Sports Nutrition

Whether you are an athlete on one of Brown's varsity teams, someone who works out regularly at the gym, or are just considering getting more physically active, you may be wondering how what you eat and drink affects your performance. The world of sports nutrition can be particularly confusing, because you may get conflicting information from magazines, web sites, coaches, or friends. Should you eat special foods before you compete? Should you take special supplements to bulk up? Can you be a vegetarian and expect to be powerful? Checking out the topics and web links in this section will help you fuel up for fitness.

Do nutrition needs of an athlete differ from other students?

It may surprise you to learn that in many ways, your nutritional requirements aren't much different from a student who has chosen to be less active. You both have the same needs for a variety of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, about the same requirements for fat, and surprisingly, your need for protein is only slightly higher as an athlete than that of the non-athlete. One important nutritional difference you have as an athlete is that your carbohydrate needs are generally much higher. "Carbs" are the body's most efficient energy source, one upon which all athletes and active people rely. Without adequate carbohydrate sources in the diet, you will "hit the wall" very quickly when you work out, and find that overall, you just aren't feeling up to par. If your sport or physical activity patterns require a higher energy intake, you can eat more from all the food groups, and may even have extra room for foods usually thought of as empty calorie treats (more desserts, soda, higher sugar granola bars, etc.).

5 food groups will give you the major nutrients your active body needs:

  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats (also called lipids)
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Another important "nutrient" for athletes is water

An athlete's specific needs within each of these nutrient groups is discussed below.

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How many servings do I need each day?

The following chart gives nutrition guidelines for the very active and less active male and female college-age student. It’s based upon a slightly older version of the USDA Pyramid, and is somewhat easier for athletes to use. (Note: Current recommendations suggest that all individuals aim for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise per day. Keeping active at this level helps to maintain a healthy weight, build good bone density, keep a positive mental outlook, and avoid many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers).

Number of servings per day

 

Females
Non-athletes

Female Athletes,
Male non-athletes

Male Athletes

Bread/grains group

6 to 11

9 to 15

11 to 18

Vegetable group

3+

3+

3+

Fruit group

2 to 4

3 to 5

4 to 8+

Dairy group

3+**

3+**

3 to 4+**

Protein/meat group

2(=5oz)

2(=6 oz)

3 (=7 to 11 oz)

Fats/lipids***

20-35% of calories

20-35% of calories

20-35% of calories

**Most college students need ~1000 mg per day of calcium, a little more than 3 servings of dairy products (or calcium fortified substitutes).; 3 servings plus a 500 mg calcium supplement is a great way to cover all your bases.

***Olive oil, canola oil and other oils from plants, nuts, and seeds are the heart-healthiest sources of fat, but animal fats like butter and higher-fat dairy choices can also be part of a healthy diet when used in moderation.

Click here for more information on serving sizes.

Adapted from: U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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How much protein do I need?

Food sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soy (including tofu, soy milk), nuts, legumes, tempeh, milk products, and smaller amounts in grain products. Here are some examples of protein amounts per serving:

  • Meat and soy meat substitutes: 7 g protein/serving
  • Dairy products: 8 g protein/serving
  • Breads/cereals/grains: 3 g protein/serving

Recommendations for daily protein intake (male or female):

  • Fairly non-active adult - 0.4g protein/lb body weight
  • Competitive endurance athlete - 0.5 to 0.6g/lb body weight
  • Competitive sports which emphasize building muscle mass** - 0.6-0.7g protein/lb body weight
  • Maximum usable amount of protein per day for adults - 1.0g/lb body weight

**For the athlete whose goal is to build larger quantities of muscle mass (body builders, football linemen, etc.), food intakes are shifted upwards in terms of total protein intake. Using the example of a 200 pound body building athlete, with protein needs of 0.7g protein/lb of body weight, total protein per day = 140 g, or the equivalent of 11 ounces of meat or meat substitutes, plus 4 servings of dairy, and 11 bread/grain servings. This may seem like a lot of food, but remember that 1 slice of bread is a grain serving and 3 ounces of meat is a protein serving. By spreading out your intake in meals and snacks throughout the day, you will find that it is fairly easy to get your protein and other nutrient needs met and stay energized.

Many athletes, especially those whose goal it is to gain muscle mass and who are in strength-type sports often hear that "more is better" when it comes to protein intake. Millions of dollars each year are spent on special protein supplements, and you may be eating double portions of entrees at Dining Services in an effort to bulk up. It is a fact that the protein needs of athletes are higher than the less active person. These needs are easily met, however, in the average diet of most student-athletes, and extra protein supplementation is NOT necessary

Protein eaten in excess of recommendations will be used by the body as a fuel, as would be carbohydrate. If you take in more protein or carbohydrate than you need for muscle production or fuel, the body will store the excess as fat tissue. Some researchers have examined excess protein intake (more than 4.5 g/lb body weight per day), and are concerned that there may be possible health concerns with this type of diet. Some risks include kidney damage, loss of calcium from bones, dehydration, and an overall unbalanced diet. Athletes who eat many high protein foods and take protein supplements in addition may be at risk for some of these health concerns.

