Why spend all those hours training and run your socks off on match day if your nutrition isn’t up to your footballing prowess?
Make a great diet your goal to ensure you are prepared for the summer and pre-season. Here are the myths, fads and facts.
Forget fad diets and rapid energy fixes
The body is a highly complex organism that has evolved over thousands of years. Trying to manipulate it too much by overloading or cutting back on certain foods that are part of our natural diet will lead to problems – problems we can’t always predict.
Forget the fads around low-fat, low carb, super-charged protein, or rapid energy-fixes. Nothing beats a fresh and varied diet that includes all of the essentials. This holds true for honed athletes or mere mortals.
It’s all about getting those essentials at the right time, in the right quantities. So what’s the latest evidence on optimal nutrition to help you achieve your sporting best?
What nutrition do you really need?
Nutritious food contains all you need for growth, repair and efficient function of your body – without the junk and with just the calories your body needs.
It is not heavily processed and pumped full of chemicals to preserve shelf-life long beyond necessary. Or bulked up with flavour enhancers and colourants that try to make up for the nutrition and appeal that processing has taken out. It is not full of antibiotics, pesticides and other nasties that help produce vast quantities of cheap food at the expense of quality.
Foods that are nutrient-rich are associated with greater health, increased energy and weight control.
You need enough of the right sorts of calories, macro- and micro-nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and fluids). And how much depends on your body weight, the type of activity and the intensity and amount of time you spend doing it.
A professional player or Olympic athlete, for whom every last percentage of performance is crucial, will have a comprehensive personalised assessment to ensure that their particular needs are tailored precisely. But for most of us, it is a bit simpler…
Carbohydrates are needed to provide energy to muscle, as well as brain and nervous system. They are available in simple, quickly absorbed forms like sugar. Or more complex forms that are slower to break down, like wholegrains. For those undertaking light exercise, around 5g/kg body weight per day is needed – or 6-10g/kg/day for those doing 1-3 hours a day of more intense exercise.
Protein is important for muscle growth and repairing body tissues. The body can also use protein for energy. So trying to keep calories too low can result in muscle loss. For example, crash diets for weight-loss or over-exercising without enough energy intake.
Muscle protein manufacture is triggered by exercise. Even just a short burst. Eating more protein also helps it. But eat too much and it is simply flushed out by the body – or rarely can cause damage to liver and kidneys. For aerobic exercise like football, you should be aiming for 1-1.5g of protein per kg of body weight per day – perhaps more for high-achieving sportsmen and women.
Animal protein is complete protein, providing all the building blocks we need. However, vegetarians can manage with the incomplete proteins found in vegetables and pulses (peas, lentils and beans), providing they get a good variety.
Fats are vital for energy, healthy cells, absorption of certain vitamins, brain function and more. So fat is not to be excluded from your diet for sure. In fact, fats should comprise 20-35% of total energy intake per day.
Avoid fats that come from processed foods. And try to maintain a good balance of healthy mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats – such as those that come from nuts and vegetable oil – and some of the healthier types of saturated fats in smaller quantities – dairy and meat sources for example. Oily fish is a great source of healthy omega-3 fats as well as quality protein.
Vitamins and minerals
If you are getting a healthy, balanced diet high in fruit, veg and more, you are unlikely to be lacking in any of these important micronutrients.
Some performance athletes, particularly women, may be at risk of iron deficiency, which can cause anaemia – lowering performance as a result. Low vitamin D (vital for bone health) can be a problem in gloomier climates because it needs sunshine to make it. But this is less likely for those spending time outside on the pitch.
If in doubt a good-quality multivitamin is unlikely to hurt more than your wallet. But remember most surplus vitamins and minerals will just be flushed out of your system!
Water is essential to keep the body at the right temperature and all systems working as they should. You can lose a litre or more of sweat in an hour of vigorous exercise.
You should aim to drink a minimum of 1.5 litres of water throughout the day. Plus 0.5-0.75 litres per hour when doing intense exercise. The easiest way to gauge hydration is to check the colour of your pee – a pale straw colour is just right!
How can I get in shape for the season ahead?
Maintaining a healthy and a balanced diet throughout the year is the best way – forget fad diets or bulking supplements.
If trying to lose weight, remember that slow and steady is best if you want to keep your willpower on track and avoid muscle depletion. Keep your protein intake high when cutting calories to further reduce the risk of muscle loss.
