NUTRIONAL NEEDS OF ATHLETES
Shruti Pandey, Vasudeva Singh
Central Food Technological Research Institute
Annotation. Aim – is to provide a comprehensive information regarding the nutritional needs of athletes, followed by
female athletes who have a higher necessity for Iron. Sports and nutrition are directly related to each other. Taking into
consideration the fact that sports person need more energy to carry out their sporting activity effectively, it becomes of
prime importance to take care for sports performance. Athletes must supposedly eat the perfect ratio of Protein,
carbohydrate and fat at each meal and snack to control the hormonal systems and thus reach their maximum
performance and ideal weight .The carbohydrate/protein/fat ratio of the 40-30-30 diet allegedly maintains the proper
balance between the hormones insulin and glucagon. The present review focuses on the intake for a wholesome nutrient
and well balanced diet for better performance among male as well as female athletes.
Keywords: sports performance, endurance sports, Glycemic index, female athletes, hemodilution.
Training to improve performance in sports is undoubtedly necessary, however over the years, it has been
realized that nutrition is also critically important. Success in sports depends on three factors genetic endowments, the
state of training and nutrition. Genetic constitution cannot be changed, specialized exercise training is the major means
to improve athletic performance and proper nutrition is of paramount importance. As per the conference held by Sports
Authority of India in 2005, Sports nutrition assumed critical importance, because long before deficiency symptoms start
appearing, physical performance of the athlete declines. The level which permits the athlete to achieve the maximum
possible physical performance should be the minimum level aimed in the sports nutrition.(Nutrition and Hydration
Guidelines for excellence in Sports Performance, 2005).Requirement may vary from 12.5 -25 Mega Joule (MJ) the
higher values associated with high intensity endurance sports such as cross country running or skiing and marathon
running. An optimal diet is one which consists of the supply of required nutrients is adequate amount to cover energy
expenditure, tissue maintenance, repair and growth. The nutritional needs differ from individual to individual, and are
based on age, sex, body size and composition, occupation, physiological condition etc. Nutritional requirements of
athletes should take care into consideration the specific energy requirements of particular sports and phase of training
and by the athlete’s dietary preferences. There is no particular diet for optimal sports performance. However, there is a
need for sound nutritional guidelines in planning and evaluating food intake of an athlete. Athlete’s nutritional status
can be assessed by the ABCDE method that is generally being used for population studies. Here ‘A’ implies for
Anthropometrics which includes measurements such as weight, height and other physical parameters of athlete.
Biochemical analysis includes recognizing signs and symptoms of deficiencies or excesses in the individual’s body.
Diet history is a method of assessment that indicates what a person has been eating over a period of time. Economic
status is an additional factor that should also be taken into consideration when assessing one’s nutritional intake. There
are about 45 nutrients viz Glucose, essential fatty acids and amino acids, 13 Vitamins, 21 minerals and water which are
obtained from a diet or supplemented in a diet.
Buskirk (1982) opined that the total caloric need is influenced by the body weight, the frequency of repetition
of the event, category of sport taken and the length of practice during training. Training itself increases the daily caloric
need by 5-40% depending on the nature of the exercise and the length of practice. Women athletes require 10% fewer
calories to cover the energy need for each type of sport or during training. As per the guidelines for Nutrition and
Hydration for excellence in sports and Nutrition (2005), athletes especially females and participants in endurance and
aesthetic sports are chronically energy deficient. This energy deficiency impairs performance growth and health.
Reproductive disorders in female athletes are caused by the low energy availability perhaps specifically by low
carbohydrate availability and lot by the stress of exercise. Focus should be given on wholesome unrefined complex
carbohydrates in the menu planning for athletes as they are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, have
essential fatty acid, antioxidants and promote satiety. These disorders can be prevented by dietary supplementation in
compensation for exercise energy expenditure.
Aim – is to provide a comprehensive information regarding the nutritional needs of athletes, followed by
female athletes who have a higher necessity for Iron.
