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Healthy Eating for Optimal Health and Performance

Making healthy choices is a key to long-term health and optimal athletic performance. By following some basic sports nutrition principles, you can positively influence your ability to make gains both on the field and in the weight room.  

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Consuming a minimum of five servings per day is recommended by most dietary experts. Fruits and vegetables are rich in essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals and they are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Produce is nutrient dense, meaning it contains a high nutritional content at a relatively low caloric cost. Be sure to choose a rainbow of colors when selecting your fruits and vegetables every day. Aim for: green (both dark and light shades) as found in broccoli, spinach and Romaine lettuce; orange (carrots, oranges, peppers, sweet potatoes); red (peppers, tomatoes, strawberries); and purple (blackberries, blueberries, beets). Adding these key ingredients to shakes and smoothies is an excellent way to ensure that athletes consume adequate amounts of these valuable foods.
  • Drink enough water. Water is essential for tissue health and most of our essential bodily functions. Dehydration can lead to stress on our organs and can also result in diminished cognitive and motor function. Health experts suggest the rule of thumb of dividing your body weight in half to determine how many ounces of water you should consume each day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should consume a minimum of 75 ounces of water daily. Higher fluid requirements would apply to athletes who are actively practicing, training and competing, especially in warm and humid climates. Consistent timing of fluid consumption before, during and after exercise also plays a role in optimal performance. Keep in mind that if you are experiencing thirst, you are most likely already dehydrated or well on your way.
  • Limit processed salty and fatty foods. Foods that have been heavily processed typically contain large amounts of unhealthy fats, added sugars and salt. Processed foods are also low in nutrient density, meaning they provide little nutritional value and a high calorie cost. Studies link highly processed diets with the development of a host of medical problems like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. For athletes, eating highly processed foods can impede performance by creating blood sugar swings and stress on the gastrointestinal system during practice and competition. In the grocery store and kitchen, focus on natural food sources that are rich in nutrients and low in processed ingredients. Learn to recognize hidden sources of less healthy ingredients (added sugar may be listed as corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate or molasses).
  • Eating at proper intervals throughout the day. Eating according to a regular schedule keeps blood sugar levels stable and provides a working body the essential fuel it needs for consistent performance. Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that enable energy production for everyone. For athletes, carbohydrates provide glucose necessary to replace glycogen stores that become depleted from working muscles and organs during practice and competition. Consuming carbohydrates at regular intervals (before, during and after competition) ensures consistent sport performance and recovery.
  • Type of carbohydrate may impact performance. Power and endurance athletes alike need energy to perform at their best. Their muscles convert stored glycogen to produce energy needed for muscle function. Demands placed on the body related to the length of time spent on each repetition, play or overall length of practice and competition may dictate which type of carbohydrate is best. In fact, the type of carbohydrate ingested before, during and after physical activity can be the difference between an ideal performance and a sub-par outcome. While this topic is complex and goes beyond the scope of this article, the following tips can guide the average baseball player and family toward maximizing carbohydrate choices: Although baseball practices and games can last well over two hours, these events are characterized by periods of sub-maximal physical activity and even several minutes of complete rest in between innings. Baseball players should be aware that the type and timing of food consumed during their sport can make or break their performance. By using a tool called the glycemic index (GI), athletes can determine which foods will produce a steady, sustained blood sugar level versus a more rapid and short term response. It's wise to choose lower GI foods to establish a pre-game and pre-practice base level (such as a whole grain pita stuffed with some turkey breast or an apple spread with peanut butter) and to carefully snack on small amounts of higher GI foods (such as a diluted 6-percent carbohydrate sports drink (14 grams per 8 oz.), a banana or even a smaller portion of a peanut-based candy bar) to sustain blood sugar levels and avoid fatigue and decreases in cognition and motor performance.
  • Protein Supplementation has garnered significant attention in the world of athletics. Dietary Supplements including protein represent a multimillion-dollar industry in the United States. The truth is that many athletes do not understand the functions of protein or protein metabolism and therefore rely on nonscientific anecdotes for their information. Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein and are what the body uses to fuel many critical bodily functions. Protein is an important nutrient and a key to muscle building, repair and recovery. It is also an important component of immune function, bone formation, blood cell metabolism and the growth of our hair and nails. There are many healthy sources of protein that athletes can consume as meals and all-important recovery snacks. Eggs, beef, poultry, pork, fish, beans, dairy products and some beans and nuts are just a few examples of natural sources of protein. Consumption of these protein-rich foods at the appropriate times before and after activity can set an athlete up for more efficient muscle building and repair. Commercial protein-based products can be considered for use to supplement a diet that is deficient in dietary protein, but consumers run the risk of cross-contamination with other additives or contents that may not be listed on a product label. Products like whey or soy protein powder may be added to a diet as a way to boost total protein intake for the day, but these products are not necessary if the amount of daily dietary protein consumed through food sources is high enough and occurs at the right times. Consumption of any dietary supplement like Protein should be done under the supervision of a trained professional like a registered dietician who understands the pros and cons associated with use. A simple way of determining the correct amount of protein required for an average adult, age 18 and older is to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Individuals between ages 14-18 need slightly more (0.85 and 0.39). Athletes require more protein than the averages stated, but how much more is dependent upon age, type of activity, intensity and duration of activity. The timing of consumption is also critical for optimal digestion and utilization. Since different sources of protein break down at different rates, ingesting smaller amounts of protein at every meal throughout the day from a variety of sources helps to optimize absorption and utilization. To avoid gastrointestinal distress, limit the amount of protein consumed before practice and competition and shift intake to post activity or early (several hours) pre-activity. Eating a variety of foods including some protein actually helps to speed the breakdown and absorption of protein. Digestion of carbohydrates triggers the release of insulin which makes cells more receptive to Amino Acids and allows the body to more efficiently utilize them to build and repair muscle tissue. Studies show that consuming 10-15 grams of protein within 30-45 minutes of exercise is optimal for muscle growth and repair. An excellent post exercise recovery meal suggested by many experts that contains a balance of Carbohydrate, Protein and Fat is 12 ounces of chocolate milk (whole or 2 percent) and two tablespoons of peanut butter on white bread.