Protein supplements can be a useful add-on to your diet if you are truly not eating a well-balanced diet. This means including at least 2 main dish type protein foods per day (or 3 if you are male and at the highest level of training), plus getting several good quality grain servings and 3 dairy or dairy-substitute products per day. We recommend eating a well-balanced diet rather than using protein supplements. They are usually very expensive, and are often recommended for short-term use only. It is far less costly, and just as fuel-efficient, to get your protein from the foods and drinks easily available to you--and tastier as well!

An important physiological fact is that added protein intake alone will not build muscle. To see an increase in muscle mass, you will need to do strength training and add extra calories to your diet. These calories should be mostly in the form of extra carbohydrates, with only small amounts of additional protein.

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How many carbohydrates do I need?

Food sources of carbohydrates include breads, cereals, rice, pastas, bagels, fruits, dairy products, dry beans, starchy vegetables (e.g., corn, potatoes), candy, fruit drinks/ades, sodas, and baked desserts.

Here are some examples of carbohydrate amounts per serving:


Breads, cereals, grains, "starchy" vegetables
(e.g. corn, peas, lima beans)

15

Fruits

15

Dairy products

12

Other "carbs" (granola bars, sports drinks, misc. snack foods, sodas, mixed foods)

Check labels

Non-starchy vegetables

5

Foods from the meat/meat alternative group and from the fats/lipids group do not have appreciable amounts of carbohydrates.

Recommendations for daily carbohydrate intake for most athletes:
Carbohydrates should total around 65% of total energy intake for both male and female athletes. Note that the recommendations for carbohydrates given below are calculated differently than the ones for protein. This is because protein needs are based on the body's need for cell building and repair, while carbohydrate needs go up directly in proportion to the athlete's need for additional energy supplies. The typical US diet supplies 1.8 to 2.2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight daily.

Recommended daily intake for most trained athletes is:

  • 2.2 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate/lb of body weight
  • 2.2 to 3 grams of carbohydrate/lb of body weight for general training needs
  • 3 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate/lb of body weight for endurance athletes
  • 5 grams of carbohydrate/lb of body weight for ultraendurance athletes (Who may need to rely on special carbohydrate supplements, as well as eating a very high carbohydrate diet)

Carbohydrate is really the "key player" of all the nutrients for your sports nutrition power plate, whether you are a serious athlete or are just ramping up your activity level. They are essential as the most immediate and efficient fuel to the muscles. Carbohydrates also function to spare the body's having to use protein as a fuel source. In its circulating form in the blood, carbohydrate is called glucose, and its storage form in muscles and in the liver is called glycogen.

When you first begin to exercise, your body draws on the circulating glucose as its first source of energy. If you haven't eaten in a long time, your glucose levels are likely to be low (you've probably heard the term low blood sugar). If you are an early morning exerciser and go out for a long run before eating, this can be a real problem. You may have trouble completing the run at full speed, or have real trouble focusing well in morning classes, even if you do eat after exercising. Many morning athletes find that taking in some juice or water and a plain piece of bread before exercising can help solve this problem.

Glycogen, as the storage carbohydrate, kicks in when circulating glucose drops to a lower level. Although the body cannot store large amounts of glycogen, you can help increase these stores by replacing the carbohydrates (either liquid or solid form is fine) in your body immediately after exercising, especially within the first half hour. Good examples would be: cranberry juice and fig newtons, high carb sports drink and pretzels, a bowl of cereal with low fat milk and banana, or a bagel with jam and fruit juice. Exercised muscle fibers are the most ready to take up carbohydrate, as they have just been worked, and will easily store an increased level of glycogen, helping you be "pumped up" even more for your next workout!

Without enough carbohydrates, your performance as an athlete will be seriously impacted. Some of the current low carb diets emphasize eating a limited amount of carbohydrate, not even adequate for most students, whether or not they are active in sports. As an athlete following this type of diet, you would find that your energy levels would be chronically drained.

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How much fat should I be eating?

Food sources of fats, also called lipids, include oils from plants (especially healthy are the oils from olives, nuts, seeds, and peanuts), animal fats and fish oils, higher fat dairy products, salad dressings, and baked products/desserts.

Recommendations for daily fat intake:
Your total fat (emphasizing healthy fat/lipid choices) should be in the range of 20% to 35% of your total energy intake per day. Specific levels for each athlete will vary, depending upon your overall energy requirements. Athletes participating in sports that require a higher energy intake (e.g., distance runners, rowers, professional cyclists) will need more total fat in their diet to get their energy needs met.

Fat plays many important roles in your body. Some of the main reasons that it is very important to get the recommended levels of healthy types of fats and lipids in your diet daily are because fat:

  • Protects your internal organs from trauma
  • Is essential for you to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) from your diet
  • Is necessary to help your body manufacture hormones, including the estrogen essential to help women maintain their menstrual cycle (without which they begin to lose calcium from their bones, often resulting in stress fractures and the risk of permanent loss of bone density
  • Is a vital part of nerve cells
  • Maintains healthy skin and shiny hair
  • Provides a necessary energy source hard to find in protein and carbohydrates (gives you over twice the energy per gram)
  • Helps your meals taste better, and keeps you feeling satisfied longer between times of eating
  • Contains the mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids necessary for good health, especially protection from heart disease and some cancers

