BY THESTAR.COM/ Katrina Clarke
As a time-strapped University of Toronto student athlete, volleyballer Kristina Valjas’ go-to fuel was a bowl of Kraft Dinner or a bag of chips.
Cheap, easy and tasty, but the junk diet eventually caught up with her.
“The turning point was the shin splints. It was extreme pain,” said Valjas, now 28 and a beach volleyball player with Canada’s national team. She’d developed bone density issues, partly due to a calcium deficiency.
What athletes eat can mean the difference between high level success and body breakdowns, but it takes time, effort and education to get it right, say dietitians and athletes. This can be tricky in a world where some seem able to eat whatever they want — Usain Bolt subsisting on chicken nuggets during the Olympics, Michael Phelps eating a reported 12,000 calories per day while training and Lolo Jones downing double bacon cheeseburgers to gain weight — but athletes say as they age, they know what works for them and what doesn’t.
“It’s, like, immediate now for me,” said Melissa Tancredi, a member of the Canadian women’s national soccer team who lives in Vancouver. “I’ll know right after I eat something (unhealthy) like, oh that wasn’t good. Your body’s like, no, I feel awful ... You feel sluggish, you feel tired.”
Tancredi, now 33, admits she paid little attention to what she ate as a young athlete, but now credits healthy eating with helping her to perform at her best in her 30s. She mainly sticks to organic meats, fruits and vegetables — though she’s not averse to a rich curry.
The main thing sports dietitian Melissa Kazan notices with her athletes at the Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario is that they don’t snack or plan ahead enough.
“That’s where we come in as dietitians,” she said.
Kazan teaches her athletes to pack healthy snacks, such as granola bars, soy milk packs or chocolate milk, and she advocates for an “everything in moderation” approach to eating.
“We always think, athletes, all they eat are carbohydrates or high carbohydrate diets — it really has to be varied,” she said.
Kazan said when an athlete’s training load is high at the beginning of the season, they’re likely eating more carbohydrates but as training sessions are tapered throughout the season, carbohydrate intake typically drops. Protein and fat intake typically remains the same, she said.
As for how many calories athletes consume, it depends on the athlete and the sport, said Kazan. Male swimmers competing at the national level might consume 6,000 calories per day.
The day’s schedule might also affect what an athlete eats, she said. Someone who can get away with eating greasy foods on a training day won’t be able to do so on competition day, said Kazan, since fat is a heavy nutrient to digest.
“At the end of the day, you have to realize that saturated fats, sugars and the rest of those not-as-great nutrients … still have the same effect on the body, whether you’re a runner, whether you’re an endurance athlete or not,” said Andrea Falcone, a registered dietitian and fitness professional whose clients include hockey players, marathon runners and volleyball players. “As far as performance, the best fuel is going to give you the best output.”
For some athletes, the problem isn’t eating bad food, but not eating enough or not frequently enough. High performance athletes should be eating every three to four hours — a challenge that can be overcome with proper meal planning, she said.
Falcone adds the research on sports nutrition has changed over the years, with modern research eschewing a one-size-fits all approach for a more nuanced look at what each athlete needs to perform at their best.
So could that mean chicken nuggets are the key to success? Not quite.
“Can (an athlete) eat anything they want? No, in a nutshell,” she said. “But they might be able to burn off that fuel better than your typical layperson.”
As for Valjas, she revamped her diet after meeting with a nutritionist, adding in more calcium, protein and fruits. It’s a healthful lifestyle she’s held to ever since — with the exception of the odd Coke or chocolate bar — and one that helped improve bone density issues.
“I’m mindful of what I put in my body because this is what I do for a living. It’s fuel,” she said. “I don’t even want chips anymore.”
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