If you’re an athlete — or if you know any athletes — you may have heard of sports nutrition. Sports nutrition is the study of how different nutrients affect the human body in an athletic context. So, how is this any different from regular old nutrition?
Sports nutrition needs to be tailored to athletes, which means it needs to take into account different lifestyles. To use an extreme example, a professional football player can eat truly absurd numbers of calories during the season. Conversely, if you’re an accountant who enjoys classic movies and video games, you’ll need fewer calories than the average person.
Over the past few decades, sports nutrition has advanced leaps and bounds over what we knew in the 70s and 80s. Here’s how that affects your health and performance.
What is Sports Nutrition?
Sports nutrition is the study of the unique nutritional needs of athletes. However, it’s not just useful for athletes. The same principles can be used by any physically-active individual. If you go for a run every morning, eating the right foods can help you maximize the benefit of your workout.
Because sports nutrition is such an all-encompassing field, it involves research in a variety of fields. For example, biochemistry is needed to understand how the body absorbs and metabolizes different nutrients. It’s also needed to understand how the metabolism can differ depending on the level of activity. Psychology can even become involved due to the unique demands of sports.
What’s so Special About Nutrition for Athletes?
There are a couple of differences between nutrition for athletes and nutrition for everyday people. To begin with, as we already mentioned, athletes will have unique nutritional needs due to their level of activity. They’ll also need to focus more on hydration than most people will.
In addition, athletes also have specific goals for improving performance. Someone who’s not an athlete will probably have other nutritional concerns. For instance, they’ll be concerned about their heart or their brain. These considerations are important for athletes, too, but athletes also need to worry about maximizing their performance.
Macronutrients vs Micronutrients
To function properly, the body needs to get not just the right nutrients, but the right balance of nutrients. In the broadest terms, there are two categories of nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients. Between these two categories, you’ll find everything your body needs, from the cellular level on up to major body systems.
Macronutrients, as the name implies, are the nutrients you need the most of. They fall into three types: carbohydrates (carbs), protein, and fat. All three types of macronutrient are essential for optimal nutrition. However, they each play their own role. Depending on your personal fitness goals, you might need a different balance between the three. Let’s take a closer look at each.
- Carbohydrates consist of glucose, sucrose, and other sugars. Inside your cells, these sugars are broken down into a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the fuel that powers every cell in your body. While protein and fat can also be broken down into ATP, the process is far more complex than it is for carbs. Because of this, carbs are your body’s “go-to” source of energy. In a well-balanced diet, they’ll typically make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calorie intake.
- Protein can be a source of energy, but it’s primarily used to rebuild your body’s cells. Proteins consist of chains of carbon-based molecules called amino acids. In total, there are 21 different amino acids used inside the human body, for everything from powering your cells to building cell walls and muscle tissue. When you eat protein, it’s broken down into its constituent amino acids. Protein is the only macronutrient that is 100 percent required for human survival. There are zero-carb diets. There are zero-fat diets. But on a zero-protein diet, you will die.
- Fats can offer a couple of main benefits. For one thing, Omega-3 fatty acids can boost brain function and improve joint health. For another thing, because fats take a while for the body to break down, they make good long-term fuel. Finally, many vitamins are fat-soluble, so some amount of fat is essential for your body to store them. Just make sure to focus on healthy fats. Fish, nuts, avocadoes, and olive oil are all good sources of fat. Vegetable oil, especially canola oil, is the least healthy form of fat.
Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients are only required in small amounts. These include vitamins and minerals, such as the ones you’ll find in a multivitamin. For example, Vitamin C is an antioxidant and helps promote better immune health among many other functions. Vitamin B12, on the other hand, is crucial for your metabolism.
Vitamin D is another workhorse. Not only does it join Vitamin C in boosting your immune system, but it’s also essential for calcium absorption and good bone health. Iron, meanwhile, is needed to transport oxygen throughout the body. There are dozens of these micronutrients, and it would be impossible to talk about them all.
The most important thing to remember about micronutrients is that some are produced inside the body, while others have to come from outside. For many of us, our diet isn’t enough to get all of these nutrients. A sports nutritionist can help by recommending which vitamins you should take. Macronutrient requirements can vary from person to person, which is why working with a professional is so helpful.
