Sport Nutrition: Eating right for energy

Many athletes want to lose some weight or body fat, although they want to maintain enough energy to train and compete. How do you find the balance? At one end of the scale, not eating enough food may be detrimental in terms of energy, bone health, mental health and hormonal health and is a known issue in sport where athletes aim to be a faster, leaner and stronger. Known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) or previously Female Triad it applies to male and female athletes. At the other end of the scale though, eating too much food, the wrong type of food, snacking too often or treating ourselves to a cake may mean we hold onto excess weight and fat, or even gain weight.

Carbohydrates are your main fuel for energy and as an athlete you’re probably aiming for them to take up ¼ to 1/3 of your plate. The obvious carbohydrates that athletes think of are pasta and potatoes, both of these are a good source of carbohydrate but they are not the only source and might not be the best choice for everyone. They both provide ‘fast releasing energy’ which is what you want immediately before and after, and during training. It isn’t what many people need the rest of the time though.

If you are the weight and body fat you want to be, don’t have cravings for sugar or refined foods, don’t have mood up and downs, 3pm energy dips or a blood sugar balancing rollercoaster with hormonal changes then the following information may not apply to you!

How much should I eat?

  • Choose slow releasing instead of fast releasing carbohydrates as your daily fuel. That means wholegrains including oats, wholegrain rice, quinoa, buckwheat flakes and some other options such as rye, barley, spelt, teff and millet.

  • Aim for ¼ to 1/3 of a plate to be carbohydrate for fuel; or for weight loss aim for a closed fist of cooked grain.

  • For more weight loss choose one meal a day without carbohydrate, for example a stir-fry with chicken and vegetables but skip the noodles, or an omelette for lunch or breakfast.

  • If you need more energy then you can increase quantities of carbohydrates, fats or your protein. Just make sure that you have mainly slow energy releasing carbohydrates and eat healthy fats like avocados, nut, seeds and olive oil.

  • Carbohydrates are in all types of vegetables and fruit; they just have different amounts or a different sugar effect on the body. If someone says they don’t eat carbs then they probably just mean grains and potatoes. If they really don’t eat carbs then they are missing out a lot of fibre, vitamins and minerals from vegetables and this isn’t a healthy diet for anyone.

  • If you are only or mainly eating white bread, pasta, rice, cakes, biscuits or sweets as your fuel then you aren’t providing your digestive system with the variety of fibre it needs. Your only concession could be cold cooked potatoes or pasta in which the fibre changes to resistant starch which is good for gut bacteria. Make sure you have a variety of vegetables, pulses, beans and fruit to add in some fibre. If you’ve not done this for a while you may need to do it slowly to get your system used to the new healthier food; healthier for you in the longer term.

  • If you are doing lots of training, fuelling at the correct level for your energy and body composition but fuelling with packaged or processed foods then I’d encourage you to make your own bread, cakes and snacks such as energy balls and energy bars so that you manage the ingredients that go into them.

What do differing amount of carbohydrates look like across the day?

Let's compare 3 different days

#1 Most carbohydrate

Porridge / Leek and Potato soup, with bread / Pasta and tomato sauce

#2 Moderate carbohydrate

2 eggs and a slice of toast / Chicken sandwich / Salmon and stir fry vegetables

#3 Lowest carbohydrate

2 egg omelette, tomatoes and mushrooms / Chicken salad /Salmon and stir fry vegetables

Looking at #1 you will see it has a lot of carbohydrate (in the porridge, potato, bread and pasta whereas #3 has a low amount of carbohydrate (in the vegetables).

Neither meal is right or wrong in terms of carbohydrates it it more about the effect on your body. Example 1 also lacks protein which is vital for an athlete.

Then you need to understand slow versus fast releasing carbohydrates:

Slow Releasing Carbohydrates

  • Porridge, with seeds and berries

  • Wholegrain rice and salmon, with green vegetables

  • Chicken and roasted vegetables (a few root veg such as new potatoes in skins, but mainly courgette, cauliflower, broccoli, onion, peppers, mushrooms etc).

Eating like this (Slow releasing carbohydrates)

Provides a variety of fibre and nutrients for the digestive system, slow releasing fuel for consistent energy, protein for repair and growth, anti-inflammatory foods for athletes, essential fatty acids from oily fish and seeds.

Fast Releasing Carbohydrates

  • White toast or cornflakes

  • Beetroot, potato or parsnip soup

  • Pasta and tomato sauce

Eating like this (Fast releasing carbohydrates) Increased risk of a sugar rollercoaster across the day, increased risk of digestive issues (lack of fibre), increased risk of weight gain, longer term increased risk of diabetes type 2. Provides fast releasing energy, which is ok if you then exercise and burn it off. Does contain some lycopene from tomatoes which may reduce the risk of some cancers, and some fibre and nutrients in the vegetables. Cereals may have added nutrients but it is questionable about whether they are actually absorbed.


  • Mainly choose slow releasing carbohydrates rather than fast releasing carbohydrates, but root vegetables are useful in our diet so don't cancel them out.

  • Protein, fats and fibre will slow down the digestion and energy release, for some people that may balance out the fast releasing energy from root vegetables (or less healthy white products) but for others they may need less root vegetables.

  • If you lack energy to train and compete, then try increasing the amount of carbohydrates you eat.

  • If you reduce your carbohydrates but then lose weight too fast, you could try adding in some extra protein or extra healthy fats.

  • If you are happy with your body composition and energy levels, but fill up on a lot of packaged or processed food then why not try to make some of your own treats so you are in control of the ingredients and can add extra nutritional value.

** The information in this article does not replace medical advice, before changing your diet please contact your GP if you have a health condition or are pregnant **

About the author:

Joanne Hart BSc(Hons) is a Registered Nutritionist MBANT, and Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC, as well as a Yoga Teacher. Contact her for one-one consultations and talks.

She runs The Ravenous Athlete facebook group and you can join that here: The Ravenous Athlete.

The next online course 'Meal Planning Basics for Ravenous Athletes' starts after Easter, details are here

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