As an athlete, you work hard during the day. Do you know how your food is working for you?
Food is our fuel. It gives our body energy to pump blood through our body, think, move and complete daily responsibilities. As athletes, food helps us run, jump, and perform our best.
There are three types of essential nutrients we get from food that provide a source of energy: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. These are our “macronutrients”. Vitamins, minerals, water, and oxygen are other nutrients our bodies need to survive. However, only the macronutrients provide us with energy. This energy is in the form of kilocalories, commonly known as “calories.”
CARBOHYDRATES are made up of chains of sugar molecules, or monosaccharides. When carbohydrates are digested, the body breaks down the sugar molecules, which are absorbed and used to create “ATP,” a form of energy used by every cell in the body.
Our body loves carbohydrates, and for good reason! Carbohydrates are the most efficient source of energy and are especially helpful in fueling high-intensity exercise. In addition to giving us energy, carbohydrates are important because they:
- Are the preferred energy for the brain and the central nervous system
- Optimize muscle glycogen stores needed to fuel muscle contraction
- Aid in recovery from high-intensity exercise
- Help us convert other macronutrients into fuel our body can use
- Are found in whole foods alongside other key nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber
Nutrient-rich sources of carbohydrate include whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, whole grain cereal, rice & pasta, beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, low fat yogurt and milk.
FAT is another macronutrient needed for energy and other key functions involved in optimizing health and performance. The types of fats naturally found in foods are: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats. There are two “essential” unsaturated fatty acids that we must get from our food: linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. We get these types of fats from nuts, seeds, oils, avocados, and fish.
Fat, like carbohydrate, is a major source of ATP production & energy during exercise. It is especially helpful in fueling long-duration exercise. Fat is also important because it plays an important role in:
- Protecting key organs
- Helping the body absorb fat-soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, and K)
- Supporting growth and brain development
- Synthesizing hormones
- Aiding in immune system function
PROTEIN is the third essential macronutrient. Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids. Our body can make some amino acids, but we must get other amino acids from our food. There are 8 of these “essential” amino acids.
Since protein is a macronutrient, it can be used for energy. However, only 5-15% of our energy comes from protein.
Protein serves many other roles. It is the building block of all tissue in the body and is used to build and repair tissue post-exercise. Proteins are also important because they:
- Provide the structural framework of muscle, bone, tendons, and ligaments
- Aid in immune system function
- Are needed to make hormones, which act as messengers in the body
- Act as enzymes, which help important chemical reactions in the body happen
- Help maintain fluid balance in the body
- Support growth
Interestingly, if we are not eating enough carbohydrate, our body will break down muscle protein to provide energy; however, we want to preserve or “spare” our body protein for the other important roles it plays.
Nutrient-rich sources of proteins include lean beef, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, low fat dairy, beans & legumes. Nuts and some vegetables also contain smaller amounts of protein. It is important to get protein from a variety of food sources to optimize intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
To perform well, athletes must train smart and get enough energy from nutrient-rich sources of carbohydrate, fat, and protein. If not, you’ll simply run out of steam.
Choose a variety of foods providing these essential macronutrients to keep your food working for you.
Rosenbloom, C. & Coleman, E. (2012). Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th Edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Whitney, E.N., Rolfe, S.R. (2015). Understanding Nutrition, 14th edition. Cengage Learning.