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Dietitian Dish: Sports Nutrition (July 2021)

Fellow Mountaineers,

I am writing to you with great anticipation as we near the beginning of the fall semester. For me, this doesn’t feel like just any new school year, but one that is filled with expectations and excitement following a very challenging year for most. While I am experiencing a lot of gratitude for the coming semester due to being able to meet students in person once again, I am writing to you from the Morgantown campus where we are experiencing a lot of 90-degree, high humidity days (my fan is currently on its highest setting!). When deciding on the topic for this month’s Dietitian Dish, the topic felt like a no brainer. With many of you enjoying in-person activities again, discussing how to fuel your body for summer activities and staying hydrated in the heat is important.

Typically, when you think about sports nutrition, you think about organized activities like playing soccer or weight training. I’d like to touch on these activities, but I’d also like to talk about physical activity that may not come to mind when thinking about sports nutrition. For example, have you checked out Zumba or yoga classes at the WVU Rec Center? If not, you definitely should!

The first topic I’d like to jump into is macronutrient requirements for various activities. If you have been following the Dietitian Dish, you probably already guessed that we’ll be covering carbohydrates, as these are essential to all activities! Whether you enjoy taking evening walks after a busy day of classes, getting up early to join a group fitness class at the Rec Center or running mid-day, all of these forms of movement require carbohydrates. Although carbohydrates are essential for daily life regardless of activity level, adding any movement into your daily routine should spark consideration for what types of carbohydrates and how much can make us feel good before, during and after activity.

Pre-workout Nutrition

Pre-workout nutrition ensures that you’ll have adequate energy prior to partaking in physical activity. While it is true that our bodies and brains need carbohydrates regardless of activity, increased movement increases our carbohydrate requirements. Why? Because many of the cells in our body prefer using carbohydrates to function and some cells require carbohydrates for energy unless under starvation conditions (Carbohydrates in the Body, 2020).

Our red blood cells, brain and nervous system all REQUIRE glucose (broken down carbohydrate) to function (you may have also heard this referred to as sugar). With activity or movement, the body needs energy (glucose) to be readily available in the bloodstream, muscles (called muscle glycogen) and liver. When we consume carbohydrates and they are broken down into glucose during the digestion process, our blood sugar (or blood glucose) levels rise, which tells our pancreas to release insulin in the bloodstream. This cascade of events allows glucose to enter our body’s cells to be used for energy. This is how your glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, etc. are able to work and move weight, bust a move in Zumba or change direction during basketball.

Long story short, we need energy in our bloodstream, muscle, liver and more to do the activities that we enjoy, and certain types of carbohydrates are able to provide this energy faster than others. Simple carbs are products and foods that have one or two molecules and are easily broken down to provide quick energy. Simple carbs that are great for pre-workout nutrition a half-hour or hour before your movement activity include sport drinks, fruit, applesauce, fruit snacks, granola bars, pretzels, graham crackers and more. These are digested and provide energy quickly because of their simple structure and low fiber and fat content.

Another option for ensuring proper energy levels is to eat foods that are high in complex carbohydrates and moderate in protein and fat three to four hours before you begin activity. Complex carbohydrates take our body longer to digest due to their more complex chemical structure, vitamins and minerals, proteins and more. Since these structures take longer to break down, consuming these foods with other macronutrients two or more hours before a workout is key. For example, if you are heading to class and plan on hitting the Rail-Trail a couple of hours afterwards, eating a turkey and swiss sandwich, fruit and chocolate milk for lunch can be a great way to meet your energy needs. Other options might include Greek pasta salad, hummus wrap, yogurt, berries and more. Discovering which foods or food combinations work for you and your activity needs takes practice! If you aren’t used to consuming or thinking about pre-movement nutrition, give it a try and see how it feels. If what you selected didn’t work out, be sure to explore other food options, combinations and snack timing to figure out what makes you feel the best!