They are the preferred source of energy for all body functions and muscular exertions and are necessary to
assist other foods in digestion, assimilation, and elimination. It is generally recommended that at least 55% of total
calories should be from carbohydrate for an average person (FAO/WHO/UNU, 1985, Technical Series No
724).Athletes need total carbohydrate to be closer to the WHO recommendation in order to properly store enough fuel
for their events, especially for endurance competition. A minimal daily amount of carbohydrates recommended for an
athlete is 300 grams if the total intake is 2000 K.cal
© Shruti Pandey, Vasudeva Singh, 2013
Muscle cells utilize the energy provided by fats, carbohydrates and protein. In sports activities, however,
protein as a source of energy is not desirable. Certain sports activities need additional amount of glycogen storage to be
spared during the events. In such situations appropriate carbohydrate loading techniques may be adopted if the
carbohydrate stores are below normal. However, recent studies have shown that as long as the intake of carbohydrates is
meeting the recommended levels, carbohydrate loading is not desirable since it will limit intake of other essential
nutrients which are required for optimal performance. The first source of glucose for the exercising muscle is its own
glucose store. When this is depleted glycogenolysis and then gluconeogenesis maintain the glucose supply. During
endurance exercise that exceeds 90 mins, such as marathon running, muscle glycogen stores become progressively
lower. When they drop to critically low levels high intensity exercise cannot be maintained. In practical terms the
athlete is exhausted and must either stop exercising or drastically reduce the pace. It is recommended that athletes in
heavy training should consume a carbohydrate intake of 6-10 g/kg of body weight daily to prevent daily carbohydrate
and glycogen depletion. The amount required depends on the athlete’s total daily expenditure, type of sport, gender and
environmental conditions. Hargreaves (1991) both recommend that carbohydrate with a moderate to high glycemic
index be consumed after exercise. Research has demonstrated that a diet based on high Glycemic index carbohydrate
foods promoted greater glycogen storage in the first 24 hours of recovery after strenuous exercise than an equal amount
of carbohydrate eaten in the form of low GI index foods. Numerous studies have concluded that increased carbohydrate
intake can improve capacity. Nilsson (1973) was of the opinion that, high carbohydrate diets optimize muscle and liver
glycogen stores. Recent studies have also suggested that benefit of carbohydrate consumption is not limited to
maintenance of glycogen stores, but also related to maintenance of Krebs cycle intermediates Spencer & Yan (1991)
and preservation of the bio energetic state of exercising muscle Larson & Hesslink (1994). Sports nutrition guidelines
recommend that 60-65% of total energy should come from CHO. It may be more appropriate; however, to base
recommendations on body weight which is independent of energy intake Coyle (1992).Furthermore the low GI meal
was found to maintain both glucose and free fatty acids at higher concentrations during the later stages of exercise.
Staleness is a physiologic state caused by gradual depletion of the glycogen reserves in the body by strenuous
endurance workouts even though the person may be consuming a typical carbohydrate intake. An athlete can optimize
his/her glycogen reserves by gradually decreasing the intensity of exerci se workouts several days prior to competition,
while maintain a high complex carbohydrate intake. In glycogen loading the athlete trains at a high aerobic intensity and
about one week before the event gradually reduces or tapers the duration of exercise on successive days. Carbohydrate
represents 50-55% of calories during the first 3 days and then is increased to 70 -75% of calories for the last 3 days
before the competition. The pre event meal should be largely digested and absorbed before the event so as to minimize
gastric upset and energy being expended to digest and absorb the food during the event.
According to Thomas & Brotherhood (1994) low GI meal eaten before an event prolongs endurance during
strenuous exercise. The bio chemical findings suggest that the mechanism is associated with the ability to produce
relatively low concentration of plasma glucose, insulin and lactate compared with the high GI meals in the period
immediately after ingestion. Furthermore the low GI meals were found to maintain bo th glucose and free fatty acids at
higher concentration during the later stages of exercise.
