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Do athletes need to eat according to their activity?

by Anna Chua-Norbert

JULY 2012

Competitive athletes, sedentary individuals and people who exercise for health and fitness all need the same nutrients. However, because of the intensity of their sport or training program, some athletes have higher calorie and fluid requirements.

Dietary guidelines for athletes

Health and nutrition professionals recommend that 55 to 60 percent of the calories in our diet come from carbohydrates, no more than 30 percent from fat and the remaining 10 to 15 percent from protein. While the exact percentages may vary slightly for some athletes based on their sport or training program, these guidelines often serve as the basis for a diet that will maximize performance.

Runner Dex Osorio talks about his diet: “My usual daily intake is minimal carbs and high protein: [less than 100 grams of] carbs per day, [one gram of] protein per pound of my body weight per day when I'm just weight training.” A typical meal for him consists of: “100 to 200 grams of fish, chicken, pork or beef, lots of ginisang gulay or ensalada,” plus half a cup to a full cup of rice on a training day.

A 250-pound weight lifter needs more calories than a 98-pound gymnast. Exercise or training may increase calorie needs by as much as 1,000 to 1,500 calories a day. The best way to determine if you're getting too few or too many calories is to monitor your weight. Keeping within your ideal competitive weight range means that you are getting the right amount of calories.

Plain water or sports drinks?

Depending on how muscular you are, 55 to 70 percent of your body weight is water. Being hydrated means maintaining your body's fluid level. When you sweat, you lose water which must be replaced. Drink fluids before, during and after all workouts and events.

Drinking plain water or a sports drink is a matter of choice. However, if your workout or event lasts for more than 90 minutes, you may benefit from the carbohydrates in sports drinks. Ideally, 15 to 18 grams of carbohydrates in every eight ounces of fluid should be in your sports drink, and you can experiment with them during practice, instead of trying them for the first time during an event.

Electrolytes are nutrients that affect fluid balance in the body and are necessary for our nerves and muscles to function. Sodium and potassium are the two electrolytes most often added to sports drinks. Generally, electrolyte replacement is not needed during short bursts of exercise since sweat is approximately 99 percent water and less than one percent electrolytes. However, replacing electrolytes may be beneficial during continuous activity of longer than two hours or when training in a hot environment.

Muscle food

Most activities use a combination of fat and carbohydrate as energy sources. How hard and how long you work out, your level of fitness and your diet will affect the type of fuel your body uses. For short-term, high-intensity activities like sprinting, athletes rely mostly on carbohydrates for energy. During low-intensity exercises like walking, the body uses more fat for energy.

Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for your body. Regardless of origin, your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose that your blood carries to cells to be used for energy. Carbohydrates provide four calories per gram, while fat provides nine calories per gram.

When you are training or competing, your muscles need energy to perform. One source of energy for working muscles is glycogen, which is made from carbohydrates and stored in your muscles. Every time you work out, glycogen is used. If you don't consume enough carbohydrates, your glycogen stores become depleted, resulting in fatigue.

Carbohydrate loading vs. extra protein

Carbohydrate loading is a technique used to increase the amount of glycogen in muscles. For five to seven days before an event, the athlete eats 10 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight and gradually reduces the intensity of the workouts. A day before the event, the athlete rests and eats the same high-carbohydrate diet. Although carbohydrate loading may be beneficial for athletes participating in endurance sports which require 90 minutes or more of non-stop effort, most athletes needn't worry about carbohydrate loading. Simply eating a diet that derives more than half of its calories from carbohydrates will do.

Many athletes, especially those on strength-training programs or participate in power sports, believe that eating a lot of protein or taking protein supplements will help them gain muscle weight. The true secret to building muscle is training hard and consuming enough calories. While some extra protein is needed to build muscle, most diets provide more than enough protein. Between 1.0 and 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day is sufficient if your calorie intake is adequate and you're eating a variety of foods. For a 150-pound athlete, that represents 68 to 102 grams of protein a day.

For more information on appropriate athletic nutrition, get a copy of HealthToday’s July issue, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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