes to about 340 to 525 grams of carb a day (1,360 to 2,100 calories from carb). To hit that goal, starchy beans and grains should be the foundation of each meal and snack. Vegan athletes can easily hit that target, while many meat-focused or carb-avoidant athletes end up needlessly fatigued when meat/fish/chicken and salads displace starches and grains. No wonder many athletes report performing better when they switch to a vegan diet!
While fat has been shunned for years, it is now popular. Here’s what athletes want to know about dietary fat…
To lose undesired body fat, should I train my body to burn more fat?
Don’t bother! Burning fat differs from losing body fat. You might burn 800 calories doing two hours of fat-burning exercise, and then can easily replace it all by devouring a big meal. No fat loss there!
A wiser plan is to lose fat when you are sleeping (not when exercising), by eating less at dinner to create a calorie deficit for the day. That way, you can surround your workouts with fuel, and optimize your ability to train well. Weight is more of a calorie-game than a fat-burning game.
What about the high-fat keto diet for losing weight?
Keto advocates often rave they can lose weight without feeling hunger. True, a high fat diet is very satiating. But what happens after the diet? I’ve heard stories of keto dieters succumbing to carb-binges and rapid weight regain. My recommendation: Embark only on a food plan you want to maintain for the rest of your life. Meeting with a sports registered dietitian can help you learn effective weight management skills.
What about a keto diet for endurance athletes?
Some ultra-runners and ultra-athletes embrace a keto diet. By burning fat for fuel, they can eat less during long events and experience less intestinal distress. More research is needed on keto-athletes who have fat-adapted for several months (many studies are for less than one month): Can they perform better than carb-eaters? Current research suggests keto athletes might perform as well as carb eaters—but not better than. That’s a lot of dietary restriction for questionable performance benefits. That said, each athlete is an experiment of one and no one diet suits everyone.
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her private practice in the Boston-area. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook answers most nutrition questions and can help you eat to win. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for more information.
I’ve started eating clean; quinoa and brown rice. No more white rice.
I haven’t had cookies for ages. I’m eating clean—no added sugar.
When I visit my parents, I bring my own food. It’s healthier….
“I wish I didn’t have snack attacks. I eat way too much chocolate…”
“I eat only healthy foods during the day. My snacking problem starts the minute I get home from work. Chips are my downfall…”
“I try hard to not snack after dinner, but I have a bad habit of getting into the ice cream…”
Day after day, I hear athletes complain about their (seemingly) uncontrollable snacking habits. Some believe they are hopelessly, and helplessly, addicted to chocolate. Others believe eating between meals is sinful & fattening; snacking is just plain wrong. Some equate snacking to doing drugs. They bemoan they are addicted to sugar and can’t eat just one cookie. Snacking is all or nothing.
Despite the popular belief that snacking is bad, the truth is that snacking can be helpful for active people. Athletes get hungry and need to eat at least every three to four hours. That means, if you have breakfast at 7:00, you’ll be ready for food by 10:00 or 11:00, particularly if you exercise in the morning. By 3:00 p.m., you will again want more food. For students and others who exercise mid to late afternoon, a pre-exercise snack is very important to provide the fuel needed to have an effective workout.
The trick is to make snacks a part of your sports diet—preferably with an early lunch at 11:00 that replaces the morning snack. (Why wait to eat at noon when you are hungry now?) and a second lunch instead of afternoon sweets, to energize the end of your work or school day. A planned wholesome meal is far better than succumbing to sugary snacks or stimulant drinks.
Snacking problems commonly occur when athletes under-eat meals, only to over-indulge in snacks. Inadequate breakfasts and lunches can easily explain why snacks can contribute 20 to 50 percent of total calories for the day. Fingers crossed those snacks are nutrient-rich!
To easily and painlessly resolve nutrient-poor snack attacks, eat before you get too hungry. Hungry athletes (and all people, for that matter) tend to crave sweets (and fats) and can easily eat too many donuts, chocolate chip cookies, candy bars—foods with sugar (for quick energy) and fat (for concentrated calories).That honking big muffin can easily win out over a piece of fruit, hands down!
