What should be in an Athlete’s Diet?
Food fuels the body but when it comes to athletes, the right fuel can play a very important role in their health and performance. Vigorous exercise and training impact the speed and strength of an athlete; therefore, an athlete’s nutrient requirement is unique and varying.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the energy source of the body. They form an integral part of an athlete’s diet as they are responsible for the replenishment of glycogen stores. Glycogen stores; however, are perishable so daily intakes of carbohydrates are needed to maintain adequate energy stores. Also, since it is the preferred fuel for athletic performance, approximately 55% of total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has set the following recommendations for the young athlete:
- 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for very light intensity training;
- 5 to 8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for moderate or heavy training;
- 8 to 9 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for pre-event loading (24 to 48 hours prior); and
- 1.7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for post-event refueling (within two to three hours)
Proteins: An athlete’s protein requirements are higher than a normal person. Proteins are needed for the growth, repair, and maintenance of the muscle. Adequate intake of proteins should be ensured along with a good amount of carbohydrates in the diet to maintain body weight and preserve muscle. The ADA has set the following recommendations:
- Athletes who have just begun a training program require 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram per day of protein.
- Athletes participating in endurance sports require 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram per day of protein.
Fats: While carbohydrates are the preferred source of fueling the body, fats are also required to sustain prolonged exercise or training. They are also needed for fatty acid synthesis and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, D, E, K). Studies suggest, about 15-20% of the energy should be contributed by fats in the diet.
Hydration: Adequate hydration is important for the athlete’s performance. Improper hydration is directly related to loss of water, loss of concentration, increased chances of heat strokes, and fatigue during exercise or training. Symptoms of dehydration include noticeable thirst, irritability, fatigue, weakness, nausea, headaches, muscle cramping, dizziness or lightheadedness, dark yellow urine or no desire to urinate, difficulty paying attention and decreased performance. Checking the color of urine, first thing in the morning helps to keep a check on hydration status.
Calcium: Calcium is an important mineral needed by the body to maintain and support bone growth, increase bone mass, and aid in nerve impulses and muscle contraction. Deficiency of calcium may lead to decreased bone mass and consequential increased risk for stress fractures and other bone-related injuries. This, in turn, will affect the performance of the sports person.
Iron: Iron is the major nutrient responsible for carrying and delivering oxygen throughout the body in the form of hemoglobin. Iron deficiencies may negatively affect an athlete’s performance by decreasing their work capacity, increasing fatigue levels, impairing immune function, and hindering cognitive capacity. Consuming iron-rich foods are essential to avoid deficiencies. Incorporating Vitamin C along with an iron source is proven to be beneficial to enhance iron absorption in the body.
Zinc: Zinc is essential to an athlete diet as it is involved in more than 300 reactions in the body. It also plays an important role in wound healing, blood formation, protein synthesis, tissue growth and maintenance, and immune function. Various studies have shown that zinc status directly affects the basal metabolic rate, thyroid hormone levels, and protein utilization; thus, zinc is critical to athletes.
The food plate of an athlete should be well balanced with all the nutrients. Although, no one-size-fits-all eating pattern when it comes to identifying the appropriate diet. Much like a fingerprint, each athlete is unique and has varying nutrient needs that need to be worked upon by the nutritionist to help the athlete achieve his/her desired goals. Thus, it is very much important to know what should be in an Athlete’s Diet?
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