Healthy Diet for Athletes

A healthy diet is essential for an athlete. It’s not the quantity of food intake, but the quality and selection of food that matters, and there are some basic nutrients to be taken regularly. Read on to know more.

Athletes are people with tough physique. We consider them strong, but seldom realize the hard work that has been put, to build those biceps and muscles. Athletes can endure through tough situations. A.C. Green, a former American NBA basketball player, rightly said, “Tough times don’t last but tough people do.”

What matters most to athletes is a careful and planned intake of various nutrients like vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates. An intelligent athlete should know the importance of balanced workouts with proper stretching exercises, and of course, the intake of right nutrients. The reason why athletes need a good diet is that they burn and lose sweat more than any normal person.

Diet of athletes differ according to the sports they are involved in. A diet for sprinter is different from the diet of a weightlifter. An athlete should know what food and drink items he needs to avoid, as wrong intake of nutrients restricts the growth of body tissues. During a workout, there is wear and tear of cells in muscles. To build these muscles, adequate nutrients in the diet are required. Some important nutrients for athletes are:

Protein is very vital for athletes, however, the focus should not be on protein alone. Excess protein in the form of complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables must be avoided, because it puts more pressure on kidneys and may also lead to dehydration. Proteins help in building muscle tissues. The main source of proteins should ideally come from lean meat. 15-20% of protein intake in a day is sufficient for an athlete.

Carbohydrates provide quick and long-lasting energy, but too much of the same can slow you down. 40-50% of carbohydrate calories should come from whole grain pasta, cereals, and breads. This type of diet is rich in fiber. Carbohydrates also increase the stamina and ability to work.

Active young athletes require fat in their diet. Their body needs unsaturated fat, e.g., nuts. When the body runs out of energy from carbohydrates, it relies on long term energy provided by fats. Fish is a very good source of fat.

Exercising produces some free radicals which can damage our cells. Hence, to minimize this damage, we need to take Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E. These vitamins are antioxidants and neutralize the free radicals.

Minerals like calcium and iron are good for health. Calcium strengthens the bones, thus, preventing stress fractures that are common in athletes. Skimmed milk, milk products, and eggs are rich in calcium. Iron produces oxygen in the body. Deficiency of iron leads to fatigue, and hinders the ability to perform for longer periods.

A basic table for the amount of nutrients to be taken is given below.

Nutrients Amount, (of total calories), Source
Carbohydrates, 50-60%, Whole grains, whole wheat pasta, potatoes and beans
Proteins, 15-20%, Fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds
Fats, 25-30%, Nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, meat and eggs

Dos and Don’ts for Athletes

  • One of the biggest nutritional concerns for athletes is water depletion, which occurs due to heavy strenuous training, and causes dehydration. Dehydration leads to weakness. Drinking lots of water is the only remedy.
  • Athletes need more calories than people who do not exercise. Intake of healthy snacks before a workout will provide the required energy. Some people feel very hungry after a workout, and hence, eating a good snack will not only provide necessary nutrients but also keep you from overeating during the main meal. Some healthy snacks are apple and banana slices, peanut butter, dry cereals with dry fruit, vegetable juice, whole grain and low-fat milk. Junk foods and fast foods are a strict “NO”.
  • Eating regularly is very important. Athletes should take 5 small meals rather than 2 or 3 heavy meals. They should avoid snacking during day time, especially during an event or a workout. First two meals of the day are very crucial and should be large as compared to other meals of the day.
  • Meal planning, for example, timing of meals should be taken care of. If one is having a heavy meal, then it should be ensured that the meal is taken at least 4 hours before the workout. And if the meal is a lighter one, it can be taken 2 or 3 hours before the workout.
  • Vary your diet every week. Never stick to a particular diet. Sometimes, the athletes prefer a particular food and stick to it. This has two demerits: Firstly, you get bored of the diet, and secondly, eating the same diet will devoid your body of the various nutrients it needs.
  • Last and one of the biggest concerns of athletes today is alcohol consumption. Nancy Clark, founder and CEO of WomensMedia, says “You can’t be sharp, quick and drunk.” Alcohol, a depressant, contributes about twice as many calories as equal amount of carbohydrates and proteins. It is needless to say, that calories in beer are fattening. If taken in large amount, alcohol can drastically decrease the level of serum testosterone, which results in decrease in muscle recovery and athletic performance. It can cause testicular shrinkage and reduce the sperm count in males. In female athletes, it may raise the production of estradiol, a form of estrogen, which can increase the chances of breast cancer.

Athletes require more nutrients than any other person. They lose a lot of nutrients when they sweat. Taking food which has empty calories can deprive the organs of vital vitamins and minerals. This can increase the risk of heart attacks in athletes. Hence, just as crude oil is to motor vehicles, good diet is for athletes. A good diet should never be underestimated.