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Sports nutrition: Facts on carbohydrate, fat and protein


Eating a balanced amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein is important to play sports at your best. Following Canada’s Food Guide is a good first step to ensure you are getting the amount of carbohydrate, protein and fat you need. The food guide recommends a healthy eating pattern with a balance from each of the four food groups. Read on to learn more about how carbohydrate, fat and protein can help you play sports at your best.



How much carbohydrate, fat and protein do I need? 

If you simply enjoy playing sports as a hobby, you can get enough carbohydrate, fat and protein by following Canada’s Food Guide.

If you are an athlete, you likely need more food than Canada’s Food Guide recommends during training.  Follow these tips to make sure you are getting the carbohydrate, fat and protein you need:

  • For most athletes, it is better to aim for a lower fat diet so you can get more carbohydrate for fuel and protein for muscle growth and repair.
  • Aim to meet your needs for oils and fats by including at least 30-45 ml (2-3 Tbsp) of unsaturated fats each day. This includes oil such as canola, olive and soybean oil and soft margarines low in saturated and trans fat.
  • Choose more fruits and grain products for extra fuel during heavier training schedules.
  • Choose lean meats and alternatives prepared with little or no added fats, lower fat milk products and alternatives and lower fat grain products.
  • Choose extra servings from each of the four food groups to help you meet your overall energy needs. 


What happens if I don’t get enough carbohydrate, fat and protein?

When you do not get enough calories from carbohydrate, fat and protein, your performance may not be the best it could be.

If you don’t get enough calories in the short-term: 

  • You may not see results from your training
  • You may lose muscle tissue which may result in the loss of strength and endurance

If you don’t get enough calories long-term: 

  • You may not get the vitamins and minerals you need
  • Your immune system may be weakened
  • Your hormone levels may be unbalanced
  • You may have a higher risk of injury to muscles, bones or connective tissue
  • Females may not get their regular period 


How much carbohydrate do I need?

If you are going to play sports like soccer, hockey or tennis or exercise intensely for more than an hour, follow Canada’s Food Guide as a starting point. Then choose a few extra servings of carbohydrate-rich foods throughout the day before playing sports or exercising.

Each of these is about 1 serving of carbohydrate-rich foods:

  • 1 piece of toast with peanut butter and honey
  • 1 piece of fruit (like an apple, pear, banana or nectarine)
  • 3/4 cup (175 mL) low fat yogurt
  • 1 low fat muffin
  • A small bowl of cereal with low fat milk
  • 1 cup (250 mL) low fat chocolate milk

The number of extra servings you need will depends on your weight. Heavier athletes need more servings than lighter athletes.


How much protein do I need?

If you enjoy being physically active (like playing sports for fun or jogging occasionally), follow Canada’s Food Guide to meet your protein needs. Many people think they need more protein, but usually this is not the case.

You may need more protein if you exercise intensely or for long sessions (90 minutes or more) many days of the week or if you are trying to build muscle mass.

You can get more protein by eating a few extra servings from the Milk and Alternative and Meat and Alternative food groups after your workout and including protein at snacks throughout the day.

Each of these is about 1 serving of protein-rich foods: 

  • 1 cup (250 mL) of low fat milk or chocolate milk
  • ¾ cup (175 mL) low fat yogurt
  • 2 ½ ounces (75 grams) of chicken breast, fish or lean meat
  • ¼ cup (60 mL) of nuts 

The number of extra servings you need will depends on your weight. Heavier athletes need more servings than lighter athletes.

If you would like to know how many extra servings of carbohydrate-rich and protein-rich food you should aim for, a Registered Dietitian can assess your diet and give you recommendations. Find a Dietitian here.


What should I eat before playing a sport?

About 2 to 3 hours before playing sports, eat a meal that is rich in carbohydrate, low in fat and fairly low in protein and fibre for quick digestion. Here are some examples:

  • Peanut butter and honey or jam on toast and glass of skim milk
  • Fruit and yogurt smoothie and a low fat muffin
  • Oatmeal with brown sugar and almonds, skim milk and a banana
  • Low-fat cheese and crackers plus grapes
  • Small lean hamburger on bun with lettuce and tomato, a side salad and low fat milk
  • Turkey, vegetable and cheese sandwich, a fruit and a sports drink
  • Low-fat tuna melt sandwich and a fat-free yogurt

Your portion size will depend on how intense or long your training session will be, your sex and body weight.

If you do not have time for a meal 2 to 3 hours before playing a sport, choose high carbohydrate meals/snacks that are quick to digest.


What should I eat during sports?

During sports, your body needs easy-to-digest foods or fluids. Carbohydrate will help you maintain normal blood sugar, allow you to perform better and help you to exercise longer and/or with greater intensity. 

Your best approach is to drink your carbohydrates in a sports drink, but for longer exercise sessions of 2 hours or more, additional solid carbohydrates may be needed like fruit, a cereal bar, yogurt or oatmeal.


What should I eat after I play sports?

After playing sports, your body is ready to store energy again, repair muscles and re-hydrate. Within 30 minutes, eat a snack like:

  • One banana plus 1 to 2 cups (250 to 500 mL) of low fat milk
  • 2 cups (500 mL) of low fat chocolate milk
  • A smoothie with low fat milk, fruit and low fat yogurt
  • Within one hour after that, choose a meal or snack rich in carbohydrate and protein. For example:
  • Grilled salmon or chicken breast with rice and vegetables
  • Pasta and meat sauce with salad
  • Tofu and vegetable stir fry on rice

Your portion size will depend on how intense or long your training session was, your sex and body weight.


Bottom line

Eating a balanced amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein is important to play sports at your best. Follow Canada’s Food Guide to make sure you are getting the amount of carbohydrate, protein and fat you need. If you are an athlete or play sports intensely or for long periods, you would benefit from more servings from Canada’s Food Guide. Planning your meals and snacks before, during and after playing sports will help you perform at your best.

If you would like to help with your eating pattern, a Registered Dietitian can assess your diet and give you recommendations. Find a Dietitian here.

 

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Last Update – August 1, 2012

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