Macronutrients in Your Everyday Diet
So, we have a basic understanding of macronutrients and what they are. But what does this mean when you’re looking at a nutrition label? Here’s what you should look for when it comes to macronutrients in your everyday diet.
- Carbs can be either simple or complex. Both types of carb are made up of chains of molecules, but simple carbs are shorter. This means they break down faster, providing a rush of energy. Complex carbs are made up of longer chains, so they provide more lasting energy. Contrary to popular belief, neither type of carb is “better.” Simple carbs are found in fruits and milk, but also in cheesecake. Complex carbs are found in vegetables and whole grains, but also in bleached white flour. A balance of simple and complex carbs is best for energy in an athletic context. However, for overall nutrition, it’s best to consider the nutrition of the food as a whole.
- As we already discussed, proteins consist of chains of amino acids, and there are 21 types of amino acid in the human body. The catch is that not every source of protein has every amino acid. As a result, you want your protein to come from a variety of sources. Meat and fish typically have all the amino acids you need. This can be a challenge for vegans and vegetarians since most plant proteins don’t provide the full array of amino acids you need.
- There are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats can be rich in vitamins, but they’re best eaten sparingly since they’re harder for the body to break down and can clog your arteries. They’re mostly found in meat and dairy. Unsaturated fats are typically found in plants, are easier for the body to break down, and are less prone to clog your arteries.
Macronutrients in Sports Nutrition
Any well-designed athletic training program will include a diet that’s built for competition. This means, to begin with, getting the right amount and balance of macronutrients. Depending on the workout, carbs or fat can both be the primary energy source. For workouts that require short bursts of activity, such as a CrossFit session, your body will rely on carbs. Conversely, longer activities like running a marathon will require a larger amount of fat.
The normal adult, who works out a few times a week, should focus on a better diet for overall health. People who work out more than that are going to need more calories to get the job done. To use one example, Tour de France cyclists burn about 12,000 calories a day. However, they’re not typically going to need more micronutrients.
This means that an elite athlete can load up on empty calories without a lot of issues. However, it’s still important for those calories to be healthy. If you’re eating a lot of saturated fat, or excessive amounts of salt, you won’t be doing yourself any favours. On the same note, you want to make sure to eat plenty of fat for vitamin storage.
For athletes, in particular, getting enough protein is absolutely essential. Protein is required for building healthy muscle and recovering after a workout. If you’re trying to build muscle, you want to eat as much protein as possible for the number of calories you’re eating.
Micronutrients in Sports Nutrition
Some supplements claim to be formulated specifically for athletes. These claims are dubious at best. For one thing, supplements are not regulated the same way medications are, so there’s not a lot of solid data to back up their claims. For another thing, so-called “sports supplements” can contain chemicals that are banned by the anti-doping agency.
When it comes to nutrition, the only significant difference between athletes and other people is electrolyte need. Since athletes sweat a lot, they lose a lot of sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. It’s important to supplement these nutrients in the correct ratio. If you load up on a bunch of salt, you’re not doing yourself justice.
Micronutrient Deficiencies in Sports Nutrition
Just like anybody else, athletes can suffer from nutrient deficiencies. Some of these deficiencies can be caused by genetic conditions, while others can be caused by diet or lifestyle. An effective sports medicine regimen will look for nutrient deficiencies and provide dietary changes or supplements to address those issues. Here are a few of the most common types of deficiency.
- Iron deficiency can cause a loss of energy due to low blood oxygen. For the same reason, it can also cause poor muscle performance. Iron deficiency is often caused by anaemia, a genetic condition.
- Calcium deficiency can cause a weakening of bone density. It can also cause sluggish muscle response by inhibiting nerve function. Calcium deficiency in athletes is often caused by intense, sweaty exercise combined with poor electrolyte supplementation.
- Vitamin D deficiency can cause reduced metabolic function, reduced immune response, and decreased bone strength. Vitamin D deficiency is often caused by insufficient sunlight.
Hydration in Sports Nutrition
Proper hydration and electrolytes aren’t just important for everyday health. They’re particularly important for athletes. When you sweat, your body sheds water and electrolytes. When you lose more than about two percent of your body weight in water, it can impact not just your performance, but your mental function. This is why athletic trainers and coaches are constantly telling their players to hydrate.
