What actually matters when it comes to your nutrition?

What actually matters when it comes to your nutrition?

Emily R Pappas, M.S.


I love talking to female athletes who want to eat healthy and make better decisions when it comes to fueling for their performance.

 

But I often find these girls asking the same types of questions, like: Is eating whole grain better than white? Is fruit better than bread? Is Halo Top better than Ben and Jerry’s?!

 

While these questions are definitely valid, they shouldn’t be the first thing on our minds.

 

Instead of obsessing over what foods are “healthier,” we need to first focus on the foundation of our nutrition.

 

Without establishing a strong dietary base, all the other details—like when you eat and what supplements you may take—will have minimal impact on helping you achieve your high performing goals. 

 

Prioritizing Your Nutrition

 

When fueling for performance, you need to prioritize your nutritional choices based on how much those choices will affect your success.

 

The best way to visualize this is with a pyramid:

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50%: Caloric Intake

 

Caloric intake is the BASE of your nutrition. Eating the right amount of food is going to have the GREATEST impact on your performance.

 

Remember, as a female athlete you are not only expending a lot of energy to perform, but to recover, too. Of course, recovery is crucial for you to perform again, and thus the cycle continues.

 

So, if you are not eating enough food, there is no doubt that your performance will suffer. This is because you are not providing your body with enough fuel to PERFORM and, more importantly, to RECOVER.

 

When you chronically eat fewer calories than the amount of calories you expend (which is easy for high-performing females, especially those playing multiple sports), your body will adapt.

 

However, your body is merely adapting to SURVIVE under these conditions, not necessarily to THRIVE under these conditions.

 

Females that don’t eat enough food for their activity levels over long periods of time expose their body to a lot of undue stress.

 

This stress often leads to injury, sickness, loss of menstruation, high fatigue and irritability, and decreased level of play. [1]

 

If you are a female athlete that’s already not eating enough food, what you are eating doesn’t quite matter as much. Choosing between a sweet potato or a piece of bread with dinner isn’t going to really affect how you play on game day tomorrow.

 

If you really want to be sure you are performing and recovering at the most optimal level possible, simply eating enough food needs to be your first priority.

 

If you find that your weight tends to go down from the start of the season to the end, this is a sign that you are not fueling to optimize your level of play.

 

Athletes who want to “lose fat” should not try to do so when you are required to perform at a high level. Remember, caloric deficits are stressful to the body.  If you want to perform at your best, you need to optimize your recovery to help reduce stress. What are the best ways to recover? Focusing on your sleep and diet!

 

If you want to lose fat, it’s wiser and much safer to do so when you are out of your high-performing season.

 

When it’s time to perform, the goal is to maintain your weight so that the level of calorie expenditure matches your level of intake

30%: Macronutrient Ratio

Once you are eating enough food to optimize your recovery and performance, your second priority is to consider your macronutrient ratio. This is WHERE these calories are coming from, either CARBS, PROTEIN, or FATS.

 

PROTEIN:

For female athletes, the goal is to eat enough protein to minimize muscle loss and help optimize muscle retention and growth.

 

On average, you should aim to consume around 1 gram of protein per 1 pound of body weight. So, if you’re 130 lbs, you should be eating around 130 g of protein. This will equate to around 15-30% of your calories per day depending on your activity level.

 

Once you establish this amount, there is no real benefit of eating more protein. Your body can only add muscle at a particular rate, so eating a surplus of protein will just result in your body using it as a means for energy (instead of as a structural component). If there is no use for that energy, your body will convert it into glucose and store it away. In other words, you can’t use that stored protein as a building block later; that protein is now only good as an energy source. [2]

 

That said, your body still prefers using carbohydrates and fats as energy as they are easier to break down.

 

CARBS:

For female athletes, carbohydrates are the PREFERRED FUEL for high-performing success.

 

The amount of carbs you consume should match the length and intensity of your training (ranging from 1-4 g per lb of body weight). On a tournament day with three matches, this could mean up to 70% of your caloric intake is reserved for carbs. On an easy practice day, it mean just 35% of your intake.

 

Basic rule: if the day is higher intensity and you feel like you are working HARD, then that should be a higher carb day. On less intense days, when you feel like you are able to breathe more, you should consume fewer carbs.

 

FATS:

 

For females, FATS are crucial for both FUEL and STRUCTURE.

 

Fats are a required precursor for many hormones in the body and are found in EVERY SINGLE CELL in our body.  Eating enough fats is essential for a female athlete’s performance, recovery, and menstrual health.

 

For this reason, a female should have a minimum of 10% of your body weight in grams of dietary fat.  So, if you’re 130 lbs, you need a MINIMUM of 13g of fat.  Drop below this level, and you are seriously at risk for affecting your body’s hormonal regulation. [2]

 

Beyond this minimum amount, additional; fats in your diet will be used for slower release energy during lower intensity activity and recovery.

