For any athlete, whether Sunday or regular, looking for pleasure or to excel, diet is a thorny issue. Food indeed influences our weight, which of course has an effect on sporting abilities, but it also provides the energy essential to put the body in motion. It also impacts our recovery abilities. Scientific knowledge on this subject evolves very quickly and it quickly becomes difficult to navigate. The objective of this article is to help you see more clearly the essential recommendations for combining sport and health. Then I’ll go into more specific detail if you’re looking to improve your performance. To have a suitable sports diet, I give you examples of gourmet and balanced menus.
Before we begin, let’s remember that practicing regular physical activity is absolutely beneficial for our body. It develops cardiac and pulmonary capacity, it allows better oxygenation of cells, it creates endorphins… However, physical activity also increases the natural acidification of the body, which can be a source of pain . Sports people therefore have every interest in adapting their diet to preserve their health.
To function on a daily basis, our body needs energy. The amount of energy required is measured with the unit of kilocalories (abbreviated as kcal). Sports practice creates an additional energy need which will be added to our basic need. If you want to get an idea of your energy needs, you can use my calculator .
Energy is provided by three main families of sports nutrition:
I now suggest that we look in detail at each of these families of nutrients to see what their roles are in the diet of an athlete with a typical menu.
The different types of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates (or carbohydrates) belong to the large sugar family. Depending on their molecular structure, they are classified into:
- monosaccharides : glucose, fructose, dextrose
- disaccharides : saccharose, lactose
- polysaccharides: cellulose and starch for the best known
“Simple” sugars include monosaccharides which are not hydrolysable. They are of limited interest because they penetrate quickly into the blood and therefore provide immediate energy . However, on a daily basis and without specific physical effort, they are transformed into fat and cannot be synthesized by the body. Even during physical effort, athletes should be wary of certain energy bars with a high content of fast carbohydrates (sugar/carbohydrate ratio greater than 50%) and low in protein.
Complex sugars constitute the body’s medium-term energy sources . Indeed, carbohydrates are stored largely in the muscles and in the liver. Thus, the body’s carbohydrate reserve oscillates between 9 and 16g of carbohydrates per kg of muscle. Knowing that muscle constitutes approximately 40% of the body, we arrive at a reserve of approximately 300g of carbohydrates (and therefore approximately 1200 kcal) that our body can use during sports practice.
The longer and more intense the physical effort, the greater the quantity of glycogen used. When the reserves are empty, the effort can no longer be maintained at the same intensity. Thus, it is estimated that glycogen reserves seriously decrease after 90 minutes of exercise.
This phenomenon is well known, for example, to marathon runners around the 30th or 35th kilometer. It is the famous “wall” of the marathon which symbolizes the sudden drop in glycogen reserves. To continue the effort, the body must then use lipids instead of glycogen.
Knowing that our body needs different sources of carbohydrates depending on our physical activity, it is useful to adapt our carbohydrate consumption. To calculate the daily carbohydrate intake, the intensity of physical activity can be classified into three categories.
- Light activity is considered to be training at moderate intensity for 1 to 2 hours. We therefore recommend consuming 5 to 6g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight during the day.
- For medium to high intensity activity lasting more than 2 hours, 6 to 8g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight will be necessary.
- During intensive training or an intensive outing lasting more than 3 hours, the athlete must consume 8 to 10g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight.
Carbohydrate intake must be combined with protein intake, especially after exercise. Always be vigilant with simple and hidden sugars (industrial pastries, ice cream, syrup, drinks, alcohol , etc.). These sugars are empty calories and provide nothing to your body, especially in the evening.
Proteins are the main components of all cells in the human body. They are made up of chains of amino acids. There are 22 amino acids, so 8 are said to be essential because our body cannot produce them (leucine, lysine, isoleucine, methionine, threonine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, threonine). These essential amino acids must be provided in the diet in a balanced manner in order to avoid the famous limiting factor of absorption.
What is the absorption limiting factor?
