Characteristics of Daily Intake
The daily intake of athletes should be characterized by concepts of balance, variety, and moderation. Balance is found when all three macronutrients are represented in appropriate proportions. There should be a balance of high-quality carbohydrates, proteins, and fats consumed throughout the day to ensure an adequate intake of each; too much of one may displace the other(s). An example of this includes high protein diets that sometimes result in insufficient carbohydrate consumption. This dietary approach can compromise needed sources of glycogen during exercise.
Consuming a variety of foods from each of the food groups each day can help ensure that nutrient needs are being met. Individuals should select a range of foods within each group of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein sources, and dairy or dairy alternatives. For example, if an individual eats a banana, an orange, and baby carrots every breakfast and lunch, and steamed broccoli with dinner each night, they are, at least, consuming fruits and vegetables, but they are not getting a variety of fruits and vegetables. This same individual could mix berries into their yogurt, raisins in their oatmeal, and have a mixed fruit smoothie as a snack as a means to incorporate a greater assortment of fruits. They could choose salad as a side dish, include peppers and zucchini when grilling meat, and add tomatoes to wraps and sandwiches to get a greater variety of vegetables. More variety represents a greater diversity of nutrients. One way to present this concept to individuals is to suggest that the more color, the better. Of course, this applies to fruits and vegetables, and not to brightly colored Fruit Loops!
Moderation is a concept pertinent to athletes, though their challenges may be slightly different from those of less active individuals. Moderation means avoiding excess, or extremes, and applies to food and beverage choices. Too much of anything will eventually result in negative effects, and this includes an excessive intake of just about any food or food group. Most common among Americans, which includes athletes, is an excessive intake of solid fats and added sugars, or SoFAS. Solid fats are fats solid at room temperature; in the American diet, this includes grain-based desserts, pizza, cheese, and processed meats. Solid fats are associated with increased risk for certain chronic diseases. Foods with added sugars include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, grain-based desserts, and sugar-sweetened fruit drinks. These foods tend to have a high amount of empty calories; that is, calories with little or no nutrient value and also associated with increased risk for chronic disease as well as dental caries. Sports drinks may be appropriate for athletes but are specific to exercise needs; athletes typically do not need sports drinks to “fuel” their television watching.
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The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have recommended reducing the intake of SoFAS, as well as excess sodium consumption, though it appears that the upcoming Dietary Guidelines (that have yet to be available at the time of publication) will have a reduced focus on fat. It is astonishing that 35 percent of the calories in the American diet, equivalent to about 800 calories, come from SoFAS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2010). Foods high in SoFAS not only contain nutrients that can be harmful to health, including trans fat and added sugars, but these foods tend to be low in the nutrients that promote overall health, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. By reducing intake of SoFAS and increasing the amount of nutrient-dense foods, individuals including athletes can increase the overall nutrient density of their diet. This concept of moderation even applies to what are considered “super foods,” that is, foods with a high nutrient density, though the risk of consuming too many healthy foods is much less common than overconsumption of less healthy foods. There is such thing as “too much of a good thing.” Foods like kale, blueberries, and quinoa are often touted as super foods because they have a high nutrient content in relation to the calories they contain. Even kale, for example, could be problematic in extremely high amounts. Kale is high in vitamin K, and too much vitamin K could interfere with certain medications including blood thinning medications.
While nutrient toxicities from food sources are rare, a more common concern of consuming excessive amounts of certain foods is that a high intake of one food may result in an inadequate intake of another. Individuals who eat too many SoFAS have less room in their diet for more nutrient-dense foods. Balance is key to avoiding excessive intakes of any one nutrient, and to ensure adequate intake of a variety of foods. One can see how the concepts of balance, variety, and moderation are overlapping principles to be applied to daily food intake.