Some athletes, especially in an effort to maintain a lower body weight (e.g., those in sports that emphasize appearance or require a weight class -- gymnastics, diving, wrestling, and figure skating) sometimes restrict their intake of dietary fat to unhealthy levels, occasionally far below the minimum recommended 20% of total calories per day. This can lead to nutritional imbalance in your diet, forcing you to take in most of your energy from carbohydrates and protein. If you stay on a fat-restricted diet for an extended period of time, your body can begin to suffer physiological consequences such as fat soluble vitamin deficiency disorders, loss of skin tone and hair health, poor quality of membranes necessary in the nervous system, and loss of the menstrual cycle. It can also increase the severity of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

No other nutrient can provide what fat can! It is also not uncommon for someone who is restricting fat to be also limiting whole categories of important foods (dairy, meats or fish, grains, etc.). This leads to other nutritional imbalances, and a further erosion of health, not to mention the ability to perform well as an athlete. Female athletes who restrict fat too severely, along with a high level of training, often lose their periods. Because estrogen levels are too low in the body, calcium begins to be lost from the skeletal frame, and the woman can develop what is known as the Female Athlete Triad (the concurrent presence of disordered eating, lack of menstrual periods, called amenorrhea, and bone weakening, or osteoporosis). If you think this describes your situation, it is very important that you consult with a medical provider, in order to treat this condition. New guidelines from the NCAA reinforce the importance of addressing this issue..( “Amenorrhea is so common among female athletes that sport personnel and athletes sometimes think of it as ‘normal’ in the sports environment.  Although amenorrhea is the ‘norm’ it is not ‘normal.’  Rather, it is a medical condition in need of treatment.”– NCAA document: Managing the Female Athlete Triad.) If you are in this state for a long period of time, the impaired mobility, chronic pain, and occasional deformity caused by severe bone loss can last a lifetime.

Some research done in the late 1990s indicated that endurance athletes might benefit from a higher fat diet, to spare carbohydrate stores from being used up early on in a long event. Although some athletes have begun to use this type of dietary pattern when training for endurance events, the results have not been proven to be entirely satisfactory. In addition, you should keep in mind that long term use of a high fat diet is known to be linked with higher levels of blood lipids, a risk factor for heart disease.

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How much calcium do I need?

Food sources of calcium include milk and milk products, calcium-fortified milk substitutes (e.g., soy-based), calcium-fortified orange juice, tofu packed in calcium brine, canned fish with bones, almonds, broccoli and dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals (check labels), coffee lattes, mochas, cappuccinos, etc., calcium supplements.

Recommendations for daily calcium intake:
From age 9 to 18, males and females need 1300mg of calcium per day, which is the equivalent of about 4 servings of dairy products. After the age of 19, your needs drop to around 1000mg/day (~ 3 servings of dairy products). During pregnancy and breastfeeding, and after menopause, women's needs rise to around 1500mg. Female athletes diagnosed with amenorrhea may be encouraged to consume 1500mg/day until their menses are restored. Men who are significantly underweight and/or undernourished, and who have decreased testosterone levels as a result, may also be encouraged to consume 1500 mg of calcium per day until they are weight restored.

Up to 90% of "peak bone mass" Is acquired by age 18 in women, and age 20 in men, but bone mass can keep growing until around age 30. You have this last window of opportunity to get as much calcium into your skeletal frame as you can. Three servings of dairy products per day would only get you to about 900 mg, and for many students, even getting that much is a challenge. If you can get your intake up to 4 servings, you're doing just fine! If you are in the range of 3, but are consuming a lot of calcium-fortified foods and/or are taking a calcium supplement (available in the Brown Health Services pharmacy on the 2nd floor), your bones are thanking you. Anything lower than that means you need to start thinking about calcium NOW - to prevent problems of stress fractures and osteopenia (loss of bone tissue, which can eventually lead to osteoporosis, a more serious condition, and often irreversible).

If you are avoiding dairy products because you think they are "fattening," you can go with the low fat versions. If you have lactose intolerance you can easily find lactose-free versions of milk in Brown's Dining Services. You can also purchase low lactose milk and other dairy products in local markets. Try taking a lactase enzyme tablet or two (available in local pharmacies) right before eating a regular dairy product, to ease digestion. No need to miss out on late night pizza parties!

"Weight bearing exercise" (e.g., walking, running, tennis, soccer, basketball and especially strength training with weights) also contributes to a strong skeletal structure, but cannot make up for a poor calcium intake, which only you can provide.

There are several myths that seem to keep circulating about milk's effects on athletic performance. Nancy Clark, Boston area sports nutritionist and consultant for pro and amateur athletes, writes about some of these "Milk Myths" in her book Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Handbook (available for loan from the Health Education library):

  • Drinking too much milk leads to calcium deposits - For most healthy people, this is not true. If you take in more calcium than your body needs, you will simply excrete it.
  • Milk causes "cotton mouth" - Again, this has not been shown. This feeling in the mouth or throat is usually caused by not getting enough fluid before exercising, or by being nervous or anxious before a competitive event.
  • Milk is hard to digest and will cause cramping and bloating - Milk and yogurt are actually very soothing and easy to digest, unless you are lactose intolerant. If you are, there are many lower lactose and non-lactose alternatives available.
  • Drinking more milk than normal recommendations will speed healing of fractures - Unfortunately, this is not true. Continue with your healthy, balanced diet, have patience, and set up a good plan of rehabilitation from your physician and/or trainer. Six to 8 weeks is usually the time frame for most fractures to heal.

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Am I getting enough iron?

