The Importance of Nutrition for Athletes
Nutrition is one of the building blocks of a healthy life. Many of the common health issues that exist today could be simply prevented or alleviated with a healthy diet, yet people continue to eat poorly. There is a special breed of professionals who are trained in human nutritional needs, known as dietitians or nutritionists. These certified individuals specialize in meal planning as well as the economics and preparation of food, and can provide us with safe, scientifically-based dietary advice on how to manage our nutritional needs. It is extremely important to understand that a poor diet, or poor nutrition, can directly lead to detrimental health effects, including deficiency diseases such as scurvy, as well as life-threatening conditions such as obesity, and common chronic diseases including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
While nutrition is important for everyone, it is even more important to the athlete. The reason for this is that athletes consume a far greater amount of energy than the typical average human, and in order to properly replace those nutrients a healthy balance of nutrition must be maintained. But even in the normal human the body itself is made up of a complex variety of chemical compounds like water, carbohydrates, amino acids, fatty acids, and beyond that break down into the common elements such as hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, calcium, and more. Every single chemical compound and element in our body occurs in various forms or combinations, and the only way for our body to access those elements and compounds is through ingestion. Once something has been ingested it is then digested, absorbed, and circulated through the bloodstream to feed the various cells of the body.
Nutrients can be broken down into seven major classes: carbohydrates, fats, fibers, minerals, proteins, vitamins and water. It is important to understand how each of these nutrients breaks down in the body, which is exactly what dietitians do. They understand the scientific difference between each nutrient and its manner of absorption, and thus prescribes a specific diet tailored to the individual’s digestive system and nutritional requirements.
While most athletes state that they are aware of the importance of good nutrition, their patterns of food intake are often far from optimal, with a key issue that many athletes often consume less energy than is required to support their strenuous training activities. Dave Costill and Clyde Williams of the University of Loughborough showed that endurance athletes who train strenuously need roughly 4-4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day to maintain normal glycogen stores, but despite that fact, very few athletes consume the recommended amount.
Which Level is Right for Me?
First one should contact a licensed dietitian. Self-medicating is detrimental at best, because while there is a wealth of information available on the Internet and elsewhere, the only person that is qualified is a licensed professional.
For example, at first glance a low-fat, high-protein diet might appear to be the perfect fit for almost every athlete, and for years it has been, but closer studies have shown that these types of diets are oversimplified. The basis is valid: dietary protein provides the main source of amino acid building blocks that your body requires for new muscle tissue to be created, as well as repair of old tissue broken down during exercise. Looking back to even four or five decades ago, the primary diet for most athletes was a steak and egg diet high in protein, with the general consensus being that since muscles are made of protein, one must consume large amounts of protein to increase the size of the muscles. But as the understanding of carbohydrates and metabolism and sports performance has increased over the years, scientists now know that it is the amino acids themselves that regulate the hormones.
A somewhat recent fad is the low-carbohydrate diet. The low-carbohydrate diet is a poor choice for an athlete because when it is combined with vigorous exercise it results in protein oxidation for energy, and since muscles are the storage facilities for amino acids, the result is muscle tissue loss. Considering protein and carbohydrates are required for muscle growth and maintenance, it becomes fairly clear why the consensus has been that high-protein, low fat diets with a significant percentage of carbohydrates are the ideal. However, recent studies have shown that the athlete’s goals directly impacts the type of diet they need to consume.
For example, an individual seeking to gain muscle should subscribe to the traditional method, but for those looking to increase endurance levels, there are different dietary measures which must be taken to provide the proper nutrition for long-term energy, rather than strength building.
At the recent Athens Olympics the International Olympic Committee performed a study involving 30 professional athletes and determined that nutritional goals depend upon the demands of the sport for which they are training, with breakdowns for each individual dependent upon training techniques, competition cycles, and the individual’s unique biochemistry. Since it is such a complex system, is important to review all angles when undergoing some form of nutritional change to your lifestyle in conjunction with your fitness routine and discuss same with a licensed dietitian to ensure that you are deriving the most from your nutritional program.
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