Calories, Carbs and Protein: What's a Player to Eat?
In my last article, I pointed out that many players do not eat what is considered a solid soccer diet. In general they eat too few calories and take in too few carbohydrates. Their diet also lacks key vitamins and minerals. What is the ideal daily diet for a soccer player?
Developing a solid nutritional strategy and selecting the right foods to eat can be challenging. Given the variety of today's food choices and methods of preparation, it’s easy to see how players can be confused over what to eat each day. However, a few guidelines can help guide them to a solid diet, one that will pay dividends on the field.
Depending on the day’s activity, an intense match or light training, players need to replace anywhere between 20 and 27 calories per pound of body weight (45-60 calories per kilogram). For a 160-pound (72.5 kg) college male, that equals 3,200-4,300 calories per day. For a 110-pound youth female (50 kg), 2,200-2,900 calories per day are needed.
However, simply eating enough calories is not enough. Players should understand that it’s the quality of the diet that holds the key to improved performance on the pitch. There needs to be a balance between the macronutrients in the diet – carbohydrates, fats and protein. As a general rule, the total calories consumed each day should come from carbohydrates (60-70 percent), fats (20-25 percent) and proteins (10 percent).
Based on the number of calories needed each day, players should eat about 4 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day (9 g/kg). Carbohydrates are clearly the major component of a solid diet. It’s important to understand that not all carbohydrates are the same. Carbohydrates are often classified as simple sugars or complex carbohydrates. Glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar) are simple sugars that are found in foods like candies, pastries and sodas. They can also be found in many fruits and milk. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are long chains of simple sugars and are often called starches. They are found in grains, pastas, rice, breads, potatoes and vegetables.
The focus should be on complex carbohydrates. There are several advantages to eating complex carbohydrates rather than simple sugars. Complex carbohydrates generally take longer to digest and don’t dramatically affect blood sugar. Nor do they cause the so called “sugar rush/sugar crash” like simple sugars may do. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates also contain other important nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber. Therein lies a key benefit, more complete nutrition. Cakes, cookies and candy don’t offer much in the way of nutritional support. However, fresh fruits, which may contain simple sugars, also have plenty of vitamins and fiber. Thus, players should focus on complex carbohydrates as their main source of carbohydrates and add in fresh fruits and milk as well.
There is also quite a bit of debate over how much protein and player needs. Each day, players need about 0.6-0.8 g of protein per pound of body weight (1.5-1.8 g/kg). For a 160-pound player, that’s equal to about 100-130g per day, 66-88 g for a 110-pound player. That level of protein intake can easily be achieved through a solid diet that contains meats and vegetables. For example, a 6 oz. grilled chicken breast contains more than 50g of protein. An 8 oz. glass of low fat milk contains an additional 8g. Those items alone provide 50-75 percent of the daily protein requirements. If the player is eating a solid diet with lean meats, milk and vegetables, additional protein supplements are generally not needed. Most research shows that the protein supplements do little more than provide added calories. Also, the type of proteins and amino acids contained in supplements are no more or no less effective than food sources.
Players do need some fat in the diet and diets with less than 20 percent fat do not appreciably improve performance. However, fats should be limited wherever possible. In particular, avoid fried foods whether they are meats or vegetables. Also avoid creamy sauces and dressings and limit condiments like mayonnaise and butter. Replacing high fat items with low-fat is another good idea. For example, drink low-fat milk rather than whole and opt for lean meats like turkey and chicken rather than high-fat, processed meats such as bacon and hot dogs.
Thinking About The Diet
Encourage your players to think about what they eat. Counting calories and grams of carbohydrates can be a difficult and frustrating task. An easier approach is to help players understand the quality of what they eat. They should know the difference between a meal including baked chicken and a baked potato and one with chicken nuggets and fries. Also, fatty meats should be replaced with turkey, chicken or lean beef. They should realize that fresh fruits and vegetables are solid choices that contain carbohydrates, proteins as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Whereas simple and processed sugars found in cakes, candies and sodas offer little nutritional value. It’s also a good idea to encourage them to do a bit of investigating. They might be surprised to find that their turkey and bacon sandwich made with white bread and slathered with mayonnaise has a remarkably high fat content.
By taking a qualitative approach and thinking about the types of foods selected, players can develop their own solid diet that meets the nutritional requirements listed above. By doing this, they can ensure themselves of peak performance on the field. In addition, using this approach with young players can instill solid dietary habits that may last into adulthood.
Dr. Jay Williams, Ph. D., is a professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech. His research focuses on the responses and adaptations of muscle to activity, inactivity and disease. He also has a long history of working with athletes, ranging from kindergarten soccer players to Olympic tracks and field athletes.
Dr. Williams has teamed up with Robin Russell of Sports Path to develop this simple interactive online learning course and community on the topic. NSCAA members can receive a 20 percent discount on the course. For more information, visit the Soccer Diet: The Simplest Way to Improve Your Team's Performance homepage.
For more information on how diet can affect soccer performance, please visit www.soccerteamdiet.com.