Whether you are a bodybuilder, a professional athlete or simply exercising to improve your health, sports nutrition plays a key role in optimising the beneficial effects of physical activity. Making better decisions with your nutrition and hydration can result in improved performance, recovery and injury prevention.
Nutrition professionals offer a range of services to support your health and sporting goals. This can range from a daily food diary, to a comprehensive food and nutrition plan for training and competitions.
Eating well for physical activity and sport can have many benefits including:
- Allowing you to perform well in your chosen sport or activity;
- Reducing the risk of injury and illness;
- Ensuring the best recovery after exercise or a training programme.
A healthy diet for sport and exercise should contain plenty of starchy foods, plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein foods and some dairy foods. It is also important to stay hydrated.
Do I need extra protein to build muscle?
It is a common myth that consuming lots of extra protein gives people bigger muscles. Quite often, people taking part in exercise focus on eating lots of protein, and consequently may not get enough carbohydrate, which is the most important source of energy for exercise. A modest 20g of high quality protein, equivalent to approximately half of a medium sized grilled chicken breast or a small can of tuna, has been shown to be enough for optimum muscle protein synthesis following any exercise or training session. Any more protein than this will not be used for muscle building and just used as energy!
As well as including protein as part of a healthy, balanced diet, the incorporation of some protein after exercise is important for building new muscle tissues and repairing the damaged ones.
What is energy density?
‘Energy density’ is the amount of energy (or calories) per gram of food. Lower energy density foods provide less energy per gram of food so you can eat more of them without consuming too many calories. So this is a good way to help control how much we eat, without going hungry and may also be a great new way to help you lose weight.
Low energy density foods include foods with a high water content, such as soups and stews, foods like pasta and rice that absorb water during cooking, and foods that are naturally high in water, such as fruit and vegetables. Foods that are high in fibre, such as wholegrain breads and cereals, and lower fat foods also tend to have a lower energy density. High energy density foods tend to include foods that are high in fat and have a low water content, for example biscuits and confectionery, crisps, peanuts, butter and cheese.
Studies have shown that people tend to consume about the same amount (weight) of food each day, but not necessarily the same amount of energy (or calories). So it is possible to trick ourselves into consuming less energy, without feeling hungrier, by eating a lower energy density diet, which still makes up the same weight of foods overall throughout the course of a day.
Foods with a lower energy density (less than 1.5 calories/gram) include fruit and vegetables and foods with lots of added water, such as soups and stews. Lower fat foods, including pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals and yogurt, also tend to have a lower energy density. These foods should make up most of what we eat.
Here are some more examples:
Most types of fruit and vegetables
Most types of soup
Porridge made with water
Bran flakes with skimmed milk
Low fat yogurt
Should I take extra supplements when I’m playing sport?
There are many different supplements on the market. Some of them are based on solid research, but others aren’t. Most people won’t need to take supplements, and athletes need to consider supplements with extreme caution. In the past, some supplements were found to have been contaminated with banned substances. Find out more in thebodybuilding and sports supplements page.
ACHIEVING DESIRED WEIGHTS FOR COMPETITIVE PURPOSES
Changing your body weight to improve performance must be done safely, or it may do more harm than good. Keeping your body weight too low, losing weight too quickly, or preventing weight gain in an unnatural way can have negative health effects. It is important to set realistic body weight goals.
Young athletes who are trying to lose weight should work with a registered dietitian. Experimenting with diets on your own can lead to poor eating habits with inadequate or excessive intake of certain nutrients.
Speak with a health care professional to discuss a diet that is right for your sport, age, gender, and amount of training.
Putting nutrition into practice
The timing of eating and exercising can be important for how you feel and perform during your chosen activity. The body needs the correct fuel in the tank to perform well, however you want to avoid feeling too full or too empty during exercise.
Individuals vary in their preferred timing of food intake and amount that can be eaten before exercise. Some may find two hours is plenty of time to digest their meal, whereas others may feel uncomfortable when taking part in activity and need a bit longer. Experimenting with what, how much and when will help decide what suits you best!
Food and fluid intake is also important for optimum recovery after exercise.
Tips to plan your meals and snacks:
How a sports nutrition professional can help
The aim of a sports nutritionist or dietitian is to create a nutrition plan for an individual’s training needs. The plan will incorporate both food and hydration. It doesn’t matter if you’re casually exercising or training for a professional event, sports nutrition is integral to performance. These strategies can also help to:
- increase energy levels
- promote good health
- help manage weight
- improve concentration
- develop body composition and growth
- enhance recovery.
To create the best nutrition strategy, a sports nutrition professional will be required to assess not just an individual’s training and diet but also their lifestyle, day to day habits, supplements and if you are taking any medication. A nutrition professional will also be able to analyse and support you with your long and short-term goals.