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Nutrition for Athletes
Ms. Sandon is Assistant Professor, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX.
Good nutrition is important not only in weight loss and maintaining healthy weight, it is key to our overall health and longevity and plays a major role in the prevention of diseases and other health issues down the road. Professional athletes and those who exercise hard regularly need to make smart food – and fluid – choices. So it makes sense that some of the lessons they have learned about how to eat and basic nutritional strategies they employ to maintain energy and fitness might be very useful to the rest of us.
For example, after a workout, choosing the right foods can make a big difference in how our bodies "recover" from exercise. In this article, we will talk about the current guidelines for sports nutrition, which applies both to serious athletes and to the rest of us who engage in regular (or even irregular) exercise routines. We’ll also look at a case study of Anna, an amateur athlete. Though her exercise routine may be more ambitious than most, it’s still helpful to take her as an example to understand how to best fuel the body before, during, and after physical activity.
What Can an Endurance Athlete Teach "Regular" People about Good Nutrition?
Anna, is 37 years old, 5’ 5", and weighs 135 pounds. She works in a human resources department and spends most of her day at a desk. However, she is also an endurance runner and tri-athlete. She runs, swims or bikes for one hour before work four times per week. On Saturdays she does four to five hours of combined running and biking starting at 8:00 AM.
Anna gives a lot of thought to what she eats and drinks. Not only does she make sure to eat enough calories to support her impressive exercise routine, but she pays special attention to the proportion of carbs, protein, and fats she consumes. Even more, she makes sure to eat at specific times before, during, and after exercising to allow the body to absorb its fuel in the best way possible.
While most people do not need to devote the kind of attention Anna and other serious athletes do to the content and timing of their food and drink choices, understanding why these choices work well for the body and loosely modeling our own routines after them can be beneficial. The major issues of good nutrition are basically the same; it is just a matter of degree.
How Many Calories Do We Actually Need to Consume?
For everyone – serious athletes and regular folk alike – it’s important to consume enough calories to meet our energy needs. Doing so not only makes exercise and recovery from exercise possible, but it actually helps prevent injury and illness. Getting enough calories helps preserve muscle tissue, bone density, and reproductive function – a particular concern in high performing female athletes. It also helps direct protein to building muscles, rather than being used as energy.
Active adults feel weak and fatigued if they don’t consume enough calories, whether they are athletes training for competition or not. Other nutritional requirements, such as essential vitamins and minerals, also tend to be unmet when people do not eat enough1, which is why it is so important to consume a balanced diet.
A person’s specific energy requirement can be determined by crunching some numbers and taking into account his or her age, height, weight, gender, and activity level. While experts use a couple of different formulas for determining a person’s energy needs (the DRI Estimated Energy Requirement (EER) and the Cunningham equation), we won’t go into the mathematics behind the equations. But just know that it varies greatly from person to person, depending on all the variables mentioned above.
Our athlete Anna’s average daily requirement is calculated to be 2935 calories across seven days. This means that if she eats 2800 calories one day and 3070 another day, she’ll be okay. The same is generally true for the rest of us – if we eat a little too much one day, we don’t have to eat as much the next day – although we may not always live by this scientific reality! Most active men need about 2600 calories a day, and women need 2000 calories, but again, it varies from person to person depending on many factors. If you are having a difficult time determining your specific energy requirements, it’s a good idea to see a registered dietitian for help.
It's worth noting that a registered dietician is not a nutritionist. Anyone can call him- or her-self a nutritionist. A registered dietitian has a minimum of a bachelor degree in nutrition, 900 hours of internship, and has passed a national registration examination similar to the boards that nurses and doctors must pass to practice.
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