Iron transports oxygen and manufactures hemoglobin, which are both vital in maintaining energy and good health.

Food sources of iron include meat (especially red meats), poultry, fish, egg yolks, iron-fortified cereals, breads and other grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.

Recommendations for daily iron intake:
Women: 18 mg/day
Men: 8 mg/day

Many students, especially women, have a diet that is too low in iron. The most frequent cause is the elimination of red meat from the diet, and for women, the monthly loss of iron in the menstrual period. Even though iron can be found in other food sources, the "heme" form found in the muscle of red meats in particular (and to a lesser extent poultry and some fish) contains the highest concentration of the form best absorbed by your body. It is usually recommended that vegetarians take in even higher than the above recommended levels of iron in their diets, because iron is not absorbed as well from plant sources as it is from animal sources. If you have eliminated red meat and/or are a vegetarian, it is recommended that you take a 100% RDA-level multiple vitamin and mineral supplement that contains 100% of the daily requirements for iron (a generic supplement of this type is sold in the Brown Health Services pharmacy). Note: Hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder predisposing individuals to a toxic build-up of iron. Because iron supplementation may accelerate the effects of this condition, adult men should avoid taking supplements that include iron.

When your blood is too low in iron, this is called iron deficiency anemia. As an athlete, when you become anemic, you usually have a lot less energy as you participate in your sport or activity. The reason for this is because an important function of iron in the body is to form substances in the muscle that help bind oxygen, necessary for the muscle to perform for you. In addition, iron helps to manufacture enzymes that help with the energy-making process.

Athletes are sometimes more likely to develop anemia than less active students. This is because iron is lost in sweat, urine, and feces, as well as in small breakdowns in tissue that occur in the pounding of feet in long distance running and other surface contact. If your eating patterns don't replace these iron losses (e.g., if you are restricting calories, you don't eat meat, fish, or poultry, and aren't careful to eat high iron alternative sources), you could be at risk for developing iron deficiency anemia. Periodic testing of iron status is often recommended for athletes. You may want to ask your coach or medical provider about this if you have been experiencing fatigue and/or think your iron intakes have been low. A long-term deficiency in iron can markedly affect your performance as an athlete, and if you have developed anemia, the earlier you start treatment the faster you can be back at your peak level of performance. Although iron deficiency anemia is usually not considered a serious illness, full recovery can take from 6 to 9 months. Prevention is certainly preferable to treatment!

What about other vitamins and minerals?

Many other vitamins and minerals play very important roles in the diet of an athlete. To date, research has not shown any direct benefit or enhanced performance results from taking added supplements of any specific vitamin or mineral, no matter the size of the athlete or the chosen sport. Even the potassium and sodium losses experienced by athletes who sweat on a hot day or in a long event can easily be met by drinking fluids and eating a normal diet, since these electrolytes are so widely available in foods. Any athlete or active student can meet the needs for these nutrients by consuming a sports-healthy diet, following the guidelines discussed in this section. However, it is suggested that most people take a daily needs level multiple vitamin and mineral supplement every day. This shouldn't replace eating a healthy diet but will help to insure that your daily vitamin and mineral needs are met.

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Do special supplements help me put on muscle or perform better?

Many athletes, from high school sports through the pro level, have come to believe that taking some type of supplement, varying from protein shakes touted to build muscle mass to the more controversial steroid-related products, will give them an edge in their athletic endeavors. You may have been encouraged to try some of these supplements by friends, magazine or web site ads, or coaches and trainers. Many of these products are advertised as "natural" and therefore appear to be safe. Unfortunately, there is little guarantee of the safety or even the efficacy of what you are getting. Under heavy lobbying from the supplement industry, a federal law was passed in 1994 that pulled dietary supplements from under the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory authority. This included all vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and other botanicals. It is therefore practically impossible for you to know, as a consumer, whether what you purchase as a supplement is safe, will do what it says it does, or even contains in the bottle what it claims to have.

When you look on web sites or read articles to do your own research, always beware of studies done by companies or individuals selling products. Look for scientific studies published in reputable journals, not just anecdotal stories. Also be sure the studies were done on humans and not animals - results are not always the same on different species.

If you are a competitive athlete, know that many substances contained in supplements have been banned by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and/or the IOC (International Olympic Committee). You can be eliminated from competition if you are found to have taken these substances, even if you were not aware that the supplement you consumed contained that substance. Banned substances can also exist in foods and beverages that athletes might not even consider supplements.  In 2009, for example, the NCAA banned 6 flavors of the Coca-Cola Company’s VitaminWater.  (Power-C, Energy, B-Relaxed, Rescue, Vital-T, and Balance were determined to containe the impermissible or banned substances taurine, caffeine, guarana seed extract, L-theanine, green-tea extract, ecgc, Rooibus tea extract, or glucosamine.) You can go to the web site of the NCAA to look for lists of banned substances.

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Commonly used sports supplements

Amino Acids - Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are claimed to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, and increase growth hormone secretion. Recommendations: Large intakes of single amino acids may interfere with absorption of protein, cause intestinal upset and metabolic imbalances. You are better off consuming recommended levels of protein foods as stated above.

