The athlete’s diet: the perfect nutrition for those who practice sports

How to eat when doing sports? What are the essential foods? Here are the basics for the best athlete’s diet.

It is now well known: a healthy and proper diet is the basis of human well-being. In fact, it is through the foods we eat that we acquire the energy we need to face our daily lives. This means not only that our diet must be varied in terms of food quality, but also that it must be balanced for the activities we perform. This is why nutrition is one of the most important aspects for athletes of all levels and for anybody who trains and does physical exercise.

The role of calories and macronutrients in the nutrition of athletes, and beyond

Each one of us continuously consumes energy, even while sleeping, but obviously we do so proportionally to our effort. The energy expenditure of each individual is highly subjective, and is calculated based on age, gender, body composition and, most importantly, activity level. Athletes have a higher energy consumption, which must be calculated according to the type of effort made and its duration. This is why they need a balanced diet to enjoy a higher caloric intake and have more energy available.
It is important to specify that not all foods are the same, because they are composed of different nutrients in terms of function and caloric density.

Let’s take a look in a little more detail at what these nutrients are and their main characteristics.

  • Carbohydrates, also known as sugars, provide 4 kcal per gram and are the main energy source for the body. They are essential for athletes, as they are the first reserve the body draws on in the very short term to support muscular effort.
  • Fats, or lipids, play a major role in our body, if taken in the correct quantities. They perform many tasks, including hormone regulation and transport of fat-soluble vitamins. However, their most important function to consider in an athlete’s diet is the production of energy. Fats provide 9 kcal per gram, therefore they have a higher caloric density than carbohydrates, and all together they produce energy and promote the creation of reserves.
  • Proteins, consisting of amino acids, provide about 4 kcal per gram, like carbohydrates, but their role is not to produce energy. Proteins are, in fact, indispensable because they facilitate the processes of demolition and reconstruction of tissues, including muscle tissue, thus contributing to the growth of muscle mass in athletes.
  • Vitamins and minerals are essential for various types of vital functions and play a protective role for the body.
Nutrients can be divided into macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients, i.e. vitamins and minerals. All of these nutrient molecules are critical for every human being to perform the basic functions for daily life.

Which foods cannot be neglected in an athlete’s diet?

One of the main principles at the basis of our Mediterranean diet is the variety of foods, which is also essential in the athlete’s diet. As we have seen, there are many macronutrients and foods can be classified based on the main macronutrient they contain. Let’s see some examples together.

  • Carbohydrates are classified into simple and complex based on their structure. Simple carbs, such as glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose, are found in fruits, sugar and milk, while complex carbs, such as starch, fiber and glycogen, are found in potatoes and cereals. Foods consisting of complex carbohydrates are particularly important for athletes: being metabolized more slowly, they produce slow-release energy always available to support physical effort, even prolonged in time.
    In general, the category of carbohydrates may include foods like pasta, rice and spelt, as complex carbohydrates, and all fruits, from bananas to blueberries, as a source of simple carbohydrates.
  • However, the foods that contain high-biological value proteins are of animal origin. In fact, proteins are mainly found in meat, fish, eggs and cheese. However, some plant-based foods, such as legumes or even grains, also provide proteins.
  • Among the foods richest in fats and most used in cooking we surely find olives, olive oil and nuts. The avocado, which has become very popular in recent years, despite being known as a fruit, is also primarily a source of fat. Lipids are also found in foods of animal origin such as red meat, fattier fish, butter, aged cheeses or egg yolk.

However, it is important to specify that the fats contained in food can be distinguished in two categories: saturated and unsaturated fats. The excessive intake of saturated fats is considered harmful for the cardiovascular system, as these are more complex molecules for the body to assimilate; for this reason, they tend to accumulate in the blood. Unsaturated fats, which include Omega 3 and 6 fats, stand out instead because they are indispensable for the human being, because their intake only takes place through food. These fats can be mainly found in some fish, such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, but also in nuts, olives and olive oil.

What about vegetables? Along with fruits, they are the main source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. These, too, can never be absent from correct and healthy eating habits.

The athlete’s diet: how to distribute macronutrients throughout the day and as a function of training

Since each macronutrient has a different function and a specific calorie intake, it is important for athletes to balance the amount of carbohydrates, proteins and fats they consume during the day. The best advice is to divide daily calories into 55-60% carbohydrates, primarily complex carbs, 25-30% fats and 15-20% proteins.
However, for athletes of all levels it is essential to consider the distribution of nutrients as a function of performance, because performance is directly affected by food intake.
For this reason, before any competition or training, an athlete should eat carbohydrates, which are the main source of energy. We are talking about complex carbohydrates, which we find in pasta but also in crackers, and which, being long-release carbs, provide energy in a constant way, especially for endurance sports performances. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugary fruits, also provide energy; however, this is burnt immediately, so their intake is more appropriate for short-term physical effort. Athletes should instead avoid excessive doses of proteins and fats, especially when they are close to a performance, because their assimilation could require a greater effort in terms of digestion and weigh the athlete down during physical effort.
After physical exercise, it is essential to immediately replenish the fluids and minerals that have been lost and normalize the energy reserves consumed with a good dose of carbohydrates, especially simple carbs. It is also important to have complete meals after sports, with all macronutrients, including proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates.
Before any performance or exercise, the athlete should eat moderately and at least 3 hours earlier, because digestion is a very long process that can take up to 6-8 hours in some cases.

The athlete’s diet: what to remember

Just as in nutrition for non-athletes, the secret is balance for athletes as well. As we have seen, their diet does not differ much from that of any other individual: in fact, athletes only have greater needs in terms of energy. Therefore, for competitive athletes, there are no foods that are better than others or special rules. Following the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is definitely a good idea, because this model allows the following simple principles to be taken into account:

  • athletes generally consume more energy than individuals who do not practice sports, but the key word is always balance. Not all sports are equal, so the caloric intake must be balanced as a function of the intensity and duration of the effort made. So will have athletes, such as cyclists or marathon runners, who need a higher energy load than those who play more leisurely sports, such as golf or horseback riding;
  • the intake of fluids must be constant throughout the day and taking fluids before exercise reduces the risk of dehydration, because sweating causes a large amount of fluids and minerals to be lost during the performance;
  • carbohydrates and fats, the main energy sources, are the essential fuel to optimize the sports performance of an athlete, and their excessive reduction would be counterproductive.
In conclusion, there are no particular foods that can improve preparation or performance in the diet of an athlete, but only good or bad eating habits that affect physical and athletic performance.

To be aware of one’s needs and of the importance of a correct nutrition is the key factor that can directly impact the improvement of any athlete’s physical performance.