I love talking to female athletes who want to eat healthy and make better decisions when it comes to fueling for their performance.
But I often find these girls asking the same types of questions. For example:
- Is eating whole grain better than white?
- Is fruit better than bread?
- Is Halo Top better than Ben and Jerry's?!
While these questions are definitely valid, they shouldn't be the first thing on our minds. Instead of obsessing over what foods might be "healthier" than another in a vacuum, we need to first focus on the foundation of our nutrition.
Without establishing a strong dietary base, all the other details will have minimal impact on helping you achieve your high performing goals. It's my belief that the most important factor of your nutrition, by far, is your total energy intake. Yet many female athletes fail to appreciate this. Let's talk about priorities.
Where Are Your Nutritional Priorities?
When fueling for performance, you need to prioritize your nutritional choices based on how much those choices will affect your success.
The best way to visualize this is with above pyramid. You can think of this as a "performance pyramid" for your nutrition. Let's dive in and explain how this works.
50%: Caloric Intake
Caloric intake is the base of your nutrition. Making sure you're eating the right amount of food is going to have the BIGGEST impact on your performance.
Remember, as a female athlete, you are not only expending a lot of energy to perform, but to recover, as well. Of course, recovery is crucial for you to perform again, and thus the calorie-torching cycle continues.
If you are not eating enough food, there is zero doubt your performance will suffer. This is because you are not providing your body with enough fuel to PERFORM and, more importantly, to RECOVER.
When you chronically eat fewer calories than the amount of calories you expend (which is easy for high-performing females, especially those playing multiple sports), your body will adapt. However, these adaptations are simply allowing your body to SURVIVE under these conditions, not to THRIVE.
Females who don't eat enough food for their activity levels over long periods of time expose their body to a lot of additional stress. This stress often leads to injury, sickness, loss of menstruation, high fatigue and irritability, and decreased level of play.
If you're not eating enough, what you're eating isn't going to matter much. You're worrying that the pie in the oven is burning when the whole house is on fire. Choosing between a sweet potato or a piece of bread with dinner isn't going to really affect how you play the next day.
If you really want to be sure you are performing and recovering at the optimal level, simply eating enough food needs to be your top priority. If you find that your weight tends to significantly drop from the start of the season to the end, this is a sign that you are not fueling to optimize your level of play.
Athletes who want to "lose fat" should not try to do so when they're also required to perform at a high level. Remember, caloric deficits are stressful to the body. If you want to perform at your best, you need to optimize your recovery to help reduce stress. What are the best ways to recover? Focus on your sleep and diet!
If you want to lose fat, it's wiser and much safer to do so when you are out of your high-performing season.
When it's time to perform, the goal should be keeping your level of intake in line with your of calorie expenditure, keeping your weight the same.
30%: Macronutrient Ratio
Once you're eating enough food to optimize your recovery and performance, your second priority to consider is your macronutrient ratio. This is where the calories are coming from. Calories can come in the form of carbs, protein or fat.
For female athletes, the goal is to eat enough protein to minimize muscle loss and help optimize muscle retention and growth. I believe you should aim to consume around 1 gram of protein per 1 pound of body weight. So, if you're 130 pounds, you should be eating around 130 grams of protein a day. This will equate to around 15-30% of your daily calories, depending on your activity level.
Once you achieve this amount, there is no real benefit in eating more protein. Your body can only add muscle at a particular rate, so eating a surplus of protein will just result in your body using it as a means for energy (instead of as a structural component). If there is no use for that energy, your body will convert it into glucose and store it away. That protein is now only good as an energy source. That said, your body still prefers using carbohydrates and fats as energy, as they are easier to break down.
For female athletes, carbohydrates are the PREFERRED FUEL for high-performing success.
The amount of carbs you consume should match the length and intensity of your training (ranging from 1-4 grams per pound of body weight). On a tournament day with three matches, this could mean up to 70% of your caloric intake is reserved for carbs. On an easy practice day, it could mean just 35% of your total intake.
Basic rule: If the day is higher intensity and you feel like you are working hard, then it should be a higher carb day. On days where it's fairly laid-back, you should consume fewer carbs.
For females, dietary fat is crucial for both fuel and structure.