Carbohydrate Recommendations

Our bodies need different amounts of energy (and carbohydrates) each day due to countless factors. Total energy expenditure is broken down into three main categories: resting energy expenditure (basic life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, etc. all use energy), diet-induced thermogenesis (calories needed to break down and use the food you eat as energy) and activity energy expenditure (sports, walking, movement, etc.) (Guta, et al., 2017). View this energy expenditure chart for more information.

Since this is not a simple thing to calculate, you can’t fully count on calorie estimators based on height and weight, or advanced machines that assess fat and free mass to determine calorie needs. It is important to know what these equations, estimators and machines don’t compute for! For example, caffeine, nicotine and catecholamines (hormones released in the body in response to physical or emotional stress) can all increase your body’s energy needs (Guta, et al., 2017). Additionally, factors such as not getting efficient sleep can increase your body’s energy needs by 5% alone (Markwald, et al., 2013). Other factors that impact total daily energy requirements include age, physical activity, muscle mass, medications, illness, injury, trauma, ethnicity, etc.

While providing an exact calorie or carbohydrate amount is not realistic for almost everyone (excluding hospitalized individuals receiving extensive care), here are some general guidelines to consider:

  1. 45-65% of one’s diet should consist of simple and complex carbohydrates. Check out this great example of a balanced plate.
  2. The type of carbohydrate you consume should depend on timing and activity. Going on a run or joining a Zumba class? Choose a simple carbohydrate snack 30 minutes prior. Playing in a soccer game after class? Choose a complex carbohydrate, moderate fat and protein lunch.
  3. While I don’t advocate for strict calorie counting (because our bodies do that for us through hunger and satiety cues), I find that having a generalized idea of carbohydrate needs can be helpful if you are physically active. Here are some examples of studies that pooled collegiate and professional athletes and their average carbohydrate intake per day (Holway & Spriet, 2011):
    1. Basketball: 46-53% of total calories were carbohydrates
    2. Soccer: 45-60% of total calories were carbohydrates
    3. Football: 44-53% of total calories were carbohydrates
    4. Volleyball: 44-55% of total calories were carbohydrates

If you reflect on your daily meals and snacks, does it seem that almost (if not more) of your yummy foods are carbohydrates? Are you trying to decrease carbohydrate consumption because of our media-crazed world that says you should? Well, let’s consider the downside to low-carbohydrate diets for athletes and those of you who like to maintain a movement filled life. Research suggests that low-carb diets are harmful to your athletic and cognitive performance and can decrease your mood. They also increase your risk for muscle damage (Kressler, et al., 2011; Smith-Ryan & Antonio, 2013). Low-carb diets can also lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, increased tiredness, constipation and “food cravings”. Talk about a nightmare!

Post-workout Nutrition

To avoid carbohydrates completely stealing the show, let’s talk post-workout nutrition! Post-workout information is a popular topic and one that I think can be pretty confusing. Post-workout timing, carbohydrate and protein ratios, and quantity can be tricky to apply to your unique movement routine because there is so much to consider! Interestingly, the idea of timing, quantity and ratio discussions began with college and professional athletes that were doing multiple workouts in one 24-hour period. Their performance decreased during their second workout if they were not replacing the energy, water and electrolytes that they lost during the first session. Because of this, there have been SO MANY studies and recommendations to ensure that performance is optimal in each session. So, how important is post-workout nutrition if you aren't a professional athlete or completing two or more workouts within the same day? It depends!

Let’s break down some general guidelines.

  1. Rate the intensity of your movement activity. For example, if I have a dance party in my kitchen while doing the dishes, it is highly unlikely that I will need post-workout nutrition if I’m consuming a variety of macronutrients throughout my day. On the other hand, if you enjoy activities that are high-intensity or longer in duration, consuming a post-workout recovery snack or meal is a great way to replenish the energy you used.
  2. Think of the four R’s! Refuel, repair and rebuild and rehydrate! Refuel your muscles with carbohydrates, repair your muscles with protein and rehydrate with fluids (and electrolytes when needed).
  3. If you plan to be active twice in one day, consuming a snack 15-60 minutes after the first activity can begin the replenishment and recovery process. Look for a snack that has a 1:2 ratio of protein to carbohydrates. This could include chocolate milk or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you’d rather have a meal, choose options with a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio of protein to carbohydrates. A good example includes chicken breast, teriyaki sauce, brown rice and stir fry veggies.
  4. Don’t forget hydration! It’s important to remember that foods have electrolytes, so and it's not always necessary to replenish them with sports drinks (although I recommend it if your activity is an hour or more). Some indicators of dehydration following an activity include headache, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and changes in mood and thirst. You can assess your hydration status visually by looking at the color of your urine. Dark or low volume urine could be a sign of dehydration. Check out this chart for more information on the science of hydration.

