There is an increasing amount of confusion and misguided advice about nutrition these days. Before jumping into the latest fad diet, it is important to get expert advice to avoid harming your body and hindering your fitness progress. Ideally, your nutrition should optimize your overall health and help you perform at your best.
We sat down with Ashley Gomes, sports nutrition consultant who has worked with NBA, Pro Boxing, MLB, NFL, PGA and DOD athletes. We asked Ashley about the nutritional needs of professional athletes and what non-athletes can learn from that. We were also really curious about how high-level athletes track their food (and how we can further refine the process for Fitnescity customers), and how athletes use fitness testing data to optimize their nutrition.
Here’s the full interview.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
As a student athlete I completed my Bachelors degree in Biology with minors in Nutrition and Sport Science. After graduation I played softball overseas while working through a variety of certifications in both strength and conditioning and nutrition, and upon my return home completed an internship with Athletes’ Performance- now called EXOS.
From the internship I entered graduated school and completed my Masters of Science Degree in Kinesiology/Human Movement.
Sport has always been a massive influence throughout my life. The combination of competing as an athlete and my choice in education has given me a unique perspective on the demands training places on the body as well as a good understanding of the science behind adaptation. As I started my career as a professional, it was important for me to continue working with athletes in order to help them optimize not only their performance but also the longevity of their careers.
2. How do nutritional needs of athletes differ from those of non-athletes?
It goes without saying that any dietary recommendation should aim to optimize the overall health of the individual. The goal should first be increasing the nutrient density of each meal and snack —focusing on foods that have a ton of vitamins and minerals such as quality protein sources, vegetables and fruits, unrefined carbohydrates and healthy fats.
An athlete’s needs differ mostly in the quantity and macronutrient breakdown of the food they consume. The demands of training and the overall training schedule will dictate the necessary energy needs of each individual. Thus, when programming fueling strategies, it is imperative that the intake of energy yielding nutrients (carbs, proteins and fats) be sufficient as well as nutrient timing optimal, to effectively adapt an athlete to the training stimulus, promote recovery and achieve body composition goals.
As an occupational hazard, most athletes are exposed to intense training schedules that often diminish nutrient stores or require higher levels of certain nutrients. As a first line of defense and as stated above, it is important to choose foods that are higher in nutrient value —avoiding over-processed, refined or chemically altered choices. Whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, organic or grass-fed meats and unrefined or unprocessed grains contain more ‘bang for their buck’ nutrient wise than their engineered or conventional counterparts. All calories not always being created equal. Second, countermeasures in the form of supplementation (vitamins, minerals, etc.) can be used to help backfill the deficits that can result due to the nature of their training schedule or caloric restrictions.
3. How do athletes track their nutrition, and what can we learn from that?
With regards to tracking nutrition, I have found that food logs go a long way in helping athletes, especially those in weight restricted sports, become self aware of their intake, energy levels and hunger cues. A simple log which lists the “what and when” of food and beverage consumption provides an objective visual which can be used to educate athletes. The log doesn’t have to be fancy, as a paper and pen will do, but sites or apps like MyFitnessPal and Cronometer are easy to use and provide decent tracking for caloric, macronutrient and micronutrient intake.
From personal experience working with high-level athletes or executive clients, some individuals are in a position to afford a private chef or a meal delivery service that can take the burden of calorie counting or portioning off their plate. For my clients I work hard to find and interview chefs all over the country that fit the personality, lifestyle and food preferences of each athlete, helping make sure that eating on the home front is as seamless and enjoyable as possible. For those times when an athlete or client is on the road, I use a combo of tactics to assist them in sticking to their plans. When possible I will have them send menu PDFs or links to the places they will be eating at so I can send back their best choices. I also have them take photos of their meals so I can keep tabs on their choices and we can make adjustments as needed. Travel can definitely throw a wrench in anyone’s plan. Thus, as stated above, education and communication are key to make sure each individual understands how to stay on track when they are left to their own devices.
4. What do you recommend eating before and after exercise?
Nutrient timing totally depends on the body composition goals of the athlete, what type of training stimulus they will encounter in any given training session, how many sessions they are training in a given day or week and any deficiency or insufficiency in nutrient needs that have flagged up in lab work.
In general, prior (1-2 hrs) to a training session, I usually recommend a small meal or snack that is higher in simple carbohydrates, moderate in protein and minimal in fat. This gives an easily digestible option and allows the athlete to enter the session with enough fuel to sustain their output while sparing their glycogen stores as long as possible.
If the session exceeds 60-90 mins, I look to add a carb/electrolyte solution to help maintain their energy output.
Post workout usually consists of a protein supplement (20-40g) combined with a simple carb source (amount of carbohydrate depends on individual body composition goals) immediately after the training session.
A solid and balanced recovery meal should follow training sessions and consist of an appropriate amount of complex carbohydrates, protein and fats necessary to replenish glycogen stores and promote protein synthesis and recovery.
5. How can an athlete who is interested in losing fat avoid losing muscle?
Simple: Make sure they are eating enough calorically and ALWAYS make sure they are hitting their protein goal.
I like to aim for a minimum of 1g of protein per 1lb of lean mass or 1g per the amount of lean mass goal for those in a weight restricted sport.
Since a caloric deficit is necessary to drop fat mass, make sure the athlete is eating less calories (approximately 10%) than what they are expending.
Hitting the protein goal will ensure that there are enough amino acids to recover muscle tissue as well as maintain lean mass while in a caloric deficit.
Supplementation can also be utilized in terms of protein powders to help assist getting total quantity of protein up as well as utilizing creatine monohydrate at 5g/day to help increase lean mass while indirectly helping with fat mass loss.
6. How important it is for you to have test results like those provided by Fitnescity, and how do you incorporate these results into the work you do?
Having accurate data on a client’s metabolic rate or body composition is a game changer in terms of being able to provide an effective nutrition program design —it takes all the guesswork out.
Body Composition testing provides an accurate depiction of total fat and lean mass percentages/quantities as well as bone mineral density, providing a baseline on which to set realistic body composition goals for a given competition or training period.
Metabolic Rate testing is helpful when paired with an assessment of training demands to appropriately adjust for macronutrient and caloric needs of each individual.
Finally, blood lab work (and what I find the most interesting) provides a means to see what is going on from the biochemical level. We use lab tests to give insight into levels of oxidative stress, nutrient deficiencies as well as hormonal or chemical imbalances, all which play a role in an athlete’s ability to adapt to their training stimulus, recover effectively from each session and most importantly stay healthy throughout their season or training camp.
You can find Ashley Gomes and learn more about her practice at @jagnutrition.