Androstenedione - This drug became well known after several baseball players used it during record-setting home run seasons. This chemical, which is present in the body naturally, is technically a steroid. Its action does increase muscle mass. Proponents of "andro" claim that since it occurs naturally, it should be a legal anabolic steroid. Its manufactured form, which has been around since being synthesized in the 1930s, is legal, but has been banned by the NCAA, the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Football League, and the Association of Tennis Professionals. Recommendations: Because no safety data are published, and andro is known to raise testosterone levels in users, just as with illegal steroid users, some of the same unhealthy side effects could result. You would be wise to stay away from this supplement.

Chromium Picolinate (CrPl) - Claims for this supplement are that it increases muscle mass, is a safe alternate to anabolic steroids, decreases body fat, and increases insulin sensitivity. Both chromium and picolinic acid do function in the pathways in the body that help with energy metabolism and insulin function. The original studies supporting these claims were poorly designed, and further studies have not backed up the earlier results. The Federal Trade Commission has been able to stop some of the false claims about CrPl's ability to cause weight loss and loss of body fat. Recommendations: Because athletes lose chromium through increased urine losses, they should be sure to include a wide variety of foods in their diet. Since chromium is widely available in many foods, special supplements are not necessary.

Creatine - Creatine, along with phosphate, occurs in the body naturally as a very important component of your energy metabolism system. Research has shown that the effects of supplements of combined creatine phosphate are due to increased muscle mass, making this supplement especially useful for athletes who are involved in "short burst" activities, such as lifting heavy weights, making tackles as a football lineman, etc. Creatine has been found to have no benefit for endurance athletes. Some anecdotal reports have linked creatine usage with muscle cramping, muscle and tendon pulls, and slower injury recovery, but research does not back up these claims. Recommendations: Because there is still no long-term data available on the safety of creatine, athletes should be especially careful about using this supplement and athletes below the age of 18 should not use creatine at all. If you have decided to use creatine, do not exceed the recommendations for dosage or length of use.  According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have used a dose of 5 grams 4 times per day for 5 days to increase anaerobic work capacity.  Studies have used a dose of 20 grams per day for 4-7 days to boost athletic strength and performance.  For daily maintenance, doses of 2-5 grams or .3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight have been used.

Ephedra/Ephedrine (Ma Huang) - Claims for ephedra are that it improves athletic performance and will promote weight loss. Ephedra has been used in Chinese medicine practices for thousands of years. It was first used commonly in this country as an ingredient on many nasal decongestants and cold medicines. A few years ago, it showed up as an ingredient of many non-prescription weight loss pills. A direct effect of ephedra is to raise one's heart rate, because it is a stimulant. It does not increase your energy as an athlete. There were very serious consequences in some individuals, and several deaths were linked to the use of ephedra, until the U.S. government finally pulled all substances containing ephedra from the shelves. If you see a product containing ephedra, know that it NOT effective for weight loss or athletic performance enhancement, and it could be very dangerous to take, especially in combination with other, even something as benign as caffeine!

Herbs claimed to be "natural anabolic agents" that build muscle (e.g., yohimbe, smilax, tribulus, wild yams, and gamma oryzanol): The body is unable to convert these herbs into testosterone or other anabolic steroids, and they do not increase muscle mass. Ginseng is an herb historically used for Chinese medicinal practices. Current research does not back up earlier studies that claimed that ginseng enhanced exercise performance.

Protein powders and other protein supplements - See a discussion of protein as a nutrition supplement above.

(Adapted from Sports Nutrition, 3rd Ed., C.A. Rosenbloom, The American Dietetic Assn., 2000)

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How should I eat before I compete or exercise?

Many athletes think of a "pre-game meal," but how you eat all the time is the most important way you can prepare your body nutritionally to perform at its peak. It is impossible to make up for skimping on meals and snacks during the week by eating one super meal on game day. Your muscles and endurance level can't be fooled that easily, and you'll "hit the wall" far earlier than if you had been powering all along.

As a general rule, your ongoing eating patterns should be high in good quality complex carbohydrates (as opposed to simple, sugary carbos), and moderate in both protein and fat. Refer to other sections of this page for more information on good sources of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

You will usually find that your energy will remain highest during a competition or exercise routine if you have eaten a light meal or snack about 2 or 3 hours prior to exercising. This allows your body to have some available energy in the form of circulating glucose, without having too much food in the stomach to slow you down or feel uncomfortable. This small meal or snack should be mostly carbohydrate, could have some protein, to let it stay with you a little longer, and should be very low in fat, to allow your stomach to digest this food quickly. Some examples of pre-exercise snacks could be:

  • Yogurt with graham crackers
  • Bowl of cereal with low-fat milk
  • Low-fat granola bar
  • Fig newtons and a glass of low-fat milk
  • Bagel with slice of low-fat cheese
  • Fruit smoothie made with non-fat yogurt
  • Oatmeal made with raisins and low-fat milk

If you are timing full meals on the day of your competition, you can usually figure that it will take about 4 to 5 hours for complete digestion of a normal sized meal. Some athletes find that they are more nervous before competing, and the anxiety usually slows the digestive process. Allowing more time before exercising, eating a lower fat meal, doing relaxation techniques, or even trying liquid meals (fruit smoothie with blended low-fat yogurt and fruit; Instant Breakfast made with non-fat milk) have all been techniques that have helped athletes with nerves.

If you are trying something new with your eating regime, it's not a good idea to wait until the day of competition to experiment. You could upset your digestive system and have even bigger problems than too much food in the stomach!

