The Importance Of Meal Timing For the Competitive Athlete
With soccer players always on the go, the ability to track and maintain a healthy nutrition schedule tends to get lost in the distance. Many youth soccer players and their families overlook the importance of eating at the right time — which can have a profound effect on reaching top fitness levels.
GoalNation’s nutrition columnist Nancy Clark discusses the latest tips provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), and the importance of maintaining a schedule for your diet.
Soccer News: Who thinks when you eat is important? Most people only think what they put in their mouth makes a difference but research would prove them wrong.
What is true?
Meals and snacking patterns have changed over the past 40 years.
Most people would undoubtedly realize this simple fact: Many of us are eating fewer calories at mealtime and we are consuming more calories from snacks.
As a result, I get questions from both soccer players and non-athletes about how to best fuel their bodies:
- Should I stop eating after 8:00 p.m.?
- Which is better: to eat three or six meals a day?
- Does it really matter if I skip breakfast?
Because meals can be a central part of our social life — and busy soccer schedules often contribute to chaotic eating patterns, as well as eating on the go — many soccer players disregard the fact that food is more than just fuel.
When as well as what you eat impacts your performance.
Food consumption affects the central clock in your brain. This clock controls circadian rhythms and impacts all aspects of metabolism, including how your organs function. Restricting daytime food and eating in chaotic patterns disrupts normal biological rhythms. The end result: erratic meal timing can impact the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD), type-2 diabetes and obesity.
This article offers food for thought from the American Heart Association’s Scientific Statement on Meal Timing and Frequency: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention. (Circulation, Jan 30, 2017).
The information is particularly important for soccer players because training schedules can really upset standard meal times. Plus, most players want to live a long and healthful life. Hence, we need to pay attention to meal timing—starting at an early age. Children and adolescents who skip meals have a higher risk of developing health issues (higher BMI, more belly fat, higher serum insulin and blood glucose). Not a good start for a long and healthy life.
Soccer parents take note: Be responsible with family meals!
Older athletes also want to stay healthy. In 2014, 14.5% of the US population was 65 years or older. Over the next 25 years, older Americans are expected to grow to 22% of the US population. We need to outlive the diseases of aging. That starts with fueling wisely on a regular schedule and enjoying regular exercise!
Breakfast: Is It Really the Most Important Meal Of the Day?
If you define breakfast as eating 20% to 35% of your daily calories within two-hours of waking, about one-fourth of US adults do not eat breakfast. This drop in breakfast consumption over the past 40 years parallels the increase in obesity. Breakfast skippers tend to snack impulsively — think donuts, pastries, chips and other fatty foods. People who skip breakfast end up with poorer quality diets and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and overweight/obesity.
Eating a wholesome breakfast starts the day with performance enhancing fuel at the right time for your body’s engine.
If you exercise in the morning, fuel-up by having part of your breakfast before you workout and then enjoy the rest of the breakfast afterwards. This will help you get more out of your workout, improve recovery—and click with natural circadian rhythms.
Meal Frequency: Is It Better to Eat 1, 3. 6, 9 or 12 Times A Day?
In terms of weight, eating 2,000 calories divided into 1, 3, 6, 9, or 12 meals doesn’t change your body fatness. In a study where breakfast provided 54% of the day’s calories and dinner only 11% of calories—or the reverse, the subjects (women) had no differences in fat loss. Yet, in terms of cardiovascular health, the big breakfast led to significant reductions in metabolic risk factors and better blood glucose control. The bigger breakfast matched food intake to circadian rhythms that regulated metabolism.
Soccer athletes who skimp at breakfast commonly get too hungry and then devour way too may calories of ice cream and cookies. If they do this at night, when the body is poorly programmed to deal with an influx of sweets, they are paving their path to health issues.
Hence, if you are eating a lot of calories at night, at least make them low in sugary foods, to match the reduced insulin response in the evening.
Should you stop eating after 8:00 PM?
There’s little question that late-night eating is associated with