Nutrition recommendations for athletes and active individuals differ from their sedentary counterparts. The use of nutrition has become widespread in various disciplines as a means of improving performance, fitness, and overall health (Steinmuller et al., 2014). There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that specific dietary practices may increase peak performance potential of an individual; thus, appropriate sports nutrition practices may greatly benefit athletes and allow them to further excel in their sport (Hull et al., 2016; Thomas et al., 2016). Appropriate nutrient intake from food and fluid is crucial to fuel metabolic mechanisms and other bodily processes. Nutrient requirements will vary depending upon the training regimen and other external factors that may decrease or increase an individual’s nutrient needs.
Let’s start by addressing the macronutrients. Macronutrients are the nutrients the body requires in relatively large (“macro”) quantities which include protein, fat and carbohydrates. Adequate consumption of carbohydrates is required for active individuals in particular because of the role they play in metabolism before, during, and after an exercise session. Carbohydrates are the predominant fuel source for the brain and central nervous system, as well as a substrate for muscular work (Thomas et al., 2016). Therefore, due to limited body carbohydrate stores and rapid depletion, athletes and active individuals require sustained intake of exogenous (that which we take in) carbohydrates through their diet. Another important component of consuming adequate carbohydrates is their protein-sparing effects. If energy intake (particularly from carbohydrate) is inadequate to meet the demands of the body, amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are oxidized for fuel rather than protein synthesis (Thomas et al., 2016).
Active individuals have increased protein needs to maximize metabolic adaptation to training through the repair and anabolism (or growth) of skeletal muscle. Daily protein requirements generally range from 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg bodyweight spread out in moderate amounts over the course of the day and following strenuous training sessions (Moore et al., 2015). In the past, these general daily ranges were categorized for individuals depending on sport – strength athletes’ needs would be toward the higher end while endurance athletes’ needs were lower – however, this is no longer the case. Newer guidelines recommend protein intake be based around adaptation to training sessions within a periodized program, while also considering the individual’s athletic goals, nutrient and energy needs, and available food choices (Moore et al., 2015). Due to the protein-sparing effects of carbohydrates, adequate energy intake (specifically from carbohydrates) is an important consideration for determining protein needs. In cases of energy restriction, increased protein intake of 2.0 g/kg/day or higher may be advantageous to prevent the loss of lean body mass (Rodriguez et al., 2007).
Dietary fat is an important, yet often misunderstood and overlooked, component of the diet for both active and sedentary individuals. Not only does fat provide us with sustained energy as a fuel substrate, it is essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and contains essential components for cellular membranes (Thomas et al., 2016). Although dietary fat (lipid) needs are not directly increased in athletes to support sport performance, fat is calorically dense; therefore, it is likely that an athlete’s lipid needs would proportionally increase to meet increased caloric needs. Fat intake below 20% of total daily energy intake is discouraged, as this limits intake of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids integral to our health (Thomas et al., 2016). Instead, only acute scenarios of fat restriction should be implemented leading up to an event, training session and/or during pre-event carbohydrate loading.
It’s important to note that while these macronutrient considerations provide a fundamental framework for athletes, nutrition needs vary based on the individual. For example, vegetarian athletes and those with dietary limitations may have additional macronutrient concerns and may benefit from a more comprehensive dietary analysis and nutrition education (Craig & Mangels, 2009). We recommend consulting with a registered dietitian to ensure adequate nutrient needs are being met in support of the demands of training and competition.
Stay tuned for next week’s informative blog on Micronutrient Needs for Athletes.