Important Tips and Reminders

  • Minimum of five servings of fruits/vegetables per day -- a rainbow of colors.
  • Hydration: 50 percent of body weight. One ounce per pound (athletes may need more).
  • Slowly replace weight lost during a workout with 20 ounces of water per pound lost.
  • Avoid salty, fatty and processed foods, particularly before games and practices.
  • Graze all day; eat smaller amounts of mixed nutrients every two hours.
  • Use the Glycemic Index (GI) to select lower GI foods and balance your blood sugar before and during activity and smaller amounts of high GI foods during activity.
  • Protein: 0.8 to 1.1 grams per kilogram of body weight per day based on activity in small amounts over the course of the day. 10-15 grams of protein with carbohydrate within 30-45 minutes of exercise is optimal for muscle growth and repair.

References

Burke, L.M., Collier, G.R., & Hargreaves, M. 1993. Muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise: Effect of the glycemic index of carbohydrate feeding. Journal of Applied Physiology, 75, 1019-23.

Kirwan, J.P., O'Gorman, D., & Evans, W.J. 1998. A moderate glycemic meal before endurance exercise can enhance performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 84 (1), 53-9.

Manore, Melinda M. 2004 IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 1, Number 4

Skolnik, H., & Chernus, A., 2010. Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance

Edited by Courtney Sansonetti, RD, CDE, CD-N, Medical Nutrition Therapist for Rehab Assoc. Inc.

 

Courtesy of Jim Ronai MS PT ATC, L, CSCS, Member of the USA Baseball Medical & Safety Advisory Committee, Director of PT/Sports Medicine at Rehabilitation Associates Inc., and Jim Ronai's Competitive Edge Sports Performance, LLC.