Protein – The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein for most people is 0.8 grams per kilogram
of body weight for endurance athletes and body builders. Power and endurance athletes appear to need protein 1.2-1.5
g/ Kg body weight. Endurance athletes may need additional protein for repair of damaged muscle fibers. The
International center for sports Nutrition endorses the range of 1.0-1.5g/Kg body weight/day. Endurance athletes require
a little more protein than power athletes as they retain some of this protein in their muscles. Some evidence exists that
creatinine formed from glycine plus Arginine and Methionine may be beneficial. It is one of the most important
nutrients in the maintenance of good health and vitality. It is of vital importance in the growth and development of all
body tissues. The active body’s use of proteins as a fuel to meet 2-5% of energy needs during rest and low/moderate
exercise, while, it provides 10-15% of energy needs during endurance exercise. A carbohydrate rich diet spares protein
from being used as fuel. Athletes do not generally need extra protein unless they are trying to gain muscle mass or they
engage in endurance sports.
Fat –Moderate consumption of fat and a balance between saturated and unsaturated fats are desirable. For a
balanced diet, the total dietary fat has to be reduced to less than 30 per cent of total calories whereas saturated fats
intake has to reduce by 10 per cent of total calories.
Micronutrients-Apart from macro nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins and fats, the body requires
micronutrients, minerals and vitamins in small quantities for its proper functioning. Micronutrients are required in micro
quantities and include vitamins and minerals. These are required for growth and repair of body tissues, metabolic
reactions and immune functions.
Vitamin E- It is needed for normal muscle function. Exercise is known to alter skeletal muscle blood flow.
Exercise influences oxidation metabolism and Vitamin E may lower the oxidative stress associated with exercise.
Iron-Surveys of athletic group have shown that both males and females, particularly those involved in intense
endurance sports, have hemoglobin concentration in the low and mid range of the population norms. This is referred to
as sports anemia. In most athletes the lower hemoglobin is caused by a training which induces increase in plasma
volume that dilutes the Red Blood Cell. The increase in blood plasma is a beneficial adaptation to aerobic exercise and
should be called dilutional pseudo anemia. Some athletes however develop true anemia which is a deficiency in the total
amount of circulating Hemoglobin or RBC. The extent of iron deficiency in athletes appears to be higher than in the
general population, without question elite runners have lower plasma ferritin levels than the general population. This
difference may be attributed to hemodilution. Transfer of absorbed iron into larger muscles and RBC or altered iron
metabolism comprehensive examination in male endurance athletes have concluded that psuedoanemia or Iron
deficiency existed when all markers of iron status were considered.
Dietary fiber-Dietary fiber, or sometimes roughage or ruffage is the indigestible portion of plant foods
having two main components:
Insoluble fiber that is metabolically inert, absorbing water as it moves through the digestive
system, easing defecation.
Soluble fiber absorbs water to become a gelatinous, viscous substance and is fermented by
bacteria in the digestive tract. Insoluble fiber has bulking action and is not fermented Anderson & Baird
(2009). The recommendation for a healthy amount of dietary fiber varies between 25 and 48 grams a day for
diets ranging from 3000-7000 k.cal per day. In some cultures and in ancient diets 60-100 grams of fiber was
consumed. Some examples of fibers naturally found in foods are hemicelluloses, pectin, and gums. The foods
with the highest amounts of fiber are beans, legumes and peas. In addition to the weight control benefit and
reduced blood cholesterol and colon disease, fiber also benefits health by promoting softer larger stool and
regularity, by slowing glucose absorption and reducing hemorrhoids and diverticulitis.
Water is required for a variety of reasons; It transports nutrients and gases to cells, wastes
from cells, as also other substances
It combines with viscous molecules to form lubricating fluids for joints, for smooth
movement of food through digestive tract etc.
It helps maintain body temperature
It maintains cellular shape, is an integral part of cell membrane, cushions organs and helps
maintain body structures.
Pre event Rehydration
Athletes should consume 1.5 to 3 L of fluid above their normal intake the day before the event.
Athletes should consume 0.5 L of water 1-2 hours prior to the event and 0.6 L of water or other fluids 10-15
minutes before event.
Empty their bladder 15 minutes prior to the event is a must.
Athletes should drink cool water during the event as it is absorbed faster and cools the body better than water
at room temperature.
