Good nutrition makes body well-oiled machine

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Agnes Regidor
  • Health and Wellness Center
Whether it's playing football, swimming or jogging, athletes need to eat a nutritious and balanced diet to fuel their body.

Good nutrition, like any sporting event, has basic ground rules. Following these rules and getting plenty of practice will help athletes feel great and score those winning points.

All athletes need a diet that provides enough energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats as well as essential protein, vitamins and minerals. This means a diet containing 55 to 60 percent of calories from carbohydrates. No more than 30 percent of calories from fat. The remaining 10 to15 percent should be from protein.

Athletes eat a variety of foods every day -- grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. The base of the diet should come from carbohydrates in the form of starches and sugars. Fluids -- especially water -- are also important to the winning combination. Dehydration can stop even the finest athletes from playing their best game.

When starches or sugars are eaten, the body transforms them to glucose, the only form of carbohydrate used directly by muscles for energy. Whether carbohydrates are in the form of starches (in vegetables and grains), sucrose (table sugar), fructose (found in fruits and juices) or lactose (milk sugar), carbohydrates are digested and ultimately changed to glucose.

The body uses glucose in the blood for energy. Most glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. During exercise, glycogen is broken down in the muscles and provides energy. Usually, there is enough glycogen in muscles to provide fuel for 90 to 120 minutes of exercise.

Most exercise and sport games do not use up glycogen stores, so eating carbohydrates during the activity usually isn't needed. But for some athletes, eating or drinking carbohydrates during exercise helps maintain their blood glucose and energy levels.

Most athletes need not be concerned with "carbohydrate loading," the special technique of eating a lot of carbohydrates for several days before an endurance event. Instead, focus on getting enough carbohydrates everyday. 

Muscles develop from training and exercise. A certain amount of protein is needed to help build the muscles, but a nutritious and balanced diet that includes two or three servings from the meat, bean and egg group and two to three servings of dairy every day will supply all of the protein the muscles need.

Extra servings of protein in foods or protein supplements do not assist in muscle development. Unlike carbohydrates, protein cannot be stored in the body and any excess will be burned for energy or stored as body fat.

The most important thing before, during and after exercse is to concentrate on eating a nutritious, balanced diet. This provides plenty of energy to grow and exercise. Here are a few tips about eating before, during and after exercise.

Before exercise. 
  • Have some high carbohydrate foods like bananas, bagels or fruit juices. These foods are broken down quickly and provide glucose to the muscles. 
  •  The timing of the meal depends on athletes' preference for eating before exercise. However, researchers have found that eating something from one to four hours before exercise helps keep plenty of blood glucose available for working muscles. 
  •  It is also critical to drink plenty of water before exercise to keep muscles hydrated.
During exercise.
  • Perspiration and exertion deplete the body of fluids necessary for optimal performance and lead to dehydration. It is important to drink plenty of cool water. Drink at least a half a cup of water for every 20 minutes of exercise. Adding a teaspoon of sugar, a little fruit juice or a small amount of powdered drink mix gives flavor to plain water and may encourage fluid intake. 
  •  Usually there is no need to worry about replacing carbohydrates unless the exercise lasts more than 90 minutes. 
After exercise.
  • If the exercise was strenuous and lasted a long time, glycogen stores may need refueling. Consuming foods and beverages high in carbohydrates right after exercise will replenish glycogen stores if they are low.
No matter the intensity of the exercise, it's important to drink plenty of water and eat a nutritious and balanced meal that has lots of carbohydrate rich foods such as grains, pastas, potatoes, vegetables and fruits.