If you are competing in an event that is early in the morning, then you will need to depend heavily on the last meal and snacks you have the evening before as your "pre-game" meal. Again, try to eat foods that are high carbohydrate, moderate protein and fat. You should also try to have a light high carbohydrate snack as soon as you can after you get up on the morning of competition. A bowl of cold cereal with some dried fruit and a small amount of non-fat milk may be enough to get you through an early morning event. You can always add more calories later in the morning.

The biggest challenge for many athletes are events that are scheduled off and on throughout a day, or endurance events that last for more than an hour. It is extremely important to be well fueled for the days leading up to the event. If you are competing in a marathon or other intense, endurance event lasting longer than 90 minutes, you may benefit from what is known as carbohydrate loading. This involves a tapering off of exercise in the week before the event, while at the same time increasing the amount of carbohydrates you are taking in. This enables the body to store additional glycogen for available energy during the event. Some athletes who are participating in long cycling or running events find that the gel form of carbohydrates are a convenient and lightweight, although expensive, way to get quickly energized without losing time in an event. Remember to drink plenty of water along with these concentrated forms of carbohydrates! Carbohydrate intake during exercise improves endurance performance as well as performance in sports with intermittent activity.  It’s suggested that athletes aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate every hour as either food and/or beverages. ( See the guidelines below for the carbohydrate content of a variety of foods.)

For sports such as tennis and wrestling matches and other events that may stop and start throughout a day, you want to be sure that you have started the day well-fueled and hydrated (more on fluids below). As each event ends in the day, be sure to take some easily digested high carbohydrate food and/or drink (juice, crackers, low-fat cookies, bagels, fruit and dried fruit, low-fat cereal bars, etc.). If you have 2 or more hours between events, you have time to add some protein to your snacks and meals (e.g., a small lean turkey sandwich without mayo, yogurt, glass of low-fat milk, or low-fat cheese).

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Does it matter what I eat after I exercise?

Actually this is probably the most important time to pay attention to what you eat, even though many athletes don't think too much about the "post-game" meal. How many times after a game have you and your team just piled into a restaurant and loaded up on burgers and fries, or celebrated with pizza and your favorite drinks? You may not realize it, but what you are putting into your body and feeding your muscles within the first 30 minutes to 2 hours after you work out or compete can make a very big difference on your performance the next time you go out to power up. Paying attention to immediate replacement of carbohydrates is especially important because they build glycogen, the storage fuel for your muscles. Right after working your muscles, they are most able to store even more glycogen than they had before your workout. This helps to prevent chronic fatigue and acute burnout that some athletes experience who are consuming a diet that is routinely lower in energy and carbohydrates than their exercise levels demand.

You should try to eat or drink about 0.7 g carbohydrate/pound body weight after exercise or competition, and again within 2 hours. Examples would be about 140 g carbohydrate for a 200 lb athlete or 91g for a 130 lb exerciser. This is particularly important if your workouts are strenuous and/or last over a few hours per day.

Here are some examples of average carbohydrate content of common foods. You can check labels of your favorite foods to get an idea of carbohydrate content in grams.

40-45g of carbohydrates

50-60g of carbohydrates

4 graham crackers

11oz GatorPro

4 fig newtons

2 cups (16 oz) apple or orange juice

1 Power Bar

8 oz. sherbert

12 oz. can soda

2 cups applesauce

1 cup cranberry juice cocktail

1 cup chocolate pudding

1 baked potato with skin

30 animal crackers

3 oz. pretzels

3 large matzoh boards

20 saltine crackers

2 bananas

6 cups popcorn (any kind)

8 fig newtons

1 cup rice (any kind)

2 large fruit or bran muffins

1 large flour tortilla

½ 10” thin crust pizza (any kind)

2 hamburger buns

1 cup granola (any kind)

16oz PowerAde

2 cups pasta or mashed potatoes

22oz Gatorade

3 oz. box of raisins

8 graham crackers (2 ½” squares)

12 graham crackers, 2-1/2” squares

3 slices of bread (any kind)

4 slices of bread (any kind)

Research in the late 1990s has shown that some protein, in addition to the recommended carbohydrate intake after exercise, can also contribute to your body's increasing its stores of glycogen for future workout needs. The combination of nutrients can also contribute to muscle synthesis, but even athletes focusing on strength training and body building do not need to overload on extra protein. Refer to the earlier section on protein to learn more.

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Is there a way to know how much water or fluid I need as an athlete?

Staying hydrated during your workouts and competition can make an enormous difference on both how you feel as well as how well you actually execute your sport. Yet ignoring hydration needs is one of the most common errors athletes often make in their training regimens. Water is important for many functions in your body, including cushioning your joints and muscles, regulating your body temperature (extremely important for you as an athlete!), bringing all the nutrients to your cells, and removing waste products from the body.

To stay well-hydrated before, during and after exercise or competition, the American Dietetic Association recommends the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids with meals.
  • Drink 16 oz. 2 hours before activity.
  • Drink another 8 to 16 oz. 15 minutes before activity.
  • Drink 6 to 12 oz. every 15 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink 24 oz. for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.

In events lasting longer than one hour, performance will likely be enhanced with the use of a sports drink containing carbohydrates and a small amount of sodium.

It is recommended that you occasionally weigh yourself before and after a workout to see how much weight you have lost. This will be fluid loss, and you can figure that for every pound lost, you will need to replace that with 3 cups, or 24 ounces, of water.

