Feeding Your Athlete

20 Aug

Around here, morning PT is mandatory. Our husbands and wives are up at 0400 (that’s oh-dark-hundred, in case you’re wondering – WAY too early for civilized human beings to be conscious!) running, doing calisthenics, and getting ready for their day. We’re told that once they get to their permanent duty station, PT will usually be done on your own, but in the Army, PT is always mandatory. Even the wimpiest MOS (job title) can receive promotion points for excelling on the PT test, so it’s pretty important!

In BCT, many of our husbands are taught how to eat, but some of them don’t retain much of that information! And feeding a high-performance athlete is like fueling up an expensive racecar: You don’t just use any old fuel. So how do we feed our spouses and still maintain a decent food budget AND not have to do a ton of extra work?

Unique Challenges

  1. In order to have enough fuel to perform well as an athlete, a Soldier will be taking in substantially more calories, more fat, and more protein than a sedentary person. If your husband’s activity levels change significantly (for example, if he is injured and not allowed to train for awhile), his diet should also change. You’ll need to adjust portion sizes downward, but you’ll also need to more carefully monitor fat and calorie intake.
  2. A Soldier’s diet will work well for the rest of the family IF the family is physically active, too. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you’re feeding a toddler or a teenager, most of this will work fine. But if you’re a sedentary person, eating an athlete’s diet can easily lead to obesity. Unless you’re disabled, get active! It’s the best way to ensure your own health and in the long run it will minimize the amount of work you’ll have to do on meal preparation!
  3. Many athletes (especially those working on bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc.) will require a substantial amount of protein, and this can get expensive. Add more protein through nuts, beans, whole grains, and dairy products. Protein doesn’t just have to be meat.
  4. On the other hand, an athlete NEEDS some animal products if they’re competing at higher levels. We’ll discuss this below. The point is that some of the essential elements of an athlete’s diet cannot be found in plants and cannot be found in a plant-based supplement.

Your Intuition is Wrong

When my oldest son was in first grade (before we started homeschooling), he went through a phase where he would refuse to eat almost everything. He wouldn’t eat meats or cheeses because there was too much fat in them, and he would ask us before every meal if there were any fat or calories in the food we were serving. Some teacher at his school had given his class a lecture on the dangers of fat and calories. Of course, for a little kid, it’s hard to even know what fat and calories ARE! But I had a son who was extremely physically active and in no danger of becoming overweight. Moreover, I seldom serve fast food or heavily processed foods, so even when my family does eat “fat”, it’s usually a healthy fat.

This is where feeding an athlete seems counter-intuitive.

We have all heard a lot of myths that are plain wrong, but when feeding an athlete, these myths can be harmful.

Myth: The best way to lose weight/maintain weight is to diet.
Fact: Dieting doesn’t really do that much to help you lose weight or maintain your weight, not nearly as much as exercise. A single pound of body fat requires about 3,500 calories to burn. Therefore, if you have a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day, it would (theoretically) take you a week to burn a single pound of fat, and if your body doesn’t have adequate fuel, you’re likely to burn muscle as well. The best way to lose body fat (NOT weight, as muscle weighs more than fat) is to increase lean muscle mass. This increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR) which means that you burn more fat even when you’re sedentary. The best way to maintain a healthy weight is to exercise. This doesn’t mean that your weight will perfectly align with those BMI calculators; lean and muscular people often appear “overweight” or even “obese” on those scales. But it does mean that you will have a healthy weight and a lean appearance.

Myth: Eating fatty food makes you fat.
Fact: Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat as long as it is HEALTHY fat. Within our bodies, fat is used for a variety of valuable things. Fat helps us to regulate appetite by giving us a feeling of satiety (fullness). It stores a number of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. It is critical for proper neurological functioning; higher-level thinking skills, reaction times, mood, and judgement all suffer when fat intake is insufficient. For an athlete, fat is essential because it helps to lubricate your joints and promotes rapid neurological response, both of which can help to decrease injury in training. Fat seldom needs to be added to the diet, but is prevalent in most sources of protein. (In fact, the extremely low fat content of most vegetarian diets is one of the reasons I don’t recommend them.)