For building or toning muscle, strength and resistance exercises – combined with aerobic training- will do the trick. This should be coupled with a healthy diet full of non-processed carbs, good fats and quality protein.
In a nutshell – fruit.
Quick release carbs provide energy for training – though are not really needed for brief exercise less than 45 mins. But the latest science shows if you are planning a longer session, having inadequate carbs on board can impair training intensity and duration.
So for a pre-workout snack, a small amount of fast-absorbed, low-stodge carbs like simple sugars are best. Sugar in sweets, cakes or the sugar bowl, is devoid of any nutrients. But take it as nature intended – in fruit such as a banana – and you get the vitamins and fibre as well as the energy. Win-win!
And make sure you are hydrated. Many scientific studies suggest a mild degree of dehydration doesn’t affect performance – but why take the chance?
If you are doing prolonged training, you may need a bit of extra energy during the exercise itself. It doesn’t have to be in the form of expensive energy gels and bars though. The tradition of half-time orange segments to re-fuel mid exercise session was the right idea. But dates or other dried fruit will give you an intense sugar-kick if you need it too.
The post workout snack should be a combination of quick absorption carbs and protein, ideally 30-45 min after the session.
Around 50-100g of carbs will help replenish your glycogen energy stores. Combining these with protein is the best way to recover your exercise performance according to the latest evidence from the American College of Sports Medicine. Apparently, you should be aiming for around 20-30g of total protein to increase whole body and protein muscle synthesis.
OK – but what does that mean in practical terms? Well, it depends on when you are planning your next main meal. But here are some good options:
- 100g bowl of Greek yoghurt or Quark (mild soft cheese) with a handful (approx. 25g) of almonds and a handful of mixed berries for 15-20g of delicious protein and some natural energy boosting simple carbs in the form of fruit sugar.
- Tuna omelette with around 60g tinned tuna, heaps of fresh veg and an egg plus two added whites with a slice or two of wholemeal toast for over 30g of protein.
- Thick and delicious smoothie with Greek yoghurt, oatmeal and fruit.
Science seems to favour dairy-based proteins for increasing muscle strength and body composition. But this can lead to an excess of fat if care isn’t taken, so more studies are needed.
Rehydrate with cheap and cheerful H20. Electrolyte drinks aren’t needed as long as you are eating nutritious food, which will give you all the vitamins and minerals you need.
Footballers can cover 10 km during a match. This can be in high-intensity bursts, as well as endurance activity. And the body has to be ready for it all.
In the run-up
Preparation is similar to that for training. But eating adequate carbs in the few days leading up will ensure you have energy in bucket-loads for the game.
Healthy wholegrains, veggies and other non-processed carbs are perfect – though nothing too heavy the night before. Fish, sweet potato and loads of green veg would do the trick.
Breakfast on the day could include some slow-release carbs like oats, along with some dairy protein and fruit.
Get the sugar kick just before kick-off from fresh fruit as before.
Caffeine has been shown to help performance – but shouldn’t be overdone from a health perspective. What’s more, large quantities are prohibited by some high level sporting regulations.
Simple carbs from sugar – ideally fruit-based – may give an extra boost. Interestingly, recent studies show that for short bursts of exercise, ‘mouth sensing’ – simply tasting a small amount of carb in the mouth such a rinse with a sugary drink – may enhance performance by stimulating the brain and nervous system!
How do I recover after our win?
Did you contribute much to the match or were you on the sidelines for most of it? Replenish your energy stores and protein as you do after training depending on how much energy you have expended. In the stress and excitement of a match, your water stores may be significantly depleted – so remember to rehydrate properly.
And go easy on the booze! Tempting though it is to toast a successful match at the bar, alcohol is not the best way for your body to celebrate. It would much prefer its water levels to be restored rather than dehydrated further by the post-match festivities.
If you can’t resist, then try to alternate your alcohol with soft drinks or choose shandy-type options over pure pints. That way you avoid putting stress on your kidneys and cardiovascular system – after all, they helped you to your win so they should be looked after too!
So, to put your body in the premier league not the relegation zone, keep your eye on the ball when it comes to nutrition. Being in the winning team is not just about training hard – you can also eat your way to success!
Dr Sally Norton
NHS consultant surgeon and weight-loss expert, and founder of VavistaLife
Mr Marco Baoia
Fitness expert and trainer, VavistaLife