Because both water and electrolytes are lost in sweat, both need to be replaced, and they need to be replaced in the right proportions. Failing to do so can cause medical complications just as bad as dehydration. Gatorade drinks have come under fire in recent years for being unnecessarily sugary, but the original concept was sound; athletes need to replace both water and electrolytes.
Sports Nutrition for Vegetarians – and Other Exceptions to the Rule
As we keep repeating, sports nutrition means building a personalized nutrition plan. In most cases, this means taking into account your height, weight, body fat, goals, and current training regimen. But if you have dietary restrictions, you’ll also need to work around those needs. Similarly, environmental concerns can come into play. There’s no way to make a comprehensive list of all different dietary needs, but here are a few of the more common considerations.
Sports Nutrition for Vegetarian Athletes
Because of the absence of meat, vegetarians will need to eat other types of proteins. If vegetarians rely primarily on eggs and dairy for protein, most needs will be met. However, if the bulk of your diet is plant protein, you should probably be supplementing. In any case, vegetarian athletes should be carefully assessed to see if there are any deficiencies.
Sports Nutrition for Vegan Athletes
Nutrition for vegan athletes is similar to nutrition for vegetarian athletes, only more so. The reason for this is that Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Vegetarians can still get B12 from eggs and other non-meat animal products. However, that’s not an option for vegans. Vegans will need to supplement, either with a vitamin or with a fortified nutritional yeast. In addition to B12, vegans need to make a conscious effort to eat calcium, zinc, iodine, magnesium, riboflavin, iron, and Vitamin D. All of these vitamins can be obtained from plant products, but it’s hard to get them in sufficient quantity.
Sports Nutrition for High Altitude Training
At high altitudes, the body requires enhanced oxygen-carrying capacity. This means that an iron-rich diet is essential. Moreover, fluid loss increases with high altitude, as does the risk of illness. This means that hydration and immune-boosting micronutrients are both more important than ever.
Sports Nutrition for Training in Hot Conditions
Hot conditions, like altitude, increase the rate of fluid loss. As you get hotter, you sweat more, so maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance is more of a challenge than under other conditions. This means that trainers need to develop strategies to ensure that athletes remain hydrated. Heatstroke is also a concern, so athletes should be aware of dizziness and other possible symptoms.
Sports Nutrition for Cold Weather Training
As with other extreme environments, cold conditions can cause excessive fluid loss. However, the body also requires more calories to stay warm. This is especially true for leaner individuals, who lack natural insulation for protection from the elements. Under cold conditions, large quantities of fat are advisable for long-term warmth without the spikes and troughs that come from carbs.
Eating Disorders and Sports Nutrition
You might think that eating disorders would be unusual among athletes. After all, athletes spend their time improving the condition of their bodies, and a healthy diet is part of that. Unfortunately, many athletes are conditioned to maintain a dangerously low body fat regardless of the health risks. Oftentimes, this is due to the need to “make weight” in a particular weight class, but it can also be due to pressure from peers and the same body image issues that non-athletes face.
If an athlete is suffering from an eating disorder, the priority from a nutrition perspective should be maintaining the needed level of micronutrients. From an overall perspective, psychological treatment is required to manage the eating disorder. Once the eating disorder has been successfully managed, a sports nutritionist can then focus on improving athletic performance.
Do I Need a Sports Dietician?
A sports dietician or nutritionist can be a significant help to athletes who want to make sure they’re getting optimal food intake. In fact, most major sports teams now employ a dietician to develop personal plans for their players. There’s actually a licensing procedure for this, and the license is called a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD).
Just like sports nutrition isn’t just for athletes, neither are sports dieticians. A sports dietician can help even amateur workout enthusiasts get the most benefit from their workout program. That said, if you want to improve your overall health, you might want to see an ordinary dietician.
As you can see, sports nutrition has plenty of applications both inside and outside of the athletic world. With the right sport nutritional plan, you can experience significant benefits to conditioning, strength, and overall performance. If you’re challenging yourself with the most demanding of athletic goals, sports nutrition can help you achieve them.