You may have heard about the difference between “good fats” and “bad fats”. The biggest difference is that “good fats” are from natural sources, whereas “bad fats” are often the result of some wholly unnatural man-made process. Trans fats are the result of hydrogenating an oil (usually vegetable oil), usually to extend shelf life or to turn a liquid (vegetable oil) into a solid (shortening). Hydrogenated oils are often used in commercial food products as an attempt to mimic the texture and mouthfeel of butter while using (less expensive!) vegetable oils. Needless to say, there’s really NOTHING good about hydrogenated oils unless you’re preparing for the zombie apocalypse! Saturated fats are generally found in animal products (dairy, meat, etc.) and tropical oils (palm oil, coconut oil, etc.). These oils have a pretty bad reputation – they were the “evil fat” before trans fat hatred became a big deal. The truth is that an active person can derive great benefit from the saturated fats because they’re a highly efficient source of energy and they do help with calcium. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, they’re absolutely essential! Then comes polyunsaturated fats; these include the Omega-3 and Omega-6 that we all hear so much about. These are great fats for brain growth and development, but they’re not found in very high amounts in commercialized Western diets. Omega-3 fatty acids are almost doubled in meat that was grass-fed (not grain-fed, as in a feedlot). Then finally, we get to the monounsaturated fats (MUFAs): These are some of the best fats and should be encouraged! These are found in red meat, milk fat, avocados, olive oil, and nuts (especially fatty nuts like cashews), and because of the way they affect insulin resistance in the body, they are great for helping to maintain (or reach!) a healthy weight.

Myth: Cholesterol is a terrible thing.
Fact: Sometimes. Some people do tend to have high cholesterol, and those people should obviously follow doctor’s orders. But cholesterol is also an essential part of a healthy diet, especially for (are you sensing a theme here yet?) athletes and pregnant or breastfeeding women. In addition to helping insulate nerves (to allow faster communication along the nervous system), cholesterol is absolutely critical for the formation of sex hormones. For a woman of childbearing age who is not pregnant or nursing, cholesterol allows her body to more efficiently form progesterone and estrogen which can help to regulate mood. For an athlete, cholesterol is used to synthesize testosterone, which is essential for helping to build muscle mass. As with fat, cholesterol has its own benefits.

So Now What?

First, talk with your athlete and find out what his goals are. You may want to speak to a nutritionist if there are special dietary needs (diabetes, Celiac’s, etc.) within your family. Some personal trainers have a strong background in sports nutrition and can be useful resources as well. His goal will help you to determine how best to customize his diet.

If he wants to build muscle mass, don’t worry about fat or cholesterol: focus on protein. Protein shakes and protein-filled snacks can help him to take in more protein than he normally would.

If he wants to slim down, focus on lean sources of food and healthy fats. Protein is a key here, but in healthier forms. Protein helps to keep you full which helps you to regulate your appetite better. Sugar should be eliminated or avoided as much as possible if fat loss is the goal; blood sugar fluctuations are some of they biggest causes of food cravings. And while it’s important all the time, make sure to take a multi-vitamin if you’re trying to slim down. Focus on chicken, fish, nuts, and beans (savory, not too sweet).

If he wants to train for something specific, like a specific race or athletic event, work with him to adapt his diet to meet his training needs. Competitions can alter regular dietary schedules.

In any event, try to remember a few things:

  1. Snacks are good as long as they’re healthy snacks. Small frequent meals and mini-meals help to regulate blood sugar and maintain good health.
  2. Spices are always a good idea. Using seasonings and spices can make healthy foods taste great!
  3. Always choose complex carbohydrates over simple sugars whenever you have the choice.
  4. Whenever possible, try to choose foods as close to nature as possible. For example, most conventional cattle are treated with hormones designed to help increase weight gain in cattle; when you eat the beef, those same hormones enter your body. Is it really that far-fetched to think that they might just increase weight gain in humans, too?

With all that in mind, I’ll be back in a couple of days to share some of my favorite portable protein recipes!

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