A decrease in activity level due to an injury or the ending of a season can cause an athlete to become concerned about weight gain and/or muscle loss. I receive numerous inquiries from athletes asking how much they should decrease their dietary intake to avoid these pitfalls. There are a few points to be considered as we delve into this topic. It is important to remember that adolescents are in a developmental phase and a significant decrease in caloric intake could potentially affect their overall bone health and hormonal balance. However, when an athlete trains daily for 2-3 hours then stops, the energy expenditure is less and therefore so are the caloric needs.
Energy balance is the number of calories ingested versus the number of calories expended via exercise. I use this definition as an overriding principal in my work with athletes, whether it be to increase or decrease caloric intake. When an athlete understands and embraces the idea of energy balance they are on their way to healthy weight management for a lifetime. Below are some further ideas and principles that can help an athlete maintain a healthy balance throughout the year.
- Do not skip meals: In order to most effectively fuel our bodies and keep a healthy metabolism, it is important to consume a meal or snack ~3-5 hours daily. This prevents excessive hunger which leads to overeating. Consider using the outline of 3 meals and 1-2 snacks daily. When choosing a snack, I recommend pairing a carbohydrate and a protein for the most sustainable amount of energy (i.e. banana with a large spoonful peanut butter). When in season you will likely notice that your snack size and frequency increases, and you should also be consuming a recovery beverage or snack. When energy expenditure is low, additional calories may not be necessary due to the absence of a sport or activity.
- Pay attention to portions: Learning to visualize a portion size can help guide us when plating meals and snacks. To visualize portions, try using an everyday object:
- Baseball = 1 cup pasta/cereal
- Palmful = ¼ cup granola or trail mix
- ½ tennis ball = ½ cup ice cream
- Palm = 3 oz. chicken/fish/steak
- Use the Athlete’s plate as a guide: The Registered Dietitians at the US Olympic Training Center created the Athlete’s Plate to give a visual representation of fueling for different periods of an athlete’s training cycle (See image below.) Notice that the percentage of the diet coming from carbohydrates increases with intensity and duration of activity level. In the off season your plate may look more like the ‘easy training/weight management’ or ‘moderate training’ plate; while in season the composition of the plate may look more like the ‘hard training/race day’ plate on the right.
Overall, learn to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. When you have an increase or decrease in your activity level, you will likely feel a change in appetite. Paying attention to this is a valuable skill that will help you throughout your lifetime and athletic career. Also, it is important to realize that nutrition should be individualized and it is not a “one size fit all” theory. To learn more, feel free to schedule a nutrition consultation by calling 617-355-3501.