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6 Nutrition Mistakes Athletes Make and How to Fix Them

6 Nutrition Mistakes Athletes Make and How to Fix Them

By: Alexandra Raymond RD, LD

As RBA’s sports dietitian, I see athletes who have a variety of goals in mind. Whether they are preparing for a big race/game or simply wanting to learn more about nutrition for increased performance, I am there for my athletes every step of the way. Anytime you start to make changes, there are bound to be a few slip ups. I compiled a list of some of the common nutrition mistakes  athletes make, and of course, I included some tips on how to fix them. 

1. Underfueling

This is by far the most common nutrition mistake I see with the athletes I work with. Balancing energy intake and exercise can be so tricky, especially if you’re right in the middle of training season. Interestingly enough, I have read a few articles and studies that talk about how athletes may have a suppressed appetite. This is sometimes due to the intense training schedule and overall not able to get in enough fuel throughout the day, which can long term affect hunger and fullness signals. It is common for me to encourage athletes to eat even if they are not hungry. This is where shakes and smoothies can be really helpful. It is must easier to digest a liquid than solid food.

For the majority of my athletes, I recommend having 3 meals and 3-5 snacks a day, depending on training schedule and intensity. The 3 meals should include 1 food from each food group–fruit or veggie, starch, dairy, fat and protein. For example:

  • A sandwich with cheese, turkey, veggies, mayo and a side of fruit and yogurt.
  • Chili with rice and cheese and avocado for the toppings
  • Pasta with meatballs and cheese and a side spinach salad

The snacks should include the combination of a protein and a carb (like banana and peanut butter or cheese and crackers). We can then work together to assess energy level, performance, appetite and food cravings to decide whether or not that food plan is appropriate.

2. Low Sodium Intake

Sodium can be a very difficult micronutrient to balance. It’s role as an electrolyte in our bodies, especially an athlete’s body, is so important. Sodium plays a role in muscle contraction, fluid balance, and nerve transmission. While it is true that most Americans are getting too much sodium in their diets, some individuals do not need to be as mindful about limiting sodium. And what group is that? You guess it–athletes. Why is this? You may be wondering. Well, we lose sodium through our sweat, and being an athlete, you’re probably no stranger to sweat. So, if you’re losing sodium, then naturally you will need to replace it. Not to mention that generally athletes are just expending more energy than the average person.  This means that your heart, muscles, lungs…etc. need more vitamins and minerals, which includes sodium.

Now, you do not have to go overboard with adding sodium in your foods, since many of the foods you buy at the grocery store will naturally have sodium. I would recommend to add salt while cooking and avoid purchasing “low” or “reduced” sodium foods at the grocery store. This should be enough to make sure you’re getting enough! However, if you are exercising for over than an hour, it might be a good idea to replace electrolytes, including sodium, with 20oz of Gatorade.

3. Worrying Too Much About Protein Intake

Protein is a macronutrient that I feel has gotten a lot of buzz in the last few years. Between protein shakes and other supplements, it seems that many people are making an effort to have protein heavy diets in order to build muscle. While protein is clearly an important macronutrient for athletes, and I certainly wouldn’t want you having too little, most Americans tend to intake more protein than they need.

This being said, working with a sports dietitian to evaluate your diet and assessing protein intake is important, especially if you’re concerned about getting enough. Generally, if you have 5oz of meat or fish 2x/day and then include a protein source at snacks and breakfast, you should be good to go. Being a vegetarian or vegan might make this trickier for you, so I would definitely encourage speaking with a dietitian to get your needs evaluated.

4. Eating Too Little Carbohydrates

I have seen the restriction of carbs as both intentional and unintentional. Carbohydrates seem to be the villain in many different scenarios, which is a shame. Your muscles, including your heart, use glucose (the simplest form of carbs) as their main fuel source, which makes carbs essential in the diet, especially for athletes. Sometimes, people just do not know how many carbs that need to eat to support their level of activity.

As a general rule of thumb, an athlete should have 1 ½ to 2 cups of cooked grain at a meal while incorporating some sort of starch or fruit at snacks. Of course, to discern whether or not this is appropriate, it would be important for you to get your needs evaluated by a dietitian.

5. Eating Too Little Fats

Peanut butter and avocados are your friend. I get a lot of questions similar to this: “Is it okay to eat peanut butter twice a day?” or “How many nuts should I have?” or “What if I eat too much fat?” These are all valid questions! Fat is an important source of energy for athletes. Once the glucose can no longer be used, the body will tap into fat stores as energy.

I would recommend to have consciously have a fat source 3x/day. This could include having PB at breakfast, ranch dressing at lunch and stir frying veggies in olive oil at dinner. If you happen to have nuts as part of your snacks for protein, I am ok with that as well. As an athlete, your body is expending a lot of energy, so the extra servings of nuts or other types of fats will assure your body can support the energy being used up.

6. Post Training Slip Ups

I could probably write a whole blog on this! Maybe I will, so keep an eye on the RBA blog about post work out fueling 🙂 I will try to keep my advice brief this time though! I have had many athletes do an intense work out, and then skip a post work out meal or snack. Sometimes it’s simply because they get too busy! Keep in mind that for repairing muscles, you want to have a snack or meal within about 1 hour of exercise.

This snack should have a combination of carbohydrates and protein at about a 3-4:1 ratio. The carbohydrates stimulate insulin production, which then supports the muscles in uptaking the protein to repair and rebuild the cells. Some examples of post workout snacks include:

  • Peanut butter and banana toast
  • Tall glass of chocolate milk
  • Cliff bar
  • English muffin with egg and cheese

Hopefully this helped you to shed some light on what mistakes you could possibly be making! Correcting them will definitely support you in achieving optimal athletic performance. Give our office a call to get more information about our sports nutrition programs and how I can help you reach your goals!

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