Athletes who report they “eat well during the day but get into trouble with snacks at night” need to understand the problem is not the evening snacks but having eaten too little during the active part of their day. Snacking is the symptom; getting too hungry is commonly the problem. One way to eliminate a mid-morning snack attack is to have a protein-rich, satiating breakfast (such as 3 eggs + avocado toast + a latte for 500-600 calories) as opposed to just a packet of oatmeal (only 100-150 calories). Enjoy soup + sandwich for lunch (500-700 calories), not just a salad with grilled chicken (only 300 calories).
Do you spend too much time thinking about food all day? If so, your brain is telling you it wants some fuel. Thinking about food nudges you to eat. If you were to never think about food, you’d waste away to nothing.
Other hunger signals include feeling droopy, moody, cold, bored (I’m eating this popcorn just because I’m bored), unable to focus, and easily irritated. If you fail to honor these hunger signals, they will escalate into a growling stomach (too hungry) and an all-out snack attack. Prevent hunger; eat enough during the active part of your day.
Please remember that hunger does not mean “Oh no, I’m going to eat and get fat.” Hunger is simply a request for fuel. Just as a light on the dashboard of your car signals when your car needs gas, your brain sends you hunger signals when your body is low on fuel. To not eat when you are hungry is abusive to your body (and mind) and puts your body into muscle-breakdown mode, which is counter-productive for athletes.
Losing weight without daytime hunger
Even if you want to lose undesired body fat, you should eat enough to feel satiated during the active part of your day. You can lose weight (“diet”) at night when you are sleeping. This is opposite to how most athletes eat: They diet by day, then attack the snacks at night. They eat the whole pint of ice cream, too many chocolates, and/or non-stop chips. Winning the war against hunger requires white knuckles. Not sustainable and not fun. The better bet is to fuel by day and diet at night by eliminating high-calorie evening snacks.
Dieting athletes commonly report the most concerns about snack attacks. As one rower complained, “I’m hungry all the time.” If that sounds like you, and you feel hungry within the hour after you eat a meal, experiment with eating heartier meals. For help figuring out a food plan that works for you, I encourage you to meet with a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in sports nutrition. The referral network at www.SCANdpg.org can help you find a local sports nutrition professional.
Winning the war against snack attacks
I encourage my clients to convert snacktime into mealtime. Instead of reaching for cookies, candy, caffeine, and other typical snack foods, they opt for a peanut butter & banana sandwich for an early lunch at 10:00 or 11:00ish. (As long as they have a flexible eating schedule, no need to eat a donut just to bridge the gap to the more traditional eating time of noon.) They then can enjoy a later second lunch at 2:00 to 3:00ish, which gives them energy to be productive throughout the last hours of the workday.
By enjoying two lunches instead of snack foods + one lunch, they generally end up eating more quality calories and fewer sweets. If their meal schedule is inflexible, I nudge them to at least snack on mini-meals instead of sweets:
- Whole-grain English muffin + nut butter
- Oatmeal cooked in milk + dates
- Hummus + baby carrots.
The benefits of being well-fed are fewer snack attacks, more energy, and easier weight management. Give it a try?
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). The new 6th edition of her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook offers additional information on how to manage snack attacks. Visit NancyClarkRD.com. For her online workshop, visit NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
Sports nutrition was a hot topic at this years’ annual Food & Nutrition Conference & Exposition (FNCE), hosted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nation’s largest group of nutrition professionals. Here are a few highlights, to keep you up to date with current sports nutrition recommendations.
- Sport supplements that promise improved performance are always tantalizing. If they make as little as 0.5 to 1% improvement, the supplement is deemed to “work.” While scientists want well-controlled research studies to prove effectiveness, athletes respond very quickly to anecdotes—and often spend lots of money on what might be just a glimmer of hope. (In the four months leading up to the Olympics in 2000, one athlete spent $3,480 on supplements!)
- The Australian Institute of Sport is creating a website for grouping supplements according to effectiveness: Group A (proven to enhance performance), Group B (deserves more research), Group C (little proof of meaningful benefits) and Group D (Banned). Check it out at www.ais.gov.au/nutrition/supplements. The helpful information can help guide your supplement choices.
