Sports Nutrition: Carbs, Protein, and Fluids

Sports nutrition is a hot topic and highly variable for each athlete depending on personal preferences and beliefs. There are many diets out there including high fat/low carb, paleo, gluten free, and vegan. While these may be necessary for some individuals, they should not be the go-to for an athlete because they limit certain essential nutrients.

As a physical therapist, we are required to complete an array of continuing education requirements every 2 years in order to maintain our license. I recently did a continuing education course on sports nutrition, and I regularly refer to several prominent nutrition resources including renowned sports dietitian Nancy Clark and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Discussing sports nutrition opens a huge door, so today I am going to focus on three big hitters (carbohydrates, protein, and fluids) and what the current research recommends.

Carbohydrates are essential for everyone, especially athletes. For some reason, high fat and high protein diets are very popular in today’s world. However, this is not what most of the research supports! The general recommendation for carbohydrates in a person exercising 1 hour per day is 5 to 7 grams per kilogram of body weight (approximately 2.3 to 3.2 grams per pound). For a 150-pound person, this equals about 350 to 500 grams per day. Your body, muscles, and brain will be starving without carbohydrates and not having enough will lead to irritability, fatigue, and poor performance. Carbohydrates are our body’s easiest energy source and should be a part of every meal.

Amounts of carbohydrates in various foods:

  • Brown rice (1 cup) = 45 grams
  • Pasta (1 cup) = 43 grams
  • Baked potato (1 medium) = 36 grams
  • Oatmeal (1 cup cooked, ½ cup uncooked) = 27 grams
  • Banana (1 medium) = 27 grams
  • Orange juice (1 cup) = 26 grams

Protein requirements for an athlete vary depending on the type of sport (power/strength or speed/endurance). The general recommendation for protein in athletes is 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (approximately 0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound). For a 150-pound person, this equals about 75 to 135 grams per day. For most people, this is easy to obtain and our muscles can rebuild without having to suffer breakdown from protein deficiency. However, consuming adequate amounts of protein is much harder for certain people including vegetarians and vegans. As you can see below, you have to eat more than 3 cups of beans to get the amount of protein in 1 cup of chicken. Additionally, you have to drink 8 cups of almond milk to get the amount of protein in 1 cup of cow’s milk!

Amount of protein in various foods:

  • Chicken (1 cup cooked) = 40 grams
  • Salmon (1 cup cooked) = 34 grams
  • Black beans (1 cup cooked) = 12 grams
  • Quinoa (1 cup cooked) = 8 grams
  • Cow’s milk (1 cup) = 8 grams
  • Almond milk (1 cup) = 1 gram
  • Regular yogurt (1 cup) = 14 grams
  • Greek yogurt (1 cup) = 25 grams

Finally, fluids are also essential. As we enter summer, it is important to try to prevent excessive dehydration. Dehydration can be defined as a loss of >2% of your body weight. The general guideline is to drink about 2 cups of fluid for every pound you lose exercising. Everyone has different sweat loss rates, so it takes practice to determine your specific needs. It is important to note going by thirst is not a great indicator. Usually by the time you are thirsty, it is too late. Your urine is one of the best indicators. Strive for a color similar to lemonade not iced tea :) 

These are just guidelines and everyone is different, so it is important to find what works for you and listen to your body. There is no fun counting grams and adding up all the numbers, but sometimes it is good to think about balance and assess if we are getting enough of the nutrients we need to maximize our potential.