Fats are a required precursor for many hormones and are found in every single cell in our body. Eating enough fat is essential for a female athlete's performance, recovery and menstrual health.
For this reason, a female should have a minimum of 10% of body weight in grams of dietary fat. So, if you're 130 pounds, I believe you need a MINIMUM of 13g of fat daily. Drop below this level, and you are seriously at risk for affecting your body's hormonal regulation.
Beyond this minimum amount, additional fats in your diet will be used for slower release energy during lower intensity activity and recovery.
When considering how you eat on game day, though, carbs are the fuel your body wants to run on and refill its stores with. Fats, on the other hand, are needed to help you recover and repair for the next game day.
You want to balance your consumption of fats and carbs for energy depending on your activity level. So, if you are eating more carbs on a more active day, you don't need as many fats to help meet your energy needs. And if you are eating LESS carbohydrates on a less active day, you'll need to meet your energy requirements for recovery by eating MORE fats.
10%: Nutrient Timing
Once you are eating enough protein, carbs and fats to optimize how you perform and recover, your next priority should be the timing of these nutrients.
Have you ever felt fatigued halfway through a game, practice or training session? Your fueling timing could be the culprit. In you time your carbohydrate and protein intake appropriately and utilize strategies like consuming a shake at halftime, you are less likely to experience that fatigue.
But this will only work if you are already eating enough carbohydrates in general. If you're not, when you eat them is not really going to matter.
Similarly, if you want to promote muscle growth and reduce the chances of muscle loss, eating protein every 2-4 hours can definitely help! But if you aren't meeting your total protein requirements to begin with, when you eat protein isn't going to be enough to prevent muscle breakdown.
Timing your nutrients is extremely beneficial for high-intensity performance and fast recovery. But timing ONLY has an impact when you have your nutritional base intact. If you're not eating enough and/or not hitting your macros, when you eat what isn't going to make much of a difference.
5%: Food Composition
When your intake, ratios and timing are in place, now is when you can begin asking those burning questions: Is white bread really that much worse than wheat? Is Halo Top really a healthier choice than your beloved Ben and Jerry's?
Food composition refers to the amount of non-energy-providing nutrients present in the food we choose. We're talking vitamins and minerals, all which are essential to the thousands of chemical reactions and processes in your body that require them.
When making your specific eating choices, know that highly processed foods have far less of these nutrients.
Is white bread really worse than wheat? Let's first make sure you are eating enough food to maintain your weight; consuming the right amounts of protein, fats and carbs at the right times to optimize your performance. Then, you can worry about the difference between white and wheat. And, yes, wheat bread is going to offer you a greater amount of vitamins and minerals!
Without a doubt, food composition is important. And there is a time and a place for these conversations. But for young athletes, these conversations should happen AFTER everything lower on the pyramid has been addressed and dialed in.
Supplements are meant to SUPPLEMENT your diet. They are a way to fill in some cracks. They're not meant to build your entire pyramid with.
If you are not filling in the base of your pyramid, no amount of multivitamin or BCAA supplement is going to help fill those under-nourished gaps.
But that's not to say supplements can't help as long as your base is well-established.
For example, maybe in the wintertime you don't spend as much time in the sun as you do in the summer. Less time in the sun and less variety in your diet means less opportunity for your body to produce and absorb vitamin D! Taking a vitamin D supplement (plus possibly a magnesium supplement) can help fill the cracks your environment and diet lacks.
Supplements help fill the cracks, but are the LEAST influential when determining how your nutrition is going to affect your recovery and performance. So before you step into a GNC, make sure you've got your grocery list set first.
Focusing on improving your diet is a must for female athletes who want to recover and perform at their highest ability. When considering what role your nutritional choices have, remember that not all choices are created equal.
By establishing a strong nutritional base (remember the pyramid!), the more each of your dietary choices will have an impact on your success.
When you prioritize your nutrient intake, macronutrient ratio, timing, composition, and supplementation, you better fuel your body for success on the field, court, or weightroom.
Photo Credit: filo/iStock
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Longland, T.M., S.Y. Oikawa, C.J. Mitchell, M.C. Devries, and S.M. Phillips (2016). "Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial." Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 103: 738-746
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