You cannot depend on feeling thirsty to know when your body needs water. By the time you notice that you are thirsty, you have lost about 1% of your body weight. A 2% loss of body weight in fluid can actually decrease your performance by 10 to 15%! It is important to get in the habit of increasing your fluid intake routinely if you are active, not just on competition days. During extreme conditions (either hot OR cold weather and at high altitudes), your intake should increase even more, because your body is working harder. Water is usually the best fluid to use for fluid replacement, but if you are involved in an "all day" activity, you should consider a commercial sports drink that has carbohydrate added. A less expensive alternative is to dilute any fruit juice by about half with water. Try drinking your fluid when it is cool, but not too cold - it will leave the stomach more quickly and get into your system at this temperature.

Keep in mind that some juices, high water content fruits (e.g., watermelon, berries, and peaches), and non-caffeinated drinks can substitute for some of your water. Generally it is recommended that at least half of your water needs be met by plain water to spare your kidneys from having to filter out too many extra substances. You can increase your water intake by getting in the habit of always having a glass of water with meals, in addition to low-fat milk and/or juice. You can also carry a bottle of water in your backpack, take water breaks instead of coffee breaks, alternate sparkling waters with other beverages at parties, and drink before, during, and after any physical activity. Also remember than caffeine and alcohol dehydrate you and increase your fluid needs.

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Can I be a vegetarian and still be a powerful athlete?

Absolutely! Many collegiate and Olympic records are held by athletes who are vegetarians. There are some nutritional challenges, however, if you are a vegetarian and are physically active. It is sometimes difficult to take in enough calories while eating a vegetarian diet, which is naturally high in fiber and therefore very filling. You may need to be sure that you are not filling up quickly on large salads that give you "bulk" without the energy you need. You may need to eat many small, high-energy, nutrient-rich meals and snacks throughout the day and evening in order to satisfy your body's need to fuel up for the energy demands of your sport.

A specific nutrient that your diet may not supply enough of is protein. This may be especially true if you are female and have been limiting your calories to reduce extra body fat for a sport that demands a limited weight or expects a certain physical form (e.g., gymnastics, diving, crew coxswain). Good protein choices to look for as a vegetarian would be nuts and seeds, peanut butter, soy products, tofu, garden burgers, legume-based soups, and any dairy products. It is also important to remember to keep your proteins varied throughout the day, to ensure that you are getting a mixture of the essential amino acids you need for the building blocks of protein you are creating for muscle, all cells and tissue.

Vegetarian athletes usually take in adequate amounts of carbohydrate, because they consume large amounts of grains, cereals, fruits, starchy vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

Calcium can be a nutrient that is not eaten in adequate amounts in the diet of vegetarians, especially female athletes, who are prone to stress fractures and shin splints, and may not be having regular menstrual periods because of heavy training. If you are not a vegan, be sure you are getting at least 3+ servings of dairy products/day (also a super source of protein!), or 3 servings and a good calcium supplement.

Because vegetarians eliminate red meats and poultry, there are fewer good dietary sources of “heme” iron, the form of iron most easily absorbed by the body.For athletes this is a special concern because anemia is more common. To learn more about this anemia of athletes, refer to the section of this page on iron.

If you are a vegan type of vegetarian, who eats no type of animal product (and therefore have eliminated dairy products, eggs, and fish from your diet as well as red meats and poultry), your diet may be lacking in vitamin B12. Be sure that you take either a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement daily (a good idea for most people) and/or drink a soy based milk substitute that has been fortified with vitamin B12.

The more varied your diet is, the more likely you are to have a nutritious, well-balanced diet that includes all the vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that you need to keep at the top of your sport. This is especially important for vegetarians, who sometimes get in a rut with their eating patterns. If you are eating on meal plan at Brown, and find yourself always heading for the same items at the Ratty or the V-Dub, try to think a little more creatively at meals. See how you can combine things from the salad bar with the good homemade breads, grains and soups, and try some of the vegetarian dishes that you may not have tasted before. Keep expanding your palate! You may find new things you can add to your list of favorite foods.

You may also want to ask yourself the reasons why you made the choice to become a vegetarian in the first place. Be honest. Some athletes, and others, find a vegetarian diet and lifestyle an easy way to manage weight. While there is nothing inherently unhealthy with being a vegetarian, and there are many health considerations to recommend this style of eating, for a few people this eating pattern can be a way to cloak disordered eating..   It may be helpful to explore your vegetarian eating choices when they are accompanied by the following factors:

  • Weight has dropped significantly or to an unhealthy level,
  • Food and eating choices are accompanied by a lot more guilt, anxiety, or preoccupation,
  • Athletic performance has fallen off,
  • Sports injuries are increasing,
  • For female athletes, menstrual cycles have become irregular or ceased altogether, and/or
  • General fatigue and/or anemia is noted.

Eating concerns can easily turn into a more serious eating disorder, and can happen to both male and female athletes. If you think this is a problem for a friend or teammate, you have many resources at Brown to which you can turn. You may also want to check out our web pages that deal with eating concerns.

For more detailed information about vegetarian eating and nutrition suggestions, click on being a Vegetarian.

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When does "enough" exercise become "too much" exercise?

