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The nutritional requirements of the general population differ from those of athletes. Basic recommendations designed for the general population include: following a healthy eating pattern throughout the lifespan, focus on an assortment of nutrient dense foods, limit calories obtained from sugar and fat, and decrease consumption of sodium. A healthy eating pattern would limit trans-fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. An example of variety and nutrient dense foods would include fruits and vegetables of different colors, including starchy vegetables; whole grains; fat-free or low-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, and cheese); a assortment of protein, including seafood, lean meats, eggs, beans, and nuts. The USDA Food Pattern is based on a two-thousand-calorie pattern. This pattern recommends two to three cups of vegetables, two cups of fruit, six ounces of grains, three cups of dairy, and five to six ounces of protein each day for each food group (US Department of Health and Human Services 2015 pgs. 14-22). These are the recommendations designed for the general population of the United States. There are many individuals whose nutrition requirements may vary from those of the general population, in particular athletes require different nutritional needs. The nutritional requirements of athletes can be further broken down by the type of athlete, (endurance, strength/power, intermittent), as well as pre-competition, nutrition during activity and nutrition after activity is complete.
Endurance athletes need to develop a nutritional plan that will help them compete for longer periods of time. These athletes rely significantly upon carbohydrates to get them through their competitions. Throughout intense training and competition an athlete should increase consumption of carbohydrates to seventy percent of total calories consumed (ACSM 2009). It becomes even more important for an athlete to consume a pre-competition meal or a snack high in carbohydrates if the athlete has only consumed insignificant quantities of carbohydrates in the days before the competition, as well as if the athlete has not had an appropriate amount of rest (Rodriguez 2009). The combination of carbohydrate in addition to protein has been shown to improve performance and decrease muscle damage in endurance athletes. Immediately before an exceptionally long competition in which it might not be possible to eat, endurance athletes should consume low-glycemic foods. Low-glycemic foods release glucose gradually which will give the athlete a continual supply of glucose for a longer period of time (Rosa 2011). Consuming protein, specifically branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), such as chicken, beans, or whole wheat products, throughout endurance exercise might postpone exhaustion (Javierre 2010). Quickly consuming high quantities of carbohydrates for four to six hours following competition can stimulate the replacement of muscle glycogen (Kerksick 2017). Foods high in unsaturated fats, such as avocado, fish, and almonds, deliver plenty of energy for endurance athletes (Giuliani 2011). Endurance athletes must also pay special attention to fluid replacement before, during and following intense training and competition, particularly if exercise extends to more than sixty minutes. A six to eight percent carbohydrate/sodium beverage is suggested to replenish fluid throughout and following competition. Carbohydrate beverages have additionally been shown to promote performance and provide steady blood glucose concentrations. In certain circumstances an endurance athlete might wish to lose weight. Losing weight gradually is the best method because muscle loss is less likely, and performance will not suffer.
Strength/power athletes are normally weight lifters and sprinters. Their competitions are normally an all-out effort that is quick and does not require an extended amount of time to complete. These athletes normally consume very large amounts of protein, mostly from liquids and protein powders. The type of protein consumed is important. Whey and casein protein are better absorbed than protein from vegetable sources. Studies have indicated that the small intestine absorbs protein more efficiently in its more complex forms that come from consuming meat (Wolfe 2000). Individuals involved in strength/power sports require a lower overall consumption of carbohydrates and need to concentrate more on the consumption of carbohydrates in the days immediately ahead of the competition rather than a steady intake of carbohydrates (Escobar 2016). Strength/power athletes, particularly weight lifters and gymnasts are at risk for marginal nutrition because of pressure to maintain a certain physique. These types of athletes consistently fall short on enough carbohydrates, protein and fat that is necessary during times of intense training. Because of this, strength/power athletes are more likely to take vitamins and supplements. When vitamin consumption from regular food sources, such as fruits and vegetables, is at recommended levels, supplementation has shown no beneficial outcome on protection from muscle injury or healing for strength/power athletes (Yfanti 2010). The only time that vitamin supplementation would benefit an athlete would be when energy intake is inadequate or poor nutritional selections are made and the athlete is not consuming acceptable quantities of fruits and vegetables (Manore 2000). A vegetarian athlete might not be able to acquire an acceptable amount of protein from vegetable sources; therefore, supplementation may be required.
The intermittent athlete is an athlete, such as a football player, who participates in one to five minute stretches with short recovery intervals in between. Even with a smaller duration of exercise, muscle glycogen reserves are still depleted significantly (Gomez 2008). Consuming protein and carbohydrates throughout exercise lengthens the time for muscles to fatigue and decreases muscle damage (Hulston 2010). These athletes turn to energy or protein bars because they are able to be consumed quickly. While these bars typically contain approximately twenty-five grams of carbohydrates, and fifteen grams of protein, they should only be used on occasion and should not be used as a meal replacement because they are somewhat high in fat. Hydration is particularly important for football players who frequently practice and play during the summertime months while temperatures are at an extreme. It is recommended that athletes consume at least five-hundred milliliters of fluid, particularly one with sodium, in the few hours before exercise, and enough to prevent weight loss during and following exercise (Sawka 2007).
The Zone Diet is a diet that is popular with athletes. While on the Zone Diet, each meal contains one-third protein, two-thirds carbohydrates, as well as a small amount of fat. Calories are calculated on this diet, with women allowed approximately twelve-hundred calories each day, whereas men are allowed approximately fifteen-hundred calories each day. While on the diet, the athlete is required to have breakfast within one hour of waking up, never allow five hours to pass without eating, and have a small snack before going to sleep every night (Sears 2009).
The Eat Clean Diet is a nutrition plan that calls for five to six meals every day, every two or three hours. Every meal consists of a lean protein along with a complex carbohydrate. Processed and pre-packaged foods are not permitted, as well as no sugar, soft drinks, juices, or alcohol. It is also recommended to consume two to three liters of water every day. This diet might be difficult to follow for busy athletes because of the restriction on pre-packaged foods.
Another diet popular among athletes that is similar to the Eat Clean Diet is the Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet includes any foods that could be found by hunters and gatherers. Grains, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, salt, as well as any pre-packaged foods are not permitted. The restrictions of this diet make it more challenging to consume carbohydrates which might pose a problem to athletes before and during competition, since carbohydrates are the best form of energy. As with the Eat Clean Diet, the Paleo Diet may be difficult because of the restriction on pre-packaged foods.
The nutritional requirements of the three different categories of athletes, are very similar to one another. Ingesting carbohydrates before and throughout competition is the key to meeting energy requirements particularly for endurance athletes. Protein is also recommended for all athletes, particularly strength/power athletes and endurance athletes. Fat consumption for athletes should stay in the range of twenty to thirty-five percent of daily caloric intake. It is not recommended to consume excessive fat in the diet as the risks of too much fat outweighs any benefits. Hydration is important for athletes, particularly those who exercise and compete in a hot environment. Staying hydrated before, during, and following competition is particularly important. Consuming a beverage with sodium is recommended to replace any electrolytes lost through sweating. Sports and exercise dieticians frequently recommend the Zone, Eat Clean, and Paleo diet plans for athletes to follow because these diets typically provide enough nutrients and energy to meet an athlete’s requirements. While the nutritional requirements of the general population differ from those of an athlete, the nutritional requirements between the three athletes are generally very similar with slight differences in some areas based on the type and duration of exercise.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
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