When it comes to fueling a football player 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. Tara Ostrowe, MS, RD, team sports nutritionist for the New York Giants says, “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. Choosing high quality foods and being consistent with a diet year-round provides a solid foundation helping players perform at their highest potential.
Carbohydrates: To Fuel
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 (i.e., 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 .
Here’s what players should be reaching for:
- 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
Players should avoid refined carbohydrates including white bread, cakes, candy, cookies, pies, high sugar cereals, sodas, and juices.
Protein: To Build and Repair:
Players need enough protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is a fancier way of sayingto 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.
Supplements can be useful if it becomes difficult to get in the amount of protein needed or for game day and practice fueling. I always recommend making your own smoothies if you have the means, with real foods like Greek yogurt, nut butters, and fruits like berries, apples or bananas.
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 1-2 servings of fat in meals in the form of fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, meat, dairy, avocado and olive oil.
- Monounsaturated Fats: Olives and olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts (pistachios, macadamia, almonds, cashews) and sunflower seeds
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (polyunsaturated fats): fatty fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout), walnuts, flax and chia seeds
And be sure to limit:
- Full fat dairy, butter, palm oil, fried foods, fatty cuts of beef, pork and chicken, fried foods, margarine, very creamy foods (i.e., salad dressings and mayonnaise) and anything made with partially hydrogenated oil
You Can’t Forget to Snack
Snacking on real food about 2-3 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 tbsp. 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 1-2 tbsp. of almond butter for example, or pop a few turkey meatballs (a player favorite in my experience).
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.
Dana Pitman is a Registered Dietitian and a New York State Certified-Dietitian Nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery and a regular media contributor for the hospital as well as outside websites and publications.