If you are working out in the exercise rooms in the OMAC or the Bear's Lair, you may have noticed from time to time certain students who always seem to be there, no matter what time or day of night you show up. Perhaps you have even made lighthearted comments to them about the amount of time they seemed to be devoting to their fitness regimens. They probably do not view their workout schedules as anything excessive, even though they may have been coming to the gym over an hour at a time, two times a day, every day. Their rationale may have been that they just wanted to "stay fit/healthy," or that they were "in training." Even athletes who are training for the Olympics know the importance of giving themselves a day off every week for muscles and ligaments to rest.

Warning signs that someone is exercising excessively include:

  • Rigid rules about exercising
  • Anxiousness or restlessness if s/he doesn't follow a usual activity schedule
  • Reluctance to change the exercise routine, even when ill, injured, or in need of rest
  • Working out more than a coach or athletic trainer recommends
  • Eating patterns that are rigid or calculated to exactly match the calories expended on exercise
  • Decreased time and energy for relationships, academics, and other activities

All of these behaviors are strong indicators that good intentions for a healthy lifestyle may have gone too far. This person may well be at risk for a sports injury, an eating disorder, or other serious health problems, not to mention the potential for social isolation that this type of heavy training schedule usually brings on.

You may be questioning how to best approach someone you are worried about. Usually it is not recommended that you focus directly on how much this person is exercising or how little s/he is eating. This usually puts the person on the defensive and may drive a wedge between the two of you. Keep your comments as statements from your own perspective ("I" statements, vs. "you" statements). An example could be, "I've noticed that you look pretty wiped out after some of these long workouts. I'm concerned. Are you OK? Want to go for a cup of tea when we leave the OMAC?" You may not get a direct or positive response after your first effort, but your words will be heard, and s/he will know that someone cares and has reached out. Sometimes your voice will be the one that will make the difference, and enable a person who has felt completely alone to begin to feel that there is someone who is there for her/him. You can also be ready to offer information about some of the resources Brown has to offer students who might want to talk about patterns of compulsive exercise and/or eating concerns. Click on Resources at Brown, and Worried About a Friend's Eating to learn more.

Resources at Brown

BWell Health Promotion 401.863-2794
Located on the third floor of Health Services.
Confidential information or care is available through individual appointments or phone consultation with a Nutritionist.  Students can discuss personal eating concerns, as well as any concerns they may have regarding a friend, a roommate, or a teammate. Health Promotion also offers workshops, pamphlets, and reading materials covering these and related issues. There are no fees for Health Promotion services.

University Health Services 401.863-3953
Located at the corner of Brown and Charlesfield streets.
Confidential information and care is available on a walk-in, or by scheduled appointment basis. Care is available for initial, current or past disordered eating patients. There are no fees for medical care at Health Services. However, there may be fees incurred if laboratory tests, medications, specialist or emergency hospital care is needed.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Located on the fifth floor of J. Walter Wilson.
Confidential appointments are available at Counseling and Psychological Services for students concerned about their eating issues. Guidance is also available for those who are concerned about a friend, roommate, or teammates' eating. Services include crisis intervention, short-term psychotherapy and referrals. There are no fees for appointments at Psychological Services.

Olney-Margolies Athletic Center ("OMAC") 401.863-3537
Includes basketball and volleyball courts, indoor running track, cardio and cybex equipment, weight room, and aerobic studio. Call for information on hours available to students.

Katherine Moran Coleman Aquatics Center
Officially opened in May 2012, the Moran Coleman Aquatics Center is the home to Brown Swimming & Diving and Water Polo, and considered the fastest pool in the Northeast.  The million-gallon pool — 56 meters long and 9 meters deep —is the swimming pool for varsity competition and recreational use, has three-meter diving, seating for 400 spectators overlooking the pool, and a state-of-the-art video HD scoreboard.

Meehan Auditorium 401.863-2236
Available for recreational ice skating. Figure skating, speed skating, pairs skating, and jumps are not allowed during open university skating hours. Call for more information.

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Links you can use

Nutrition and Athletic Performance
Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, 2009. Very detailed and complete position paper of these three leading organizations in the field of sports nutrition, emphasizing that physical activity, athletic performance, and recovery from exercise are enhanced by optimal nutrition. The position paper reviews the current scientific data related to the energy needs of athletes, assessment of body composition, strategies for weight change, the nutrient and fluid needs of athletes, special nutrient needs during training, the use of supplements and nutritional ergogenic aids, and the nutrition recommendations for vegetarian athletes.

SCAN  
Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists. A Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. This web site provides reliable information for the athlete on a variety of sports nutrition topics (as well as links to learning more about eating disorders and cardiovascular nutrition). Although the web site is also a resource for nutrition professionals belonging to this practice group, there is much useful information available to non-A.D.A. members as well.

Gatorade Sports Science Institute
Go to the Sports Science Center on this site for articles by experts in exercise science and sports nutrition. Topics include supplements, hydration and sports psychology.

The Physician and Sports Medicine Online  
The Personal Health section of this website has information on fitness, nutrition, strengthening exercises, weight control and women's health.

The American Dietetic Association
Articles from the ADA on eating disorders, including The Female Athlete, Compulsive Exercise and Anorexia.

Intelihealth's Fitness Program
Extensive information on healthy ways to get fit, including articles on components of an exercise program, starting a fitness program, frequently asked questions and a body mass index calculator.

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Disclaimer: BWell Health Promiotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.