Nutrition for Athletes

DO ATHLETES NEED EXTRA NUTRITION?

My twin 13 year-old daughters are competitive gymnasts.  They are literally in the gym 24 hours per week (yeah, that's 4 hours per day, 6 days per week).  With as much time as they are in the gym you can imagine how much food they have to consume to replace the extra calories they are burning - my weekly food bills have reached the realm of the ridiculous - just one of the many hidden costs of youth athletics.

But the real question I want to address is "Do athletes just need more calories, or do they require more vitamins and minerals to perform at their peak levels?"

BASIC NUTRITIONAL NEEDS SHOULD COME FROM FOOD

The overwhelming opinion in the nutrition community is that everyone, whether an athlete or not, should look to their diet first as their source for nutrition.  Having said this, the problem is that most Americans do not have well-balanced diets and, as a result, may be deficient in certain nutrients, particularly those coming from fruits and vegetables.  In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control, only 6% of Americans consume the recommended 5 servings of vegetables every day and only 8% consume the recommended 4 servings of fruit every day.  I have read recently that the official recommendations should be changed to 7 servings of vegetables and 6 of fruit, but most people are so far away from the current recommendations there is really no point in updating them.

The point is that most people are SIGNIFICANTLY DEFICIENT in numerous nutrients based on their dietary intake of fruits and vegetables, and this includes athletes.

IMPLICATIONS OF UNDERNOURISHMENT IN COMPETITIVE ATHLETICS

Not getting sufficient amounts of phytonutrients in one's diet can lead to numerous problems such as fatigue, a depleted immune system, slow recoveries from injury and slower bone/muscle/tissue growth.  Of course, one's long term health and wellness has been closely tied to diet in numerous studies.  It is no wonder that the call for increased consumption of fruits and vegetables has been sounded so frequently.  Athletes, in particular, need to be aware of their fruit and vegetable consumption to insure that they are getting all of the nutrients they need because they are often putting the greatest strain on their bodies.

HOW MUCH AND WHAT IS BEST?

But exactly how much should people be eating and what are the best fruits and vegetables to be consuming?  A great resource on this is The World's Healthiest Foods by George Mateljan.  In this book Mateljan not only walks through exactly what nutrients are in each fruit and vegetable, he also provides a wealth of information about why each nutrient is important and provides really great advice about how to prepare each fruit and vegetable too.  Personally, I find the "Rainbow" idea the easiest to follow.  In essence, the Rainbow is a reference to eating fruits and vegetables that cover the color spectrum.  I try to use this concept every day when feeding my gymnasts.  Here are some of my thoughts on fruits/vegetables that fit into this program (these are available almost year-round, but always best when in season locally):

  • RED        - Red peppers, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, watermelon, beets
  • ORANGE  - Carrots, butternut squash, oranges, mango, canteloupe
  • YELLOW   - Yellow peppers, lemons, corn, yellow squash, yellow onions
  • GREEN    - Spinach, broccoli, lettuce (I prefer romaine), cucumbers, kiwi, green apples, green grapes, avocados, green beans, snap peas, zucchini
  • BLUE/PURPLE - Blueberries, plums, red grapes, eggplant, blackberries
  • WHITE/TAN - Garlic, potatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, bananas

You can find a more complete list at http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/fruit-and-veggie-color-list.

The question about how much to eat is also quite straightforward - use the following as a quick guide:

All leafy green vegetables (and cucumbers): 1 serving = 1 cup (packed)
All other vegetables                                          : 1 serving = 1/2 cup
All fruits                                                              : 1 serving = 1/2 cup

Pretty simple, right?  Try adding up exactly how many servings of fruits and vegetables you (or your athlete) consumed yesterday.

CAN SUPPLEMENTS BRIDGE THE NUTRITION GAP (if one exists)?

This is a great question that people are constantly asking.  Most nutritionists that I have read push back by saying that people must get their nutrition from whole foods, PERIOD.  I agree with this conceptually, however it isn't practical or realistic.  For that matter, most people already know they are deficient on the diet side of things, but they are not willing or able to change their behaviors.  In these cases I believe that a whole food concentrate can be a positive addition to one's daily regimen.  While not perfect (you won't get any fiber for one), it can help to bridge what I think of as the nutrition gap and for athletes this is particularly important since anything less than complete nutrition can contribute to less than optimum performance or possibly even injury.

Conversely, I am not a fan of standard multi-vitamins since the scientific data generally does not demonstrate their effectiveness and, in some cases, have been shown to have toxic side-effects whereas whole food-based nutrition is built entirely on the fruits and vegetables we all should be eating anyway.