ATs are frequently asked what types of foods an athlete should eat to be the best. The answer is simple—eat a well-balanced meal suggested by the food pyramid. Balanced meals provide all of the nutritional requirements to be healthy and perform well. When designing a program, the AT and dietitian need to know if the athlete wants to gain, lose, or maintain weight.
The AT and dietitian can develop a diet that will ensure all nutritional needs are met based on the nutritional and physical assessment of the athlete. An athlete trying to gain weight will be placed on a diet in which the number of calories eaten exceeds the energy expended. An athlete trying to lose weight will be placed on a diet that supplies fewer calories than the amount of energy expended. The athlete’s weight loss should not exceed an average of 2 pounds (1 kg) a week. He should never increase room temperatures, sit in a hot tub or sauna, wear rubberized clothing, or work out in high temperatures with lots of clothes in an attempt to lose weight. An exercise and weight-loss plan designed by the AT and the dietitian is the only plan to follow.
Pregame meals should be high in carbohydrate and fluids. Carbohydrate is easier to digest than fat and protein, and it can be converted into energy to be used immediately. The pregame meal should be eaten three to four hours before activity. Water is the best liquid to drink, and the athlete should make sure she is well hydrated about one hour before competition.
Athletes who are anxious about an upcoming competition may use carbohydrate-loaded sport drinks. Sport drinks are digested quickly, which helps the anxious athlete avoid feelings of nausea.
When the AT and dietitian are considering a pregame meal, they should remember the diversity of the team. Some athletes may have specific food preferences such as Mexican, Arabic, Greek, or Latin foods. The AT has homework to do—he needs to analyze these diverse foods and determine what types are acceptable before a game. Another consideration is religious holidays. An athlete may observe a holiday by fasting or by not eating meat. The AT and dietitian should be aware of this issue a week in advance to best prepare the athlete for the holiday diet. Vegetarians have special protein needs and should work with the AT and dietitian to make sure their food needs are met. The following box lists the types of vegetarians.
Some good pregame foods include pasta, fruit, plain crackers, rice cakes, cereal, vegetarian foods, potatoes, meatless lasagna, soup, rice, juice, bread, raisins, pancakes, and waffles. Besides eating foods high in carbohydrate, the athlete should eat familiar foods. The pregame meal is no time to experiment.
Hopefully the team will do something to celebrate, and food can be there to replenish energy supplies. However, ATs should not use food as a reward (e.g., giving a team pizza, soda, and ice cream if they win) or as a punishment (e.g., driving the team straight home if they lose). Such actions can create an association between eating and pleasurable or miserable experiences that leads to overeating or not eating.
After the event, athletes should eat complex carbohydrate, but some protein, fat, and simple carbohydrate are also fine. Soon after practice and competitions is the best time to replenish the body’s energy stores. Water replacement is necessary to compensate for sweating during competition. Several glasses of juice, water, or sport drinks are perfect choices.
Many athletic competitions take place over a full day. Athletes may be asked to compete several times during the day, and a full sit-down meal is out of the question. So what should athletes do to keep energy levels up? The answer is to eat small meals many times during the day. The meals should contain little protein and fat and a lot of complex carbohydrate and fluids (not soda). The amount of complex carbohydrate can be half a sandwich six times during the day. When the athlete eats depends on when she must compete; she must provide time to allow the food to digest as much as possible. Good all-day-event foods are bagels (no cream cheese), English muffins, bananas, baked potatoes, soup, fruit, pasta, pancakes, sport drinks, yogurt, cereal, and vegetables.
Athletes who participate in endurance events (marathoners, cyclists, triathletes, long-distance swimmers) may benefit from a technique called carbohydrate loading. Carbohydrate loading means depleting carbohydrate for seven days and then ingesting large amounts of carbohydrate for three days before the event. The theory behind carbohydrate loading is that carbohydrate stores are used as energy during athletic competition. If the athlete has a lot of stored carbohydrate, he is less likely to run out of energy. Depleting before loading causes the body to store more carbohydrate than usual once carbohydrate consumption resumes. Remember that once carbohydrate stores are used up, the body begins to break down fat. Breaking down fat requires more energy than using readily available carbohydrate, again draining energy from athlete. So the greater the carbohydrate stores, the better the athlete’s energy.
If an athlete is involved in an endurance activity, the AT and dietitian should design a program for carbohydrate loading. The athlete’s diet will change 10 days before competition. Three days before the event, 70% of what the athlete eats will be carbohydrate. During carbohydrate loading (the three days before the event), the athlete does not exercise. Fat and protein foods are decreased as part of carbohydrate loading.