Soccer Nutrition – What Should Players Eat and Drink?

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Curt Thompson is a Certified Nutritionist and an Advanced Metabolic Typing advisor, and the author of the Soccer Nutrition Handbook. He is a motivational speaker on the subject of nutrition and regularly addresses schools, universities, businesses, sports clubs and camps, and community organizations around the country. A long time soccer player and nationally licensed coach, Coach Thompson has worked with male and female athletes of all ages for more than 30 years.

Diet seems to be one of those areas where the new research is continually throwing out the old research. Will we ever know what the ‘right’ answer is on what to eat?

That’s a difficult question. I think the answer comes down to it’s what works for the individual – there is no one package fits all. Some people do well on a higher protein higher fat diet, others on a higher carbohydrate diet. To try to categorize human beings in the one size fits all model just doesn’t work. We are all genetically different and that difference also applies to the food we eat. Yes, there is a lot of exciting research coming out, which is great, but it can be confusing.  That is what nutritionists are here to help with.

So how do you decide what is good information to learn from? Where do you find it?

I look at who funds the scientific studies. A lot of studies these days are funded by the people who have a vested interest in the results. Unfortunately, some scientists are willing to go along with that. I also look at the size of the population group in the study, and then I apply common sense. The internet is full of good information and misinformation – you have to have a very discriminating filter to know whether there is real science behind what’s being promoted and sold. It is also common to see questionable products being hyped by medical doctors and PhD’s acting as medical doctors.

Is there a difference (other than portion size) between what adolescents should be eating and adults?

What you eat depends on the person. Food provides biofeedback but most people don’t pay attention to it. Animals do it instinctually but we seem to have put our instincts aside. To say a kid needs this many calories versus what an adult needs looks good on paper but it is very difficult to track in real life. Kids need quality food and so do adults. And both groups need to eat quality foods that build health, satisfy and provide lasting energy.  We all need to eat “real”, whole food, not junk.

How does someone recognize when they are satisfied, and how do they grade whether it provided lasting energy?

I do an evaluation with my clients where I train them to pay attention to how their body responds to a meal. Ninety minutes after eating a meal, evaluate how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally. Do you feel tired or alert? Are you emotionally upset or stable? Is your mind sharp or foggy?  The answers to those questions will help you decide if what you ate worked for you. If I eat cereal in the morning, an hour later I’ll be ravenous and moody. Other people might eat that same cereal and feel fine all morning. I need a heavier meal with a higher protein and fat content.  That is what will satisfy me for the next four hours. Often it is the ratio of protein to carbohydrate that is important.  Foods that provide you with lasting energy are satisfying.

Should people be keeping track in a food diary or similar then?

Keeping track of food is very helpful to do for a short period of time, but after a week or so you can do it instinctually. It doesn’t take much effort to stop and think an hour or two after eating a meal and decide how you are feeling. When kids have lunch then four hours later go to practice hungry, tired and grumpy, they are not going to perform well. If they pay attention and recognize that they need a snack before practice, their performance will improve. Again, it’s about biofeedback.

I think I eat too fast and have too much before my body tells me I am full. Should I be concerned about that? 

Most of us don’t take enough time to eat. When you eat, your body turns off the active (sympathetic) side and turns on the parasympathetic side, which works on resting, digesting and repairing. It is important to give your body time to do that, so eating slowing is good for you. If you still feel hungry after a meal, wait 15-20 minutes before you have more. That way you give your body time to recognize what you have eaten and provide feedback on whether it is satisfied. Sit down, relax and focus on just eating. Too many people multitask through their meals, and that is not a good thing.

Fad diets tend to want to restrict people from certain things in certain ways. Is there any merit to any of it?

Fad diets don’t work in the long term, which is why a new one comes out every year. Most are just sales pitches and gimmicks. The success rate on weight loss from fad diets is very low in the long term. The success rate if you change life habits and eating patterns is much higher. Diets and supplements that claim to improve performance might do so in the short term but there are always consequences that you need to pay attention to.  The key is doing the right thing, most days of the week, not reach for a quick fix.

Should coaches be setting a good example with their own eating and drinking habits? How much of an impact does this have on players?

I believe we are very strong role models as coaches. We should be setting an example for our players in our daily lives. A lot of coaches show up at practice with a big cup of coffee. When the 12-year-old kid sees their coach doing that, they bring one to their next game. Often, the coach is addicted to caffeine because they are not eating right and not getting the energy they need from their food.  Hence they reach for a quick fix.  So now you’ve said to the kid, don’t worry about the food, just drink the coffee and you’ll feel better.  As a coach, if you must drink coffee, drink it before the game when you are in the car. Don’t walk out on to the field eating a doughnut and drinking coffee.

Should coaches be asking kids what they are eating and drinking?

Yes they should. Coaches ask a lot of their players. Young players have just had a full day of school, which consumes a lot of energy, then we train them, which takes more. They are being pushed to their limits. Where are they learning what to eat so they can get through all of that? Parents and teachers should be talking to them about good food habits, and so should coaches. It pays off because you want the player’s brain to be sharp when they show up to practice, and that is hugely dependent on what they eat during the day.  People often ignore the mental side of not eating well.  It is a big effect.  Look at it this way, if a kid can’t focus because he’s hungry or sugar-overloaded, you’re wasting your time trying to teach them.

Understanding that everyone is different, are there common things that separate the diets of serious athletes from the rest?