 

When considering how you eat on game day, though, carbs are the fuel your body wants to run on and refill its stores with. Fats, on the other hand, are needed to help you recover and repair for the next game day. [2]

 

You want to balance your consumption of fats and carbs for energy depending on your activity level. So, if you are eating more carbs on a more active day, you don’t need as many fats to help meet your energy needs. And if you are eating LESS carbohydrates on a less active day, you’ll need to meet your energy requirements for recovery by eating MORE fats.

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10%: Nutrient Timing

 

Once you are eating enough protein, carbs, and fats to optimize how you perform and recover, your next priority should be the TIMING of these nutrients.

 

During your game, you may notice that you become fatigued by half-time. But if you TIME your carbohydrate and protein intake appropriately and consume a shake during the game, you are less likely to experience that fatigue.

 

But this will only work if you are already eating enough carbohydrates in general. If you’re not, WHEN you eat them is not really going to matter.

 

Similarly, if you want to promote muscle growth and reduce the chances of muscle loss, eating protein every 2-4 hours can definitely help!  But if you aren’t meeting your total protein requirements to begin with, when you eat them isn’t going to be enough to prevent muscle breakdown. [3]

 

Timing your nutrients is extremely beneficial for high-intensity performance and fast recovery. But timing ONLY has an impact when you have your nutritional base intact: when you’re eating enough and in the right amounts.

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5%: Food Composition

 

When your intake, ratios, and timing are in place, now is when you can ask those burning questions: Is white bread really that much worse than wheat? Is Halo Top really a healthier choice compared to your beloved Ben and Jerry’s?

 

Food composition refers to the amount of non-energy providing nutrients present in the food we choose. We’re talking vitamins and minerals, all which are essential to the thousands of chemical reactions and processes in your body that require them.

 

When making your specific eating choices know that higher refined foods have far less of these nutrients.

 

So, is white bread really worse than wheat? Let’s first make sure you are eating enough food to maintain your weight; consuming the right amounts of protein, fats, and carbs at the right times to optimize your performance. Then, you can worry about the difference between white and wheat. And, yes, wheat bread is going to offer you a greater amount of vitamins and minerals! [4]

 

Without a doubt there is a time and place to discuss the benefits of whole foods and “healthier” alternatives. But this conversation has to happen AFTER everything else on the pyramid has been established.

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5%: Supplements

 

Supplements are a means to SUPPLEMENT your diet. They are a way to fill in some of the cracks found in your pyramid.  

 

Just remember, though, we’re talking cracks NOT gaps.

 

If you are not filling in the base of your pyramid, no amount of multivitamin or BCAA supplement is going to help fill those under-nourished gaps.

 

But that’s not to say supplements can’t help—as long as your base is well-established.

For example, maybe in the winter-time you don’t spend as much time in the sun as you do in the summer. Maybe you also dont get as much vitamin D from your diet because you don’t regularly consume dairy or eggs. Less time in the sun and less variety in your diet means less opportunity for your body to produce  and absorb vitamin D! Taking a vitamin D supplement will help fill the cracks yoru environment and diet lacks. With vitamin D supplements, you will be able to help provide your body with the essential nutrient needed to maintain strong bones, a robust immune system, and high energy levels! [5]

 

Just remember that supplements are NOT the same form of the vitamin that your body may produce (such as vitamin D  in reaction to sunlight) or absorb from your food.

 

Supplements help fill the cracks, but are the LEAST influential when determining how your nutrition is going to affect your recovery and performance.

 

So before you step into a GNC, make sure you’ve got your grocery list set first.

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Priorities Matter

Focusing on improving your diet is NECESSARY for female athletes who want to recover and perform at their highest ability.  

 

When considering what role your nutritional choices have, remember that not all choices are created equal.

 

By establishing a strong nutritional base (see the pyramid!), the more each of your dietary choices will have an impact on your success.

 

When you prioritize your nutrient intake, macronutrient ratio, timing, composition, and supplementation, you better fuel your body for success on the field, court, or weightroom.

 

 

References:

 

[1] Beals, K.A., and M.M. Manore (2002). Disorders of the female athlete triad among collegiate athletes. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 12: 281-293.

[2] Cialdella-Kam, L., and M.M. Manore (2009). Macronutrient needs of active individuals: An update. Nutr. Today 44: 104-111.

[3] Longland, T.M., S.Y. Oikawa, C.J. Mitchell, M.C. Devries, and S.M. Phillips (2016). Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 103: 738-746

[4] Rolls, B.J. (2009). The relationship between dietary energy density and energy intake. Physiol. Behav. 97: 609-615.

[5] Woolf, K., D.L. LoBuono, and M.M. Manore (2013). B Vitamins and the Female Athlete. In: Nutrition and the Female Athlete: From Research to Practice, 2nd Ed. 2013, pp 139-182. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL..