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Sports Nutrition Series - Food & Nutrition, Key Components for Athletic Performance

For an athlete or for any active individual, there is no substitute or supplement for a well balanced diet. Proper nutrition is key for overall health and good athletic performance. Therefore, it is important to ensure that an athlete is consuming foods high in nutritive value.

Since every athlete has unique energy needs and goals, there is no one diet plan that may work for all. There is no one singular food that gives you a boost to make you a better, faster and stronger athlete overnight. It is about a combination of various nutritious foods combined with a training plan, that make a better athlete.

Some foods pack more of a punch when it comes to nutritive values than others. Increasing the amount of nutrients in the body helps to meet an individual's nutritional needs. Fundamentally an athlete needs to consume adequate calories through a balanced diet that is predominant in whole foods.

Nutrition for Athletes & Improving Nutritive Value of Foods

  • Protein is a key component of a healthy diet. It is crucial for building muscle, burning fat and vital for recovery after exercise. Include a serving of good quality protein in every meal whenever possible.

  • Athletes consuming protein powders should check the ingredient list and stick to good quality natural protein powders without all the artificial sweeteners.

  • Make your plate as colourful as possible by including a variety of vegetables and fruits in your meals. Fruits and vegetables are an essential component of a healthy diet providing the body with a mix of nutrients it needs.

  • In order to get the benefit of all the essential amino acids(proteins) in a vegetarian diet, it is advisable to use a mixture of more than one or two varieties of grains. Mixing pulses with cereals increases its protein content. For example, mix pulses or lentils with rice or wheat; mix pulses or lentils (beans) with millet jowar or bajra. Khichdi is a classic example.

  • Complex carbohydrates are the basis of energy sources and can boost the energy production in sportspersons. For example beans, oatmeal, quinoa, barley, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and many other plant foods.

  • Sugars, fried foods and heavily processed foods should be avoided. Eating sugary foods offer no nutritional value and can also lead to an athlete “crashing” during a workout. Fried foods should be avoided prior to competition because they can make an athlete feel drowsy and lead to a loss of concentration.

  • A healthy wholesome breakfast is essential for an athlete's high-energy day. It also helps to stabilise blood sugars through the day while keeping cravings away. However, the timing of breakfast is important. It should be consumed a couple of hours prior to exercise or within an hour of training/exercise.

  • Sweet potatoes are slow-release carbohydrates with good fibre content. They help recharge muscle glycogen, help in quick recovery and boost lung capacity. It helps jumpstart the athletes' immune system.

  • Carrots contain beta carotene which helps in recovery. Vitamin K in carrots helps in blood clotting and building of bones.

  • Spinach consumption in athletes is known to reduce oxidative stress and muscle damage.

  • Red tomatoes contain lycopene which is known to boost lung function thereby enhancing endurance levels in training.

  • Kidney beans/rajma help moderate sugar levels. Canned beans are safe and an excellent option for travelling athletes who need a quick safe and healthy snack. They are best consumed at breakfast or post-workout. To avoid gas, make sure the beans are soaked and well boiled in a pressure cooker.

  • Most athletes with high-intensity training, have damage in their blood and DNA. Chickpeas/chana help in faster healing and recovery. Hummus is a famous international recipe for a travelling athlete.

  • Germination or sprouting process of nuts, seeds, grains and pulses after soaking them in water, is a simple process for improving their nutritive value while also improving the digestibility of foods. Protein in a sprouted seed or nut is more easily absorbable, helping to build lean muscle mass.

  • Fermentation of foods also improves their digestibility since it breaks down the proteins and carbohydrates into smaller parts making them easily digestible. Fermented foods contain beneficial probiotics that could positively affect athletic performance through enhanced recovery from fatigue, improved immune function and maintenance of healthy gastrointestinal tract function.

  • Athletes may suffer severe microscopic trauma to muscles on a regular basis. Eggs are a good combination of good quality proteins with all the essential amino acids. They are rich in vitamins and are good to help in the recovery process.

  • Healthy fats like nuts and seeds are essential. Nuts like walnuts are rich in omega 3 and many vitamins and minerals. Salmon, avocado olive oil, organic chicken, etc. are rich in healthy fats which help in brain health and physical recovery from training.

  • Dates are packed with iron, calcium, potassium and other minerals. Athletes can snack on a few dates during long hours of training as it is an excellent energy reserve food.

  • Bananas are a very handy fruit for athletes that helps power muscles, cool the brain and also helps with digestion. They are rich in potassium and vitamin B6. They can be eaten before, during or after the training.

The timing of meals is absolutely crucial for athletes. It is not just what they eat, but when they eat that is important. Their training regimen may require them to eat certain types of macronutrients several more times a day than someone who is not in training. Enhancing nutritional value in foods, thus comes with loads of benefits. Athletes should consult a sports dietitian to maximize their sports performance and minimize sports-related injuries through food. A team approach to athletic performance gives any sports person an added advantage (Sports - physician, dietitian, physiotherapist, and psychologist).

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