Youth and teenage athletes must develop good eating habits that will last them a lifetime. This is the best time to introduce a healthy lifestyle, so they can make the connection between input and output; what we put into our bodies is directly linked to what we get out of our bodies. A bag of chips won’t get you through a 90-minute game in the hot afternoon sun. Good nutrition will not only benefit the soccer athlete; healthy eating habits are important for people of every age and form the foundation for healthy living.
There are three basic macronutrients that make up the basis of our diet: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Each macronutrient is essential in its own right, and is a necessary component for a healthy, well-rounded diet. A basic guideline is to eat meals consisting of 65% carbohydrate, 20% protein and 15% fat. Of course, estimations can be made, but the only true way to accomplish this is to weigh our foods.
The soccer player should have a healthy-eating checklist that includes the following:
- Eat breakfast seven days a week
- Eat three to four balanced meals at the same time each day
- Have a nutritious mid-morning snack
- Eat two to three pieces of fresh fruit per day
- Eat four to five servings of fresh vegetables each day (not out of a can!)
- Eat whole-grain breads or cereals high in fiber
- Eat lean, low-fat proteins (chicken, tuna, steak) at each meal
- Have a nutritious snack an hour before a workout
- Have a nutritious snack 30-45 minutes post workout
- Eat a well-balanced meal two to three hours before competition
Carbohydrates are the first energy source expended by the body during activity. They are easily mobilized and directly available in the bloodstream. Our skeletal muscle needs this quick energy source readily available throughout the course of activity. As we see from marathon runners and their pre-race pasta parties, carbohydrates are necessary to sustain peak levels of performance.
There are three different types of carbohydrates that can be derived from our food choices: slow, moderate, and fast absorbing carbohydrates. Each have their place, and must be included in a well-balanced diet.
Fast-absorbing carbs can be utilized for quick energy almost immediately after consumption. Examples include waffles, pancakes, potatoes, bagels, sport drinks, corn chips, and some fruits, such as watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple. The best time to eat these are prior to athletic activity, and immediately post-exercise to replenish lost carbohydrate stores. But, be wary, because the body burns these types of carbohydrates so quickly, a “crash” can result if the body is not properly fueled with other foods at regular intervals throughout the day.
These carbs are the in-between choices that absorb just a little more slowly than those in the fast-absorbing category. Examples include whole-grain breads, high-fiber cereal, brown rice, pasta, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, fruit juice, bananas, grapes and raisins.
Slow-absorbing carbs are good for long-term dietary maintenance of carbohydrate levels. They are good to include pre-activity to increase energy stores for the long-term, so they are readily available when they’re needed. Examples include apples, cherries, peaches, plums, pears, chick peas, milk, yogurt, eggplant, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.
Protein is important for the restoration of muscle fibers following the breakdown that occurs with exercise. First-choice protein sources include lean meats, such as fat-trimmed beef or pork, chicken, white tuna in water and non-fried seafood. Second choice sources will come from dairy, nuts and seeds, and include milk, soy milk, yogurt, beans, peas, lentils, soy foods and peanut butter.
Fat is the secondary source of energy, and is often utilized during long bouts of exercise or activity. It is an essential part of the body’s composition and must be included in the athlete’s diet. Many diet and nutritional books advocate avoiding fats, but realize the body needs fats to protect the organs and maximize athletic composition. Of course, there are good fats and bad fats. Saturated fat, is the bad fat the body does not need, most often found in fried foods, fast foods and in animal fats like cheese, cream and butter. Polyunsaturated fat should be limited, and are found in vegetable oils and processed margarine. The best fats are monounsaturated fats, found in whole foods such as olives, extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, fish, clams, oysters, scallops, nuts and natural peanut butter.
The essential thing to understand about caloric intake is the simple concept of input versus output. Calories are a way to measure the energy value of a food product. An athlete’s caloric intake for the day is dictated by how much energy will be expended that day.
Baseline caloric intake can be calculated by multiplying body weight in pounds times 15. For example, a 150-pound athlete must consume 2,250 calories per day in order to maintain their current body weight. Work from this baseline to accommodate for higher- and lower-activity days, and adjust the total caloric intake based on goals of weight gain or loss.
For more information in regards to nutrition, please be sure to check out Soccer Injury Prevention and Treatment: A Guide to Optimal Performance for Players, Parents, and Coaches written by John Gallucci Jr., MS, ATC, PT, DPT.