Macro Nutrients For Athletes
Taking the time to sit down and create a complete nutrition program is one of the best things you can do for your health and to help you reach your athletic goals. How well you plan your nutrition and stick to it will affect how well you’re able to train, your performance, the gains you make from training as well as how fast and how completely your body recovers. Your body is constantly recreating itself and the foods you consume are the building blocks it will use to rebuild and recreate your muscles, your organs, your cells and every other inch of your body.
With your nutrition, the goal is to ensure you are getting a balanced diet of lean proteins, slow digesting carbohydrates, healthy fats and plenty of water.
However, creating a complete nutrition program can be frustrating and often raises more questions than it answers, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
In this article, we’ll cover what everyone needs to know about each macro-nutrient, what each one does in your body and how to integrate them into your nutrition program.
Here is an overview of each macro-nutrient you should combine to create your balanced diet.
Protein: A Complete Look
Without a doubt, protein is the macro-nutrient that gets the most attention and for good reason.
Proteins are the building blocks of your body. When you consume protein your body transforms ingested protein into living tissue through a series of metabolic processes. When you ingest protein it passes through your stomach and into your small intestines where it is broken down by enzymes into individual amino acids. Those amino acids will become your body’s building blocks to maintain, repair and grow body tissue. However, to get the most out of the protein you ingest, there are some key concepts you need to understand, so you know how the protein works in your body and why you need to consume complete proteins regularly throughout the day.
Once your body breaks down protein into amino acids they are collected and exchanged in your liver, your blood and the spaces surrounding your muscle’s individual muscle fibers for up to three to four hours. During this time, individual amino acids will combine to create complete amino acid profiles needed for cellular protein synthesis. If all needed amino acid combinations are available within the three to four-hour window, the complete amino acid combinations will be taken up and used by the cells in your body.
However, if your body does not have all the needed amino acid combinations within the three to four hour time window, the present amino acids will no longer be useful and the process of consuming protein, breaking it down into amino acids and combining the correct amino acids for cellular protein synthesis will have to start over again. This is why it is critical for you to consume complete proteins every three to four hours. This way you can keep a steady flow of amino acids going to your muscles for repair and other body tissue needs.
Examples of complete proteins from animal sources are meats, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Soy protein is a plant-based source of complete protein. Grains that contain complete proteins are quinoa and amaranth.
For incomplete proteins, some examples are nuts, seeds, nut butter, green peas, legumes (such as lentils, black beans, pinto beans, navy beans and chick peas) and most grains.
If your preference is to consume your protein from plant-based protein sources, but find yourself limited in options of complete proteins, with some careful planning you can pair different incomplete proteins sources to provide your body with the complete amino acid profiles it needs. For example, you can pair grains, nuts or seeds with legumes, such as black beans or lentils to form complete proteins. Another option can be pairing peanut butter with whole grain bread or brown rice with black beans to create another complete protein combination. This route will take a little more careful planning, but it can definitely work for you.
Keep in mind, the objective isn’t to consume large amounts of proteins at once, but to have a consistent consumption of complete proteins or amino acid profiles every two to three hours throughout the day. This will help keep amino acids supplied to your body and the complete combinations of them for cellular protein synthesis.
Also, if you are on a high protein diet it can put excess stress on your liver and kidneys. Ingesting a larger quantity of water throughout the day will help to reduce this stress and keep your kidneys clean. As a rule of thumb, athletes with higher protein diets should consume at least one gallon of water per day.
Carbohydrates: Fast or Slow?
If proteins are the building block of the body, then carbohydrates are the fuel source your body runs on. However, over the years, carbohydrates have been given a bad wrap, which has led to many people drastically cut back on their carbohydrate intake or completely cut them out altogether, which isn’t the right approach.
As an athlete, you rely on carbohydrates for energy throughout the day, during your training sessions to fuel your workouts and after tough training sessions to help your body recover.
More importantly than cutting out carbohydrates is knowing how to select between slow digesting carbohydrates and fast digesting carbohydrates and then time them properly into your day and workouts for maximum performance, recovery and body composition control.
Why Slow Digesting Carbohydrates?
Why should we choose slow digesting carbohydrates in the first place? Slow digesting carbohydrates, such as brown rice, whole oats, barley, quinoa, beans, sweet potatoes, and vegetables are going to break down slowly in the body and provide you with steady energy levels for hours after you consume them.
In addition, slow digesting carbohydrates will have a much lower impact on your blood (sugar) glucose levels. So, they won't cause the insulin release you’d get from fast digesting carbohydrates that usually results in a spike in energy followed by the typical crash in energy and unwanted weight gain. Instead, slow digesting carbohydrates will offer a smoother flow of energy will last hours instead of minutes and will keep you energized throughout the day. (For more on insulin and the role it plays, review Part 1 and Part 2 of my insulin series)
Furthermore, slow digesting carbohydrates are typically high in fiber as well, and when managing your health and weight, you want to maximize your day to day fiber as best as possible. By getting enough fiber throughout the day you'll keep your hunger levels down and also support good health.
For all of these reasons, slow digesting carbohydrates are the perfect carbohydrate to consume during the day around the hours outside of your training sessions.
Assessing The Calorie Value
Before adding slow digesting carbohydrates to your diet, one important point to note is that you need to consider their calorie value. Since weight control does come down to controlling both the release of insulin in your body and consuming the correct amount of calories, you need to be aware of how many calories you’re getting from your carbohydrates.
Slow digesting carbohydrates can vary considerably with how many calories they contain with sources such as a cup of cooked brown rice or quinoa containing around 200 calories versus broccoli or salad, which contains a mere 10-20 calories per cup.
This will make a big difference in the total number of calorie you eat. So, you should watch how many calories you eat per meal throughout the day.
Adding Slow Digesting Carbohydrates To Your Meal Plan
So now that we’ve covered what slow digesting carbohydrates are and it’s important to eat them, what’s the best way to add them to your meal plan?
Ideally, you should choose to eat the higher calorie varieties of slow digesting carbohydrates earlier on during the day when you are more likely up and moving around. This is the time of the day when your body will require more energy and will burn more calories. Another great time to add higher calorie, but still slow digesting carbohydrates are before your training sessions in your pre-training meal. The energy-dense carbohydrates like brown rice, black beans or old fashion oatmeal will fill your glycogen stores and will give you the energy you need to perform at your best during training. If you’re using whole food for your pre-training meal, it’s ideal to have your pre-training meal no less than ninety minutes before your actual workout. This will give your body adequate time to digest your meal and fill your glycogen stores before your workout.
Then, during the late afternoon and evening hours when you're winding down and don't need as much energy, you should turn to the low calorie, slow digesting carbohydrates since these are lower in calories (energy). Some examples that would good here are broccoli, spinach or mixed vegetables.
By structuring your meals in this way, you can really help to boost your control of insulin, your performance, and your body composition. If you can get carbohydrates added into your diet properly, you can avoid ultra low carbohydrate diets and still get the results you want.
Adding Fast Digesting Carbohydrates To Your Workouts
On the flip side, fast digesting carbohydrates are those that break down very quickly and enter your bloodstream fast. They are made up primarily of simple sugar molecules and consist of foods such as white bread, white rice, yogurt, pastries, cereals, donuts and so on.
When these simple carbohydrates enter into your blood, they produce a rapid rise in blood sugar. This causes a high amount of insulin to be released, which quickly shuttles those carbohydrate molecules into your muscles, liver, and fat cells. (For more on insulin and the role it plays, review Part 1 and Part 2 of my insulin series)
Due to this process of quickly removing the high amounts of blood sugar from the bloodstream there is a high risk of gaining fat, so you should time your quick digesting carbohydrates so they are consumed right after your training session. During this time, your muscles and liver are typically depleted of glucose and your muscles receptors are open to allow glucose into your muscles faster, which is when you have less of a chance of glucose being carried off into your fat cells.
By consuming fast digesting carbohydrates after your training sessions, you’ll replenish your muscle and liver glycogen stores faster and in the process speed your recovery.
What does this mean to you? If you are training hard and need that extra fuel, you should incorporate fast digesting carbohydrates into your training plan. Fast-digesting carbohydrates will serve you better during and immediately following your training sessions vs. slow digesting carbohydrates. Additionally, adding fast digesting carbohydrates following training sessions will reload glycogen stores faster and help shuttle other nutrients, such as branch chain amino acids, into your muscles as well. This will help to refuel your muscles faster and speed up recovery.
Fats: Essential For A Healthy Body
For years, fats have received a bad wrap, but more recently the right kind of fats have been recognized for the role they play in a healthy and a balanced diet. Fats help with several bodily functions ranging from tissue repair, including muscle repair, they help with healthy hormone production, they help the body meet energy demands, protect the heart, support emotional health, defend against cancer and much more.
The key to fat ingestion is consuming the right amount of fats and the right kind of fats. As a rule of thumb, in a balanced diet of protein and carbohydrates, most of the essential fats needed should be consumed without the need for very much deliberate fat ingestion if any at all. Selecting foods such as avocados, nuts or nut butter, fatty fish like salmon, olive oil or eggs can provide you with the fats your body needs.
The right kinds of fats or “good fats” are monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. These fats are good for your heart, cholesterol, and overall health. These good fats are typically the fats that stay in liquid form at room temperature. For an example of good fats think of olive oil or fish oil.
The fats you want to limit your intake on or “bad fats” are made up of saturated fat and trans fat. These fats tend to be solid at room temperature and contribute to elevated levels of cholesterol and increase your risk of a variety of diseases. For an example of “bad fats” think of margarine or the fat on pork and beef. Although you should consume some of these fats and the bacon craze is all over social media high consumption of these fats is unhealthy.
Water: Keep Your Body Running At Its Peak
When talking about nutrition, one important but often overlooked part of nutrition is water. Water is responsible for a whole host of functions in you body ranging from regulating your body’s temperature to assisting with digestion to being a vital component in synovial fluid, the lubricant in you joints, as well as cerebrospinal fluid in your nervous system.
Water accounts for roughly 60% of your body’s weight. As mentioned above water helps regulate body temperature and is vital for 50% of all chemical reactions occurring in your body. Some of the responsibilities of water include movement of nutrients, assisting in digestion and the absorption process, circulation and the excretions of wastes from your body.
Even slight dehydration can impact several bodily functions, keeping your body from running at optimal efficiency. At just 2% dehydration you body’s work capacity decreases by 12 to 15%, your body temperature increases and your heart rate increases too.
The average person loses 1 to 3 quarts of water per day or 4 to 12 cups of water per day. If you’re training regularly, you will lose more water than the average person. Also, a high protein diet requires more water consumption too. As a rule of thumb, if you’re training regularly you should consume a minimum of one gallon of water per day.
When your body is deprived of fluids, it will pull water from any reserves it can in an effort to maintain critical blood volume and maintain safe body temperature. These fluid imbalances contribute to a host of metabolic disorders, which you can easily avoid by getting into the habit of drinking more water.