Amino acids are absorbed by our body depending on the amino acid that is least present in the food consumed. By combining foods with different limiting factors, for example legumes with starchy foods, we increase the overall limiting factor of the meal. The food that contains all amino acids in ideal proportion is the egg. This is why I recommend eating eggs regularly, especially for breakfast .
However, certain amino acids play a particular role in muscle metabolism. These are the branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that we talk a lot about, particularly in the world of bodybuilding. There are three of them: L-Leucine, L-Valine and L-Isoleucine.
BCAAs accelerate recovery and maintain cellular integrity by promoting the creation of new muscle fibers and protecting existing fibers.
These amino acids are included in the composition of many food supplements used to “gain muscle”. In an amateur sport practice, these supplements are in my eyes totally unjustified. A balanced and varied diet is sufficient. Regular consumption of this type of product risks causing greater acidification of the body and tiring the kidneys.
For a sedentary subject, we recommend a daily consumption of around 0.8g per kg of body weight. Among sports people, the subject is debated. There are recommendations ranging from 1.5g to 2.5g per kg of body weight. Personally, I advise staying in a zone of 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight per day, always for the same reasons of acidification . Indeed, animal proteins are inflammatory.
However, don’t confuse the weight of a food with the amount of protein it contains. To help you in your approach, here are some examples of proteins contained in everyday foods.
|Aliment||Protein (g) per 100g of food|
|Prepared soy pancakes||17|
|Quinoa, raw amaranth
When to consume protein?
- In the morning: boiled or soft-boiled eggs, smoked fish, soy, goat’s or sheep’s yogurt
- Lunch: a portion of poultry, fish, tofu, eggs, legumes. Think about oilseeds (almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds) to accompany salads for example.
- Snack (if necessary): oilseeds, oatmeal.
- In the evening: no animal protein to promote sleep
After physical exertion, it is recommended to have a snack containing proteins and carbohydrates (in a ratio of 1/4). We recommend this snack within 4 hours after exercise to promote recovery and protein synthesis.
Lipids are found in two forms in our diet. On the one hand, structural lipids are invisible and integrated into the heart of foods (oilseeds, avocado, etc.). On the other hand, additional lipids are added to preparations: oils, butter, cream or margarine… These two forms of lipids are useful because they have different molecular structures, therefore complementary contributions for our body.
A considerable source of energy
Lipids are very energetic. Even in a thin person, the body has considerable reserves of fat. Lipids are not an effective fuel for high-intensity efforts when the energy demand is very rapid. However, they are the only source of energy in many aerobic endurance sports such as walking, cycle touring, cross-country skiing, etc. Lipids then constitute a very effective reserve.
Indeed, during a sufficiently long aerobic exercise, glycogen reserves gradually decrease. To continue physical activity, we eat sugar to provide immediate energy. If intakes are not sufficient, our body will use the lipid reserves in our adipose tissues to separate them into glycerol and fatty acids. This glycerol then provides the energy necessary for our body to continue our effort. This is lipolysis .
Here is an example of the energy provided by lipids during running.
|Effort time (running)||Energy provided by lipid oxidation|
It is said that Eddy Merckx systematically added olive oil to his soup and limited his consumption of saturated fats. This would have allowed him to shine for so long.
Inflammatory protection often neglected
Lipids not only provide energy to the body, they have many other essential functions. Thus, lipids are the only transporters of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K). They are also a unique and essential source of essential fatty acids not synthesized by our body. These essential fatty acids , notably Omega 3, are essential for membrane fluidity and visual and cerebral functions.
Lipids also play an essential anti-inflammatory role, particularly in athletes. I have spoken to you several times about inflammation and inflammatory pathologies. However, consuming essential fatty acids is essential to fight against inflammation . Indeed, studies have shown the benefit of omega 3 supplementation to reduce inflammation and improve neuronal functions.
In a first case 1 , untrained people received a supplement of 1.8g of omega 3 every day for three months. Then, markers of inflammation decreased 2 . In addition, muscle pain induced by physical effort was also delayed. Also, professional footballers were supplemented with 3.5g of omega 3 every day for a month. Their reactivity on the pitch and during certain exercises has clearly improved.
