Body composition is very important for a football player. This means you should have a low percentage of body fat and good levels of muscle mass. To achieve this it is important to focus on human nutrition rather than “sports nutrition”.
Being lean is important as body fat needs to be oxygenated. Having high body fat means that you have a lower percentage of oxygen going to your heart, brain and muscles essentially diminishing your V02 max. Second, the more fat you have the lower your strength to body weight ratio is meaning you have less functional strength and speed on the pitch. Lastly, fat is not just an unsightly inert reservoir of energy that sits on your love handles.
Fat releases a number of chemicals that can affect your appetite; and create inflammation and insulin resistance. They release chemicals that clot your blood, increase your blood pressure and narrow your arteries and they convert male hormones to female hormones, which is not good if you are a man.
Good human nutrition encompasses eating regular meals, with good sources of protein, lots of vegetables and cutting out junk foods that are touted as “performance foods”.
Food provisions at breakfast
Eating breakfast is paramount for football players. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 demonstrated that of over 4,000 UK secondary school children 32 percent did not eat breakfast and were more likely to be overweight and obese. The content of a healthy breakfast is debatable with the government, mass media and many sporting bodies promoting junk foods as healthy “sports nutrition”. The Nutrition for Football Conference held at FIFA House in Zurich in September 2005 included common breakfast foods such as cereal with milk, flavoured yoghurt and fruit smoothies in its list of nutrient-rich carbohydrate foods.
The Australian institute of Sport also recommends foods such as crumpets with jam or honey, flavoured milk, baked beans on toast and breakfast cereals as healthy pre training breakfasts and snacks. These foods are indeed carbohydrate rich, however what seems to be completely missed is these foods are high in processed sugar, contain gluten, dairy and other common food intolerances and are generally poor providers of essential fats, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Better examples of healthy breakfasts include porridge, scrambled eggs on whole grain (preferably gluten free) toast, an omelette or some meat or fish with nuts and vegetables.
Food provisions at lunch and dinner
Various researchers have estimated the calorie intake of footballers to be between 2,600 and 3,952 calories a day. Considering that The Department of Health recommends a calorie intake of 1940 calories per day for women and 2550 for men, it seems football players don’t necessarily need to consume a great deal more than the average person.
Conventional nutrition advice is for a high carbohydrate, moderate protein and low fat diet for footballers; however this dietary advice leaves a lot to be desired. The over reliance on carbohydrates, particularly starchy and processed carbohydrate such as potatoes, pasta and rice, can leave players with high body fat, high cholesterol and problems with insulin sensitivity. There may also be nutrient deficiencies due to the huge demand on the body for zinc, magnesium and B vitamins to convert food to energy and for other nutrients that act as antioxidants that won’t be provided by nutrient deficient processed carbohydrates. Functional nutrition and medicine testing has demonstrated this time and again in elite football players.
A priority for evening meals is to avoid things that retard, and do things that promote good quality sleep. This includes:
• Avoid drinking caffeine in the evening.
• Don’t over hydrate in the evening, as you will wake to urinate in the night.
• Eat some starchy carbohydrate as this helps to raise serotonin and melatonin that aid sleep. Good choices include vegetables such as swede, carrots, squash, sweet potato, whole grain rice and quinoa.
• Eat magnesium containing foods as magnesium aids sleep. These include green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish.
• Don’t eat high sugar foods before bed such as sweets, candy, dried fruits or desserts.
• Eat good quality protein at dinner, especially proteins that contain tryptophan and taurine (seafood, scallops, lobster and poultry).
Food allergy and food intolerances are becoming more widely recognised amongst nutritional and conventional medical practitioners. Avoiding food intolerances can promote good body composition and quality sleep.
Common food intolerance including diary, wheat, soy and yeast cause an immune response that can manifest as low grade “silent inflammation” with sub clinical symptoms such as brain fog, irritable bowel, headaches or low energy. Research from the Clinical Institute of Medical and Chemical Laboratory Diagnostics in Austria has shown that obese children have significantly higher antibodies against certain foods than normal weight children. These antibodies are associated with thickening of the common carotid arteries. The authors state that these findings raise the possibility that food antigens are involved in the development of obesity and atherosclerosis.
Snacking is a great way to control energy levels and get additional calories and nutrition in to the diet. However, snacking may not be needed by all as some people can do really well on main meals and “sports nutrition” to meet their daily nutrition and energy requirements.
Football players need to focus on nutritious food such as fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetable crudités and dips. Regarding “sports nutrition” you could eat foods such as rice cakes, dried fruits, nut butter, and other spreads that provide “carbohydrate” after intense training sessions and games.
One of the biggest myths we need to overcome in football is the concept of carbohydrate loading. Carbohydrate loading is perfect for marathons, triathlons and other long distance events; however it is not needed for football especially when you get your nutrient timing right. On that note, some of the nutrition advice previously given to athletes to carbohydrate load including the consumption of toast and jam, jelly beans and sugary soft drinks seems obsolete, clearly we know these foods are full of carbohydrate but they are devoid of other essential nutrients needed for elite performance and may even lead to the accumulation of excess body fat, which in itself may hamper performance.
Nutrient timing after games
Nutrient timing is the consumption of specific fluids and nutrients pre and post games to enhance performance and recovery. Some research suggests this is best done with protein and carbohydrate beverages, but food is important as well.
Before a game eat a sensible breakfast or lunch as previously discussed and hydrate well. During a game staying hydrated with water and consuming some carbohydrate drinks such as Cherry Active, Vita Coco or Lucozade lite is essential.
After a game you can follow these recommendations:
- Within 30 minutes post training or a game drink a protein shake with a 4:1 carbohydrate / protein solution.
- Within 30 – 120 minutes post training or a game eat a meal containing carbohydrate such as potato, sweet potato, squash or dried fruit, however, limit the use of grains. Also eat some meat, fish, seafood or poultry and some healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, nuts or seeds.
- Within 2 – 4 hours post training or a game snack on some fruit or dried fruits, nuts and seeds.
Dehydration can have a serious negative effect on performance. As little as 2% dehydration causes:
• 8% loss of speed
• 10% loss of strength
• 20% loss of cognitive function
Drinking water is usually the first line strategy to replace fluids lost through sweat. Adding electrolytes to your drink is also a great way to replace salt and water lost in sweat. These include sports drinks such as lucozade lite, a product called Elete or VitaCoco.