Basic Nutrition: Athletes v. Everyone Else

The purpose of this article is to outline basic information about nutrition and the body’s minimum requirements for daily use.  I will also discuss the nutritional needs for athletes and how they may differ from the average, mildly active adult.  This information is to be used for educational purposes only and should be used in conjunction with supervision and support from your physician.  It is not intended to be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition.  

You are not a Bromiliad.  This is a Bromiliad.

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It is a plant that gets it’s nutrients from the air and water.  You are a human being.  And you require nutrients from the foods you eat.  Some individuals require more nutrients than others due to higher levels of activity.  Others require less.  Nutrition is a science, but for the most part, we succeed in finding our optimal diet by trial and error. What works best for one may not work at all for someone else.  And it is important to remember that the human body is a complicated system and there is no one size fits all diet.

Calories

The first thing we need to talk about is the calorie.  You’ve seen this word before.  It’s on the back of every food label in the United States.  Every diet mentions it and every 80’s mom became obsessed with counting them.  But what is a calorie really?  By definition, the kilocalorie is the amount of energy needed to raise on kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.   But that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone in the real world, so let me break it down to you like this.  Basically, 3500 kilocaloreis, (or calories for short), is about 1 pound of body weight.  So if you eat 3500 calories, you will gain 1 pound of body weight.  For someone wanting to maintain their body weight, calories in should match calories out.  That means if you eat 2000cal/day, you need to burn 2000cal/day.

How do you figure that out?  Ok…..this is how it works.  Keep in mind this is for an “average” adult.  I will get into more detail later.  The average human body has basic functions, like breathing, heart beating, eyes blinking, etc.  If you sat in a chair or laid in a bed all day every day and did absolutely nothing else, you would require a minimum of 1200 cal/day.  But for most of us, we do a little more than that.  We get out of bed, go to work, get the kids to school, do laundry, file TPS reports, take the kids to soccer, walk the dog, brush our teeth, etc.  And all of that, on average, requires about 800 calories.  So…1200 for basic bodily function + 800 for daily activities = 2000 cal/day.  But some of us eat more than 2000 calories and do less work, and others eat less than 2000 calories and do more work.  Which is why we gain and lose weight at different rates.

Athletes, on the other hand, have different requirements.  Basically, they require more because they, or you, presumably, are doing more work.  You need to take in more calories than the average Joe because you are burning more calories.  So if you want to maintain your body weight, then you need to figure out how many extra calories you are burning during your workout and then eat that many more.  The best way to do this is to wear a heart rate monitor.  If you have a professional trainer, he or she can guide you to figuring out the averages for the type of workout you do.

Most people working out do not want to “maintain“, however.  You are in the market to either lose weight, like most adults between 20 and 80.  Or you are in the market to gain weight, think professional athletes and bodybuilders.  So, to lose you have to eat fewer calories and to gain you have to eat more.  But it’s not that simple.  Quality of calories matter, meaning, the type of foods you eat will determine how you gain or lose the weight.  The human body doesn’t require just any calories.  It requires specific calories from specific foods with specific nutrients.  Which means if you are trying to lose weight, you can’t just binge on junk food and cut out all of the healthy stuff you don’t like.  And if you are trying to gain muscle mass, you can’t just shove a bunch of meat into your mouth and expect it to land on your biceps.  Remember when I said that the human body is complicated?  Here’s why.

Macro Nutrients

There are three macro nutrients the body requires: protein, carbohydrate and fat.  Micro nutrients are vitamins and minerals….but those are for a different discussion.  The following is a breakdown of the three macro nutrients and their role in overall nutrition for athletes.

Proteins

This may be the single most important nutrient, aside from water.  Its presence in the diet in adequate amounts is crucial for many important functions, not just muscle development, like hormone synthesis, enzyme reactions, structural development, immunoproteins (think immune system) and transport proteins (think red blood cells).  There are two major sources of protein, plant and animal.  Animal protein is the most common form of protein.  It’s meat.  It’s abundant, it’s easy, and most importantly, it’s complete.  Plant protein, is well, different.  Plants have protein too.  But it’s not the same.  And most plants do not contain complete proteins.

What is a complete protein?  All proteins are made of chains, different combinations of amino acids.  There are 20 amino acids in total.  9 of them are essential, meaning your body does not synthesize them.  So you have to eat them.  A complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids.  Very few plant protein sources are complete.  Quinoa is an exception.  It is the tiny seed grain reintroduced from ancient Incan practices.  Most other plant protein sources need to be eaten in combination, however, to make complete amino acid chains.  For example, peanut butter and bread, beans and rice, pasta and peas.  Basically, what one source lacks, the other makes up.  There is debate about whether or not protein sources should be consumed at the same time.  The theory is that two different protein sources can combine when eaten at different times to form a complete protein.  The other side of that argument is that when one source is eaten at an earlier time, the amino acids are digested and then used or stored and cannot be combined with others eaten later to form the complete protein.  Therefore, some proteins may never form creating a deficiency.