Serious endurance athletes need a lot of carbohydrates, as well as good quality proteins and fats. For kids, when their activity is less than an hour, you don’t have to be concerned about loading them up on carbohydrates because their normal stores will carry them through an hour or up to 90 minutes. Most young soccer players don’t play longer than that. They should be eating a healthy, whole-food diet every day, as best they can. High school is the time to start thinking about carbohydrate loads, but not until then. Young athletes need to be eating a balanced diet of whole foods, not loading their bodies up with excess carbohydrates.

How should those top level college and high school athletes prepare for games in terms of what they eat?

Firstly, diet takes practice, just like learning a soccer skill.  Players should experiment with their game day food on practice days. By trying different meals before a practice session, you can figure out what works best for you.  Parents will often take their kids out for that special breakfast before the game and load ‘em up on pancakes. I ask whether they have done that before and they say no, but they hear that is what they are supposed to. The reality is you need to know what works for you for games at different times of the day and plan your meals accordingly. Wake up and have cereal then train and see if that works for you. If not, try eggs and ham and see if that does. Eventually you find a balance and learn what is best both in what you eat and when you eat it. Then repeat that with lunch for when you have afternoon games, and so on.

Some kids have tournament games ridiculously starting at 7:30am. How do you eat before that?

That situation requires a high level of maturity, so it might be difficult to get kids to do it, but I recommend getting up early, eating what you need, then going back to sleep. Then get up again in time to be prepared up for the game. Hydration the night before is very important too. You don’t have time to get enough fluid into your body early in the morning so you need to start hydrating the night before.

Is there a similar variance in terms of how much players should be drinking before games?

It can vary from player to player.  Don’t drink enough and your performance will suffer.  Drink too much and you’ll need a bathroom ten minutes into the game.  I typically recommend that for a 150-pound person the minimum amount of fluid to consume should be a couple of quarts of fluid per day. And then another quart for each 45 to 60 minutes of training you do. Endurance athletes know that if they are thirsty the night before a big race, they will be going into the race slightly dehydrated and won’t be at their best. Athletes should drink to satisfaction and have a fairly clear urine prior to activity. Typically, you should drink 15 to 24 ounces a couple of hours prior to game time and another 8 to 12 ounces 15 minutes before kickoff. I don’t recommend sports drinks before the game. You might have some at half time if it is very hot and you are sweating heavily.  Immediately after the game, you should rehydrate and eat recovery food.

So what makes a ‘healthy’ sports drink?

Sport drinks on the market today have a 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution. The problem with most commercial drinks is the artificial flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. These ingredients can cause significant health problems, particularly in children. For example, Yellow Dye #5 can be an asthma trigger and it is in many sport drinks.  You can make your own sport drink, and I talk about it in my book. You can also go online to find recipes for healthy sport drinks. Creating a 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution is the goal. A higher amount of carbohydrate will upset your stomach and less will reduce absorption rate.

Sports drink companies often push their products on children when the kids don’t really need it. I have yet to find a study showing sport drink performance benefits for young soccer players.  I believe that top-level athletes are experiencing health issues later in life because they have consumed so much sugar from sport drinks for so many years. Your primary source of carbohydrates should be fruits, vegetables and whole grains as those provide nutrient benefits not found in sugary drinks.  The take away here is that “healthy” is relative and sport drinks should only be used for their intended purpose, never as a casual beverage.

What should players be eating after the game or training session?

Your recovery food should have about four parts carbohydrate to one part protein. A simple example would be a whole grain bagel with some peanut butter, which gives you carbs and protein and a little bit of fat. All with a lot of fluid. If you have another game right away that might be the time for a sport drink because you need to get the carbs into you quickly. If you have six hours, have a recovery snack and then a normal meal a few hours before the game.

Is there ever a need or place for any form of supplements in youth soccer?

I recommend a multivitamin – made from real food. Food-based vitamins have a better impact on the body than synthetic versions, even though they look similar in chemical formula. Yes, they can be expensive but if you are eating well, you don’t need to take one every day.  Take one every two or three days.  That cuts the cost and is usually sufficient for most athletes.

Another supplement to pay attention to is vitamin C. Humans (primates) don’t make their own, which is relatively rare in the animal kingdom (along with some fruit bats and guinea pigs). A 150-pound animal will make about 10 grams of vitamin C in a day. If it stressed it might make 100 grams per day. The Recommended Daily Amount of vitamin C for humans is 60 mg, which is enough to stave off acute Scurvy (a breakdown of connective tissue) but it is far from the optimal amount.  Adults should consume about 2 grams per day and if you are stressed, you may need more. It’s such an important vitamin because it plays a role in so many bodily functions.  Athletes should be taking a combination of food and supplement based vitamin C to get to those levels. They need to be careful about having too much fruit juice though, as juices tend to be high in sugar. If you want juice, eat the fruit.  Then you get the fiber and other nutrients in the fruit.  Vitamin C degrades with light so you won’t get much from juice in clear bottles.

The last supplement is vitamin D, which is a sun hormone as much as it is a vitamin. I recommend athletes get a vitamin D blood test as part of their annual physical. It is generated by sunlight impacting unprotected skin. Sunblock will prevent you from making it. The average person in this country is deficient. People who live and work in the outdoors have blood levels of about 45 to 50 ng/ml.  Most kids are in the 15-25 range, which is deficient. The ancient Greeks would train their Olympic athletes naked in the noonday sun to boost their athletic performance. I’m not recommending people go work out with naked Greeks at lunchtime, but we need to be less scared of the sun. We must respect what it offers and use it to get vitamin D.  Do avoid sunburn but do try to expose your skin to a small amount of sun daily. The angle of the sun is important.  As a general rule, if your shadow is longer than you are tall, you are not getting vitamin D from the sun.  Supervised supplementation can help during the winter months.

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