So, don’t hesitate to introduce omega 3 into your diet!
To ensure balanced intake of good quality lipids, here are some tips.
- Consume 1 tablespoon of first cold pressed vegetable oil (linseed oil, camelina oil, rapeseed oil, olive oil) with each meal
- Consume 300g to 400g of small fish (mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies) per week.
- Choose oilseeds as a snack (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.)
- Use avocado, oilseed purees in the morning
- Limit saturated fats (fried foods, cold meats, industrial products, pastries, etc.) These products should be consumed exceptionally, and away from a sports session.
I often hear that nuts, almonds, avocado, olive oil are still fatty and make you gain weight. Of course, these products are high in calories and must be consumed judiciously depending on physical activity. However, good fats are essential for the body to function. “Fat-free diets” are pure heresy.
Vegetables should be part of each of our meals, both raw and cooked. Indeed, they provide many vitamins and minerals, but also fibers essential for transit and our microbiota. These are natural prebiotics, i.e. the food for our probiotics. There are no restrictions on the quantities of vegetables consumed.
However, when practicing sports, we adapt the consumption of fruits and vegetables according to our ability to digest and the time before the next sporting activity. Thus, we will limit the quantity of raw vegetables before a sporting event so as not to accelerate transit and avoid digestive problems.
The question of fruit is much more thorny. Indeed, fruits contain fructose which remains a sugar, even if it is natural. It is therefore not wise to consume too much fruit. I advise staying in the zone of 2 to 3 servings of fruit per day, no more.
The ideal time to consume fruit also depends on each person’s digestive abilities. Fruits can easily be eaten outside of meals. They make a very good snack, especially at snack time. But eating fruit at the start of a meal also allows the food to be mixed with the rest of the meal. This slows down blood sugar spikes. The fibers contained in fruits also play a buffering role with the fats in the meal. Note that a meal should end with savory food and not with dessert.
Time between meal and sports practice
We consider that there should be between 2.5 and 3 hours between the end of a meal and practicing sports. Indeed, digestion requires considerable energy from our body. If you exercise quickly after a meal, you will not be able to digest properly. This is especially true if the effort is intense. In fact, your energy will be used by your muscles while digestion will be put on hold. This will lead to discomfort and even pain.
This is why, in daily life where we juggle work, family and physical activities, it is sometimes more judicious to have a small snack consisting of oilseeds, a hard-boiled egg, a cereal bar without sugar… rather than a real meal if the sports session comes shortly after.
Exercise drinks and bars
There are many energy bars and other drinks on the market. They can be useful during long and intense practices, or when conditions make eating difficult. The proposals are numerous. In the following I will give you advice for exercise drinks. The same comments on the quantities of sugars and proteins apply to energy bars.
In the range of exercise drinks, we distinguish between isotonic and hypertonic drinks. Isotonic drinks are easily absorbed and quickly leave the stomach. Digestive comfort is therefore better. In contrast, a hypertonic drink is less well absorbed but it can be useful in case of high heat. On the other hand, if it is too concentrated, it remains in the stomach and risks leading to digestive problems. It can even promote dehydration by drawing water into the stomach to dilute the drink.
To choose your exercise drink, here are useful elements in a 500 ml drink:
- approximately 30g of carbohydrates while respecting a sugar/carbohydrate ratio of less than 50%
- more than 300mg of sodium
- more than 56mg of magnesium
- presence of vitamin C or E or zinc
- presence of vitamin B
- more than 1g of branched amino acids (proteins)
You can also make your drink by adding 1/3 fruit juice (grape, apple, pomegranate), 2/3 water and 1.2g to 1.5g table salt for 1.5l of drink.
I hope that this article can help you better organize your sports diet with menus adapted to your needs. It is difficult to give numerical quantities because they depend on each individual, their sporting practice, their lifestyle, their pathologies, etc.
If you have specific requests to get back in shape after a break, to put an end to a period of repeated injuries, to improve your diet… an individual naturopathy session will give you personalized answers.