Nutrition has two separate but related meanings when considered in relation to sports science. Nutrition is the course of academic or scientific study directed to the relationship between diet and the health and function of the human body. Nutrition is also the actual nourishment of the body, the supply of the substances that sustain it.

As with many of the overarching concepts that often affect nutrition, the broadly applicable areas of diet, exercise and fitness, health, and longevity will often come into play; nutritional practices never exist in the abstract.

For the athlete, proper nutrition is as essential as the training that underlies a sports program. It is impossible for an athlete to reach the physical potential unless those efforts are supported by healthy food, vitamin, and mineral intake. Health scientists have determined that a balanced diet, one that provides proper amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, is the foundation to good overall nutrition. Although the proportions may vary from person to person, the usual guidelines are approximately 60-65% carbohydrates, 12-15% proteins, and less than 30% fats.

The governmental authorities in many countries publish scientifically based guidelines concerning optimal nutritional practices that mimic the carbohydrate/protein/fats ratio, using descriptions that employ quantities of each food group as opposed to finite measurements. Governmental attention to the concept of healthy nutrition, coupled with more active lifestyles, has increased throughout the Western world as populations have become demonstrably more overweight and obese since 1960. Weight gains have been accompanied in dramatic rises in related health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

In the United States, the federal Department of Agriculture is the agency responsible for the promotion of healthy diet and nutritional practices through the publication of the Food Guide Pyramid, first released in 1992. The successor guide, known as MyPyramid, was revised and published in 2005. MyPyramid illustrates the balance between healthy food consumption, activity, and rest, with information concerning other general nutritional issues. The MyPyramid rendering breaks the traditional carbohydrate, proteins, and fats divisions into six parts: grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, and meats/beans. The user-friendly divisions of MyPyramid contemplate healthy consumption as a part of a strong nutritional practice in the same approximate ratios as the traditional divisions.

Devices such as MyPyramid emphasize the interrelated nature of health as achieved through diet and nutrition. How the individual moderates consumption of each component of a diet will determine how nutritional his/her dietary practices are likely to be. The components of a typical diet include:

  • Carbohydrates are essential to the production of energy within the body, particularly through the processing of foods into glucose and its stored form, glycogen.

Vegetables play a key role in maintaining balanced nutrition.

  • Proteins are containers of amino acids, essential to the formation, development, and maintenance of muscles and tissues.
  • Fats are stored within the body as triglycerides, released as glycerol and fatty acids, which are essential to both energy production and the absorption of numerous vitamins.
  • Minerals are required for both bone construction and the efficient functioning of hundreds of various human systems, including fluid levels and the effective transmission of nerve impulses in the body.
  • Vitamins are the chemicals responsible for both healthy function of the digestive and absorption processes, as well as the function of bone construction.
  • Athletic supplements, such as creatine, have a pronounced impact on the body during training, which will necessitate careful monitoring of the consequences of training on both the body and its dietary and nutritional needs. Supplements must correspond to athletic need, such as the use of creatine in training for explosive, anaerobic sports.
  • Caffeine, euphemistically referred to as a food group due to its large consumption, has no nutritional value; the effects of caffeine as both a stimulant as well as a diuretic require careful attention to be paid to its impact upon the body.
  • Alcohol is technically a carbohydrate, as its active compound breaks down into sugar and carbon dioxide when digested, although it is a poor nutrient. Alcohol also must be very carefully regulated as a healthy nutritional aspect, given its impact on the central nervous system and the effect of alcohol as a diuretic. Alcohol also impacts the thermoregulatory system, making its ingestion even more subject to scrutiny in cold weather exercise.

One important benchmark of success in nutritional practice is the formulation of the pre-event and post-event meals that are nutritionally sound. As a general rule, subject to the individual needs of the athlete or the dictates of competition, the following meal pattern will support the nutritional needs of the athlete, including:

  1. A regular meal that has a carbohydrate emphasis, between four hours to six hours prior to the event. For a morning competition, this meal can be taken the night before.
  2. A small, carbohydrate-rich meal can be taken two hours prior to the event.
  3. A very low fat snack can be taken 30 minutes to 45 minutes prior to the event.
  4. A small carbohydrate-rich meal can be taken within one hour of the event.
  5. A further, larger carbohydrate-rich meal can be taken within three hours of the event.

Each of the post-event meals is intended to immediately replace lost stores of both carbohydrates and nutrients; the body absorbs these replacement foods best closer in time to the event. Proper nutrition will always include adequate rehydration.

SEE ALSO Carbohydrates; Diet; Fat intake; Growth; Minerals; Vitamin C.