So how important is protein and does it matter how much you eat?  Let’s talk about the importance of protein as it relates to fitness and sports first.  The most important function of protein as it relates to this topic is its role in structural support and movement, i.e muscle tissue.  Different sports and levels of fitness require different types of muscle tissue.  For example, a long distance runner needs to be as light as possible so she can run for long periods of time and use as little energy as possible.  So her muscle tissue will be lean and light.  Also, because her activity is highly aerobic, the type of energy her muscles use is different.  She will likely use all of the available blood glucose and rely on the glycogen stores in her muscle tissue for energy.  While her ideal diet is carb heavy, she will rely on protein for muscle repair and to prevent atrophy.  On the contrary, a sprinter will rely on a high protein diet to build and maintain dense and heavy muscle tissue.  The sprinter’s muscle composition is thicker and shorter fibers.  He needs strong muscles that can push him off the starting block quickly and only need to run for short periods of time.  He will also rely on carbohydrate as a fuel source, but in a smaller ratio to protein.  A weightlifter will have the heaviest and most dense muscle tissue.  His diet will consist primarily of protein for maximum muscle tissue repair and growth.

The average protein intake requirements vary depending the type of activity.  But the standard is .8g/kg, or .36g/lb of body weight.  For a weightlifter, the standard goes up to 2.4g/kg.

Carbohydrates

The great and powerful carbohydrate… you’d think it was hiding behind a big green curtain at the end of a yellow brick road.  It may not be the wizard, but it is complicated.  There are good carbs, bad carbs, simple carbs, complex carbs.  Let’s break down the different types of carbohydrates and how they are used for energy, and then discuss when to use them.

Good carbs versus bad carbs, what’s the difference?  I think in order to simplify an explanation, the word “bad” was attached to a list of certain foods with a certain carbohydrate content.  Bad is a matter of opinion, and that’s not what this article is about.  But I think we can all agree that some are more nutritive and effective than others.

The complicated version of that story is that carbohydrates can be broken down into two groups, simple and complex.  There are three specific groups; monosaccharides, which are “simple” sugars, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.  The later two are the more complex sugars and starches.  They are digested and absorbed differently, and they serve different purposes.  The simple sugars are digested and absorbed quickly and circulated for utilization immediately.  Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and have a more lasting effect on blood sugar levels.

The lists of simple and complex carbs isn’t quite as simple as identifying mono and polysaccharides.  But in general, the more whole the food is, the more complex it is.  Conversely, the more refined it is, the more simple it is.  For example, whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat are more complex carbohydrates.  Vegetables and fruits also fall in to this category.  Foods like sugar, honey and refined grains like white rice and “white” pasta have been processed to remove that which makes them harder to digest.  It also removes that which controls blood sugar levels.

There are many important purposes for carbohydrates.  Fiber, the most complex carb of all, is important for maintaining blood sugar levels, aiding with satiety (the feeling of fullness) and regulating digestion and elimination (pooping).  And the brain only uses carbohydrates, specifically glucose.  So if that’s the case, then how do we survive on low carb diets?  When blood glucose is low due to reduced consumption, the body makes up for it by breaking down stored fat and protein, converting it into glucose.  This is a very effective way to reduce body fat.  However, when one is trying to build muscle, low carb diets can be counterproductive; any protein consumed goes to rebuilding protein lost from muscle degradation instead of building bigger muscles.  Remember the two runners from earlier, the marathon runner and the sprinter?  The long distance runner consumes a diet high in carbohydrates, carboloading before a run to increase the amount of glycogen (or stored glucose) in the muscle cells.  The sprinter consumes a more balanced carbohydrate diet to maintain sufficient calorie and blood glucose levels.

The bodybuilder, however, has a more on-again off-again relationship with carbs.  Consuming whole grains, fruits and vegetables in a lower ratio to protein during the building and training phases, and often eliminating carbs all together the days and weeks leading up to competition.  The upside are the results.  Since the body then relies on lipolysis (breakdown of fat), bodyfat percentages are at their lowest to maximize muscle fiber visibility.  The downside is the brain fog.  Basically, bodybuilders become eating, weightlifting, spray tanning zombies.  Side effects include mood swings, trouble with concentration and focus, and increased fatigue, not to mention constipation.

The bottom line is that carbohydrates are important.  They play a vital role in several systems including metabolism, hormone synthesis, and brain function.  The ideal amount of carbohydrates consumed depends on the type of activity performed.  But the more nutrient dense the better.

Fat

It’s the most energy dense of the nutrients, providing 9 calories of energy per gram.  Because of that, a little bit goes a long way.  Foods high in fat include nuts, seeds, oils (solids and liquids), butter and avocados.  Some other foods can be high in fat, like some cuts of beef, pork and dairy (like cheese).

There are “good” and “bad” fats.  Mainly those that contribute to good health are considered good.  Those that contribute to negative health effects are considered bad.  The more saturated a fat is, the harder it is on the body.  But it’s not a good idea to eliminate fat from the diet.  It is essential for several body processes like hormone regulation, heart health, skin health, blood flow, growth and development (infants and children), brain development, cell membrane structure and satiety (there’s that word again).  And, some fatty acids are essential, like omega-3 and omega-6.

Over the years, we have gone from fat is bad, to fat is good.  From high fat diets to low fat diets, back to high fat diets.  The current thought is that fat should comprise 3% of ones total calories.  And the more nutrient dense the fat the better.

For athletes, fats round out a balanced diet.  As mentioned above, it is an essential nutrient that is responsible for many important systems and functions.  So it should not be eliminated.  But as all other nutrients, it should be consumed in moderation.

Rebecca Nedrow is an ACF Certified Culinarian with a Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from Kansas State University. She is also the Director of Operations for Friend that Cooks Personal Chefs.

Friend that Cooks personal chefs in Wichita, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City offer weekly meal prep for families with busy schedules, food allergies or special diets. Learn more at http://www.friendthatcooks.com
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Pecan pear salad

Pecan pear salad with kale and bleu cheese

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