By Sina D’Amico, RDN, LDN
The weight room is definitely a place where nutrition topics are talked about, and can be a prime spot to offer fueling opportunities or have them set up close by. A fueling station allows sports dietitians to observe athlete nutrition fueling strategies pre- and post-training, and provide hands-on nutrition education. Part of the goal is to set the athlete up for performance success. Once a training session starts, strength coaches are often the eyes and ears of the sports dietitian – and hear what athletes are saying regarding their nutrition.
We spoke with strength coaches from multiple universities, and it’s clear they have heard athletes say a lot of things about nutrition that aren’t based on fact. Below are some statements overheard in the weight room, and the evidence to refute them and show they are not always correct.
“I’ll take the one with the most protein”
Sports dietitians emphasize the importance of protein following a strength training session where muscle growth and repair is vital. The general recommendation for protein intake is 20-40 grams, ideally in 3-4 hour increments throughout the day. This level of frequency has been shown to promote increased levels of muscle protein synthesis and enhance adaptation to performance (Jager et al., 2017).
However, this general recommendation is not a blanket statement for all athletes since total intake should be adjusted based on the individual and their circumstances. To promote muscle anabolism, the minimum protein target at a single eating opportunity (for example, a meal or recovery time) is 0.4 grams per kilogram body weight, with an upper end being 0.55 grams per kilogram (Schoenfield et al., 2018). So post-training, a 130 pound athlete would need 24 grams of protein, while a 230 pound athlete would need 42 grams. Across a full day with four timepoints to take in nutrition, protein would total 1.6-2.2g/kg body weight. The fluctuation between recommended amounts depends on athlete-specific body composition goals or potential injury status. More is not always the best choice for everyone. Always encourage your athlete to meet with their sports dietitian to get a better understanding as to what product matches their personal nutrition needs.
“Working out fasted helps you burn fat quicker”
While it is true that engaging in exercise in a fasted state can lead to your body using fat as the primary energy source, this is not the preferred energy source for all activities and this strategy may not be appropriate for all athletes. Simply using fat as an energy source does not directly translate to measurable loss of body fat mass. This can also make it difficult to keep up with training demands. Fasted workouts have been shown to decrease performance, especially in longer duration sessions (Zouhal et al., 2020). Continuing fasted workouts for too long (longer than three weeks) can also impair immune function, sleep quality and overall recovery from training (Mata et al., 2019).
Shorter duration, higher intensity activities require carbohydrates as the primary energy source since they are the most readily available for the muscles to use. When they are included in the diet, carbohydrates contribute to the body’s glycogen stores, ultimately optimizing the athlete’s performance capacity (Kanter 2018). This is especially true for long duration high intensity workouts where low glycogen stores can be a limiting factor. In these situations, it’s necessary to consume carbohydrate in the 1-4 hours prior to the start of training (Mata et al., 2019). If your body is not provided with an energy source prior to training due to fasting or low glycogen stores, the body can break down muscle to use as fuel (Girard Eberle, n.d.). This is counterproductive, since the goal of the athlete in a strength training session is to build and foster muscle growth.
“Plant-based protein is better for you”
Primarily plant-based or full vegetarian and vegan diets have become increasingly popular among athletes. The amino acid composition of plant-based proteins differs from that of animal-based proteins due to significantly lower amounts of the essential amino acids needed by the body. Balanced intake of essential amino acids is required for all amino acids to be used properly. The most important essential amino acid that is present in lower amounts in plant-based proteins is leucine (Berrazaga et al., 2019). Leucine is one of the three branched chain amino acids and is known to be the muscle building protein that also regulates other body processes such as tissue regeneration and metabolism (Pedroso 2015).