During – event Hydration
Athletes should drink 150 ml to 250 ml every 10-15 minutes to maintain fluid balance.
Athletes should sip the water, and not gulp it down.
Performance Enhancing Substances
The following broad categories of performance enhancing substances and methods were banned by the
International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2005 .These categories are
2 Narcotic Analgesics
3 Androgenic anabolic steroids
4 β- Blockers
7 Diuretics and other estrogenic activity
8 Peptide hormones and analogues
9 Substances that alter the integrity of urine samples.
10 Enhancers of oxygen transport
11 Chemical & physical manipulations
12 Agents with other anti- estrogenic activity
13 Gene doping
Sports supplement including vitamin and mineral supplements should be taken only in case of their deficiency
and only after consulting a Doctor and of prescribed potencies to avoid any adverse effect on health. Some athletes take
excessive amounts of supplements under the mistaken belief that it will improve performance. Following points need to
While calcium is good for woman’s health too much of anything can cause problems. The
body has a natural mechanism for protecting against calcium overdose, but it can be over-ridden if more than 4
grams of calcium are consumed per day. The two most serious effects of calcium overdose are renal damage
and the deposit of calcium in other parts of the body besides bone.
While it is important to meet the body’s requirements for vitamins and minerals, it is
sometimes dangerous to exceed these needs. Taking extra vitamins and minerals or any other nutrient will not
make an athlete bigger, stronger or faster.
The majority of supplements have not been researched thoroughly, especially on teenage
athletes. In addition long term studies on safety are not extensively available. Stimulating herbs such as
guarana and yohimbine can cause anxiety and dizziness. One such dangerous example is ephedra, which can
have adverse effects such as nervousness, irregular heartbeat, and can be deadly in some cases.
Creatine supplements may negatively affect kidney function and promote dehydration.
Amino acid and protein supplements, while not dangerous, are an unnecessary expense when
diet alone can meet protein needs. Hard training and proper nutrition, and food should be the first priority in an
athlete’s nutrition program.
Elimination of free radicals
Increased physical activity may necessitate higher input of vitamins particularly vitamins C, B2, A and E. But
this increased input would come from diet if energy expenditure is met from energy input. For most athletes there is,
therefore no need for vitamin supplements. However in respect of athletes who have to restrict body weight and
therefore no need for vitamin supplements. However in respect of Athletes who have to restrict body weight and
therefore their diet there is likely to be inadequacy of micronutrients and supplementation will become necessary.
Losses of minerals can occur from strenuous exercises. Losses of iron and magnesium are likely from sweat
particularly in hot conditions. If dietary intake fails to compensate for these losses athletic performance will be
adversely affected. Hence iron, zinc and magnesium supplements may be necessary. But these should not exceed 1-2
times the RDA. Excessive intake of minerals can be toxic. Female athletes who are trained in hot conditions are likely
to lose iron and calcium. They will require calcium supplements to maintain healthy bones.
Nutrition for Female Athletes-
The Ideal diet is based on the woman’s weight and consists of percentages of various food types proportional
to that weight. In general, for female athletes, the recommended allowances for macro nutrients are similar to those
recommended for male counterparts. Care should be taken in the case of micronutrients especially iron and calcium,
because of additional physiological demands of female athletes. In addition to iron and calcium the meals should be rich
in B-12, Folate and zinc. Diets should include 30 mg of iron, 800-1200 mg of calcium and 1.3 mg of B-12 a day.
Calcium needs can be met by 3 to 4 servings of low fat milk, yogurt or other calcium rich foods. Calcium absorption
requires adequate amount of protein, lactose, vitamin D and acidic foods.
Weight training is important to the female athlete. Women need to balance upper and lower body weight to
achieve overall body strength. Weight lifting programs that are done 2 or 3 times a week increase bone density,
decrease fat and improve muscle definition.
Training is an important part of sports performance but diet also plays a major role. While the calorie
requirements varied with the sports categories it is now found that in the same category of sports energy expenditure at
different stages of training varied a good deal. These variations have to be reflected in energy intake to prevent
undesired weight gain. Hydration is as critical as nutrition performance will be seriously affected if fluid balance is
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