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Madison, Wis. — While recent research suggests eating every two to three hours isn't necessary, small meals throughout the day – or snacks – can play an important role, particularly for athletes.
Some individuals find that eating a few snacks along with their traditional meals throughout the day helps them control their hunger and maintain their energy levels. For athletes who burn through a lot of calories while training/competing, snacks are almost a necessity.
"It can be extremely tough for athletes to consume large volumes of food or drink during the day if they're only eating three traditional meals," explains Sean Casey, CSCS, RD, CISSN, from UW Health's Sports Performance Program. "Snacks ranging from 150 to 500 calories can prove helpful to meet the daily caloric needs and assist in the recovery process."
Casey points out that snacks can also be useful when athletes are training multiple times per day and/or later in the evening. It's also possible that when workouts wrap up at 10am or 8pm – times in-between the traditional meal schedule – a post-workout snack can help with the recovery process. But it's important to be careful not to consume too many calories. That can lead to weight gain.
Timing of Snacks
Whether to eat two hours before a game or practice, or closer to game time really varies with the sport or activity, the type of food and individual tolerances. Some guidelines that Casey recommends include:
If eating a larger meal, make sure it's at least 2-3 hours before the event (game, practice, etc.)
As game time gets closer, focus on carbohydrates and steer clear of fatty foods, dairy products or fibrous carbohydrates – they take longer to digest and can cause GI distress for some athletes. And make sure the meals are smaller.
Test things out before game day and see what works best and how well it's tolerated.
Type of Snacks
Snacks are going to vary depending on the type of sport and the time of day. If it's a sport that burns through a lot of muscle glycogen (glycogen is the fuel muscles use for energy) like hockey or soccer, athletes should place a larger emphasis on carbohydrates to replenish the depleted stores. Bananas, oranges and other fruit are good sources. For someone who is a weightlifter, or a similar sport where the glycogen stores are not depleted, a healthy fat source like nuts may be a better option.
"The one constant I try to keep, especially depending on the time between meals, is to ensure athletes are getting 20 or more grams of high quality proteins. This could be a slice(s) of meat, hard-boiled egg(s), dairy, legumes, protein shakes, and the like," says Casey.
When it's close to game time, or after a gym work out, chances are that snacks will be eaten on the go. Some easy suggestions include:
Protein drinks or smoothie drinks are another option. They are a good way to work fruit into the diet and on hot days or following intense workouts, it's a nice way to get extra fluid in the diet. If the smoothie is intended to be a post-workout snack, Casey recommends making sure that the meal consists of more than just milk or yogurt as a protein source.
"Casein, which is the primary protein found in dairy products, is slow digesting and consequently will not speed up the muscle recovery process to a significant extent. Stick with whey, or moderately fast proteins such as egg, rice or pea," he recommends.
Other options include sports nutrition bars. Casey recommends looking for ones that offer 15-20 grams of protein if the bar is going to be the only snack. If it's close to a work out, then also look for more than 20 to 60 grams of carbohydrates to replenish depleted energy stores. One caution is that a lot of sport nutrition energy bars can be high in carbohydrates and total calories. While that's not necessarily a problem, make sure it fits within the overall daily energy and macronutrient needs.
For those with food allergies, rice protein is hypoallergenic and can make a good substitute for eggs or dairy proteins. If nuts are not an issue, trail mixes are a good addition.
A Note About Sport Drinks
According to Casey, sport drinks can be an excellent option especially if consumed prior to or during exercise. "The one caution to remember," says Casey, "a lot of sport drinks are flavored sugar water. They definitely have a time and place, but shouldn't be consumed outside of the actual exercise or activity period."
It's important to note that energy drinks are not the same as sport drinks. Sport drinks are designed with very specific amounts of carbohydrates and micronutrients such as sodium to enhance fluid absorption (into your body).
In contrast, energy drinks contain caffeine or other stimulants with various levels of carbohydrates. Although caffeine has been shown to enhance physical performance, energy drinks themselves usually lack the precise ratios of carbohydrates and micronutrients to optimize the hydration process, potentially leading to GI distress.