Vitamin Zzz, aka Sleep
- Sleep is one of the best performance enhancers. Lack of sleep has detrimental effects on performance. Athletes with good sleep quality are able to train harder, recover faster, and perform better. And take note: if you think you can drink coffee at night and still sleep fine, think again. Brain wave studies suggest otherwise…
- How much sleep is enough? More than 6 hours a night. Very few athletes can perform well with less than that. Top athletes commonly strive to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each day, including a nap between 1:00 and 4:00 pm. (A later nap results in poorer sleep that night). Teens should target 8 to 10 hours and adults 7 to 9 hours. Lack of sleep can significantly impact your diet. After two nights with only 4 to 5 hours of sleep, the appetite increases about 20%. You’ll likely find yourself snacking more than usual (on fatty foods), eating fewer fruits and veggies, and consuming ~385 additional calories. Yikes!
- For good sleep information, visit centreforsleep.com and take the Athletes’ Sleep Screening Questionnaire. Athletes who understand the benefits of sleep tend to sleep about 20 minutes more. I hope this holds true for you!
Muscle building tactics
- When it comes to building muscle, you want to surround your workout with food, so you can get the most benefits from your efforts. Intermittent Fasters, take note: if you lift weights in a fasted state (without having eaten any pre-exercise fuel), the muscle-building effect of exercise is not enough to out-weigh the muscle breakdown that happens in a fasted state. Eat before you train!
- Many athletes assume if they fail to eat within 45 minutes of lifting weights, the anabolic (muscle-building) window slams shut. Wrong. Refueling either 1 or 3 hours post-exercise generates a similar gain in muscle protein synthesis. For the average exerciser, the effect of post-exercise protein timing on muscle growth is relatively small. For competitive body builders, the gain is also small but perhaps meaningful, so most prefer to err on the side of caution.
- Consuming post-exercise protein stimulates insulin secretion, as does carbohydrate. (Did you know that whey protein stimulates more insulin than white bread?) Insulin reduces muscle breakdown and enhances glycogen replacement. Refueling with a combination of protein + carb is best for athletes who do two-a-day workouts, to optimize glycogen replacement. Athletes who do only one workout and refuel with a sports diet based on grains, starchy vegetables and fruits can replenish depleted glycogen stores over the course of 24 hours.
- Does eating extra protein build bigger muscles? The body incorporates only a limited amount of protein into new muscle tissue. Spacing out protein intake by consuming 20 grams of protein every 3 hours (four times a day) is preferable to eating 80 grams in one dose. More specifically, athletes want to target 0.2-0.25 g pro/lb. body weight (0.4 to 0.55 g/kg) four times a day. This target varies from person to person. Vegans, for example, will want to consume a higher amount to get adequate leucine, an amino acid that triggers muscle growth.
Eating disorders in male athletes
- Eating disorders (EDs) are not just a female problem. About 9% of male athletes—as compared to about 21% of female athletes—struggle with food issues and restrict their food intake to lose undesired body fat. The lack of fuel available to support normal bodily functions impacts bone health and reproductive function in men, just as it does in women. In men, low energy availability can lead to low testosterone, poor semen quality, reduced sperm count, and slower sperm motility. In women, it shows up as loss of regular menses (amenorrhea), hence infertility.
- Compared to female athletes, male athletes can withstand more of a severe deficit before the appearance of symptoms such as low testosterone, bone stress injuries, and reduced bone density/poor bone health (osteoporosis). To reverse the energy deficit, athletes need to boost their energy intake, which can be easier said than done for those struggling with eating issues and fears of “getting fat.” One way to consume the recommended 350 additional calories per day is to break two energy bars into small bites, and nibble on them over the course of several hours. Men seem to be able to reverse the hormonal imbalance within days, while women can take months. Reversibility of bone density is not guaranteed.
- A ketogenic sports diet (moderate protein, very low carb, very high fat) appeals to some athletes. Yet, we need more research to understand the fine details of adaptation to the keto diet and the role of keto supplements. (Supplement sales vastly exceed the science!) Stay tuned; perhaps we’ll have more answers from next year’s FNCE!
Reprinted with permission from Nancy Clark.
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). The new 6th edition of her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook addresses today’s questions and concerns about what to eat. For more information, visit NancyClarkRD.com. For her online workshop, visit NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.