Protein Recommendations

Let's talk about why protein is so important for active folks. Protein makes up tissues, digestive enzymes, hormones, antibodies for our immune system, and more. So obviously, protein is essential!

We discussed carbohydrate recommendations in the form of percentages to assist in translating our body’s needs to snack and meal goals. Now let’s talk about protein goals. While both carbohydrate and protein recommendations can be presented in the form of percentages (10-35% for protein goals), I will present protein requirements in the form of grams. And more specifically, the number of grams or units of protein in a food.

Spreading out your protein intake throughout the day is REALLY important. There is a limit to the amount of protein consumed that can be used for removing damaged proteins in the muscle and replacing them with new proteins to get stronger (muscle protein synthesis). Current evidence suggests that the limit is based on body weight and consistent meals. Protein should be consumed at a minimum of four meals, so excessive quantities are not needed to perform your movement activity and get stronger along the way.

Recommendations for protein intake typically range from 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To calculate this, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. This should be adequate for most athletes, even during some pretty strenuous movement days (Bohe, et al., 2003; Breen & PHilips, 2012). So, what does this look like? A starting place could be to consume at least three meals per day that include protein and 1-3 snacks per day depending on your needs. Check out these protein foods for some great options.

Recovery and Inflammation

Now that we have a good idea about what constitutes pre- and post-workout recovery options, let’s talk about why recovery is important, how inflammation might be involved, and how dietary fat can have a positive impact on performance. We are living in a time where dietary fat is both villainized and prioritized either through restriction or over consumption by sacrificing carbohydrate intake. Dietary fat shouldn’t be restricted because we need it for absorbing essential fat-soluble vitamins for energy (during low to moderate activities) and we need essential fatty acids (American Dietetic Association, 2000).

While dietary fat percentages are typically recommended once carbohydrate and protein requirements are configured, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge importance related to recovery from activity. The importance of recovery from activity can’t be understated, because without proper recovery, injury and decreased performance can ensue. After strenuous physical activity, oxidative stress occurs in our body. Oxidative stress is when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in our body. When the stress of the body is higher than our body’s antioxidants, the uneven number of free radicals (or charged electrons) react easily with other molecules leading to chronic inflammation.

This is where dietary fat comes in! Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (such as seafood, nuts, seeds and plant oils) or monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (like olive oil, peanuts, sunflower oils, avocados, etc.) can assist our body in fighting inflammation to ensure that we recover from our activity (Pramukova, et al., 2011). You may have heard of fish oil supplements that help with recovery and inflammation. Fish oil is filled with omega-3 fatty acids and is recommended for some athletes that are not consuming enough helpful fatty acids in their diet to support recovery. Talk with a registered dietitian for more information related to fish oil supplementation. The recommended dosage for some athletes is 3-4 grams per day of DHA and EPA.

Dietary Fat Recommendation

So, what’s the recommendation for dietary fat consumption? The use of percentages is helpful, but keep in mind that foods like avocados or seafood that are considered to be proteins or carbohydrates have great sources of dietary fat. Dietary fat consumption recommendations are between 20-35% of your total calorie needs. Incorporating foods that have helpful fatty acids on a weekly basis can ensure that you are well on your way towards meeting your body’s needs. Check out this NSWIS article for more information related to foods containing helpful dietary fat.

Whoa - that was long winded! With this rollercoaster of a ride coming to an end, I hope my fellow Mountaineers enjoy the last bit of summer before we are all back together soon! That’s all for now! Until next time...


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