Consuming 25 grams of soy protein following a workout is not as effective in promoting muscle protein synthesis (MPS) as a product containing 25 grams of whey protein, due to the lower leucine content and reduced digestibility and absorption. To get the job done, a higher amount of plant-based protein is needed. This can be simple if using a supplemental powder or drink. While increasing the volume of plant-based protein foods to match the same amino acid profile in animal-based protein foods seems like a feasible idea, the sheer amount that will need to be consumed is hard to meet (Pinckaers et al., 2021). For example in terms of leucine content, 1-2 whole blocks of tofu could be equivalent to 3-5 ounces of cooked chicken breast. Considering other essential amino acids, another needed approach is to combine certain plant-based proteins at meal times and throughout the day to help provide more complete amino acid profiles. One example is mixing rice and black beans at a meal will balance out the levels of the amino acids lysine and methionine (van Vliet et al., 2015). Encourage any vegetarian or vegan athletes you know to speak with a sports dietitian to ensure they are getting all of the nutrients to ensure optimal performance.
“I didn’t eat carbohydrates the last few days because we have BOD POD coming up”
Body composition tests, like BOD POD, are used to determine body composition among athletes. Different methods can be used and often require the athlete to be in minimal clothing (compression shorts for men, and compression shorts and sports bras for women) to obtain an accurate measurement. The most common measurements obtained from different testing methods can include percentage of fat and fat-free mass in the body, skeletal muscle mass, and bone mineral density.
For the results to show a true body composition change, habits need to be sustained, possibly for 6-8 weeks. Not much can be adjusted in the few days prior to the test that will reflect in the results in a way the athlete might think is favorable, including composition of the diet. If an athlete reduces carbohydrates and is very dehydrated, a lower measured body weight may skew results. The notion that carbohydrates should be excluded to accommodate for any upcoming test is false. Carbohydrates need to be viewed as necessary for performance instead of detrimental to overall body composition.
“Carbs make you gain weight or get too bulky”
There has been an uptick in discussion related to the stigma behind carbohydrates causing weight gain and increasing body fat within collegiate athletics. From a performance standpoint, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can provide energy to the body as quickly and efficiently as the muscles need, especially in bouts of high intensity exercise. There is no direct link between eating carbohydrates and automatically gaining weight. An ideal focus is matching intake to individual needs for performance and recovery. Any food patterns in excess or a deficit, over time, may result in adaptation to weight or body composition.
Hearing this statement provides an opportunity to further educate the athletes on the two types of carbohydrates and when to include each in the diet. For instance, low fiber, simple carbohydrates can be more quickly absorbed and used by the body immediately before exercise. Meals further out and after training are meant to include higher fiber, complex carbohydrates that are slower to digest. Simply put, carbohydrates alone are not going to make an athlete gain weight or get “too bulky”.
While statements such as “carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy to perform well” or “everyone’s needs are a little bit different” can be said, it can always be helpful for athletes needing specific guidance to work with their team dietitian. For campuses that do not have a sports dietitian on-site, there may be a sports dietitian in the community to refer the athlete to. These types of overheard statements are a great way to further foster the collaborative performance relationship between nutrition and strength and conditioning. Communication on these points can help create athlete education and a united message focused on athlete success.
Berrazaga, I., Micard, V., Gueugneau, M., & Walrand, S. (2019). The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. Nutrients, 11(8), 1825. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081825
Girard Eberle, S. (n.d.). The Body’s Fuel Sources. Human Kinetics. https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/the-bodys-fuel-sources
Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Kanter M. (2018). High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutrition today, 53(1), 35–39. https://doi.org/10.1097/NT.0000000000000238
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Pedroso, J. A., Zampieri, T. T., & Donato, J., Jr (2015). Reviewing the Effects of L-Leucine Supplementation in the Regulation of Food Intake, Energy Balance, and Glucose Homeostasis. Nutrients, 7(5), 3914–3937. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7053914
Pinckaers, P.J.M., Trommelen, J., Snijders, T. et al. The Anabolic Response to Plant-Based Protein Ingestion. Sports Med (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01540-8
Schoenfield, B. J. & Aragon A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Social of Sports Nutrition, 15, 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
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Zouhal, H., Saeidi, A., Salhi, A., Li, H., Essop, M. F., Laher, I., Rhibi, F., Amani-Shalamzari, S., & Ben Abderrahman, A. (2020). Exercise Training and Fasting: Current Insights. Open access Journal of Sports Medicine, 11, 1–28. https://doi.org/10.2147/OAJSM.S224919
This article was written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org