A Guide to Proper Nutrition for Football Players

A dumbbell weight next to nutritious foods.

What should football players eat to maximize their potential?

When it comes to fueling up to play American football, there is unequivocally no one size fits all nutrition plan. Nutritional needs vary based not just on the individual but also the position they play. Nutrition plans must be individualized for each player based on their weight, height, body fat percentage, and position on the field. One thing all plans have in common is consistency, says Tara Ostrowe, MS, RD, team sports nutritionist for the New York Giants. Choosing high quality foods and being consistent with a diet year-round provides a solid foundation helping players perform at their highest potential. Players need the right mix of carbohydrates, protein, fat (the right kind!), and properly maintain their hydration.

Carbohydrates fuel the competitive player

Athletes need carbohydrates, and plenty of them! Football players rely heavily on glycogen stores for energy. Carbohydrates are the go-to source of energy for intermittent sports, like football, where glycogen stores are often depleted during workouts and training. The amount and frequency required will vary based on the time of year (such as off-season, pre-season, etc.), the player’s specific goals, and their position.

Choosing a variety of whole grain breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables ensures these players are not only getting the carbs necessary to perform but essential vitamins, minerals and fiber, which have a slew of important functions. In particular, these help to decrease inflammation and support recovery. Carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gels and other similar products should be limited to game day and practice fueling and not in a players day-to-day eating routine.

Players should avoid refined carbohydrates, including white bread, cakes, candy, cookies, pies, high-sugar cereals, sodas, and juices.

Here are the carbs football players should eat

  • Whole Grains: oatmeal, 100% whole wheat bread, whole wheat or corn tortillas, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and low sugar cereals containing at least 5g of protein per serving.
  • Fruit: fresh whole fruit including apples, pears, bananas, melon, pineapple, cantaloupe.
  • Non-starchy Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, peppers, zucchini, lettuce greens (the darker the better), squash, onions, cauliflower, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots.
  • Starchy Vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, butternut squash.
  • Beans and legumes: kidney beans, black beans, white beans, lentils.
  • Dairy: Greek yogurt, low-fat milk and chocolate milk.

Protein builds and repairs muscle

Players need enough protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (build muscle), and also to repair muscle damage that occurs during training. Choosing lean, high quality protein at meals, but also before and after every workout is imperative. It’s a common misconception that athletes need to consume extra protein through shakes, bars and powders. Research shows that consumption of excessive amounts of protein offer no benefit to stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and will more often just displace other important nutrients your body needs. The truth is it’s possible to meet a football player’s protein needs through real food. This requires planning a diet that includes high quality sources of protein spread throughout the day through properly timed meals and snacks and avoiding an overload of protein at one meal or specific time.

Think skinless chicken or turkey, lean red meats, beans, eggs and fish. And those coveted branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are readily found in dairy and meat, so you can skip the supplements.

Protein supplements can be useful if it becomes difficult to get in the amount of protein needed or for game day and practice fueling. It is best to make your own smoothies if you have the means, with real foods like Greek yogurt, nut butters, and fruits like berries, apples or bananas.

(Good) fat is essential – in moderation

Football players also need fat, but the good kind. Too much fat (usually the saturated kind) can put players at risk for increased fat mass, which only serves to slow them down and kill performance goals. Too little fat can affect nutrient absorption and ultimately impact performance as well, so moderation is the name of the game here. Not only is fat calorie dense, meaning a little goes a long way, but it’ll keep players satisfied meal to meal. Include 1 to 2 servings of fat in meals in the form of fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, meat, dairy, avocado and olive oil.

Focus on these fats and fat sources

  • Monounsaturated fats:
    • Olives and olive oil, canola oil, avocado
    • Sunflower seeds and nuts (pistachios, macadamia, almonds, cashews)
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids (polyunsaturated fats):
    • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout)
    • Walnuts, flax and chia seeds

Be sure to limit these fats

  • Full fat dairy, including butter
  • palm oil, margarine and anything containing partially hydrogenated oil
  • fried foods
  • fatty cuts of beef, pork and chicken
  • fried foods
  • very creamy foods (creamy salad dressings and mayonnaise)

Don’t forget to snack

Snacking on real food about 2 to 3 times per day keeps players satisfied and adequately fueled between meals. Optimizing performance means players need some serious nutrient bang for their calorie buck and whole foods win the nutrient density competition every time. If you want to play at the top of your game, get rid of the junk food. Your body will thank you and your performance will improve tremendously. Remember that food is functional and it serves a purpose. When that purpose is helping players recover after two a days, that food needs to be filled with as much high quality nutrition as possible. Packaged snacks and bars, no matter what they promise, can never live up to their hype. Whole foods provide plenty of protein, fiber, fat and complex carbohydrates in an ideal combination that makes it easy for the body to utilize.

Think whole fruit such as apples and bananas with ¾ cup low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt, a handful of nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter on a piece of whole grain toast, lettuce roll-ups with turkey, avocado and mustard, a protein shake or smoothie made with plain Greek yogurt, fruit and 1to 2 tablespoons of almond butter for example, or pop a few turkey meatballs (a  common player favorite).

Hydration is key

Dehydration is no joke and something football players need to take very seriously. Especially during pre-season and the very beginning of the season when temperatures are high and they’re wearing all that gear. During practice, or a game, players aim for 16-20 oz. of fluid per hour and should be drinking something every 15-20 minutes or so. Players need to consider the need for added electrolytes (in the form of a sports drink or something as simple as a banana or a handful of pretzels for example)  for anything lasting  more than an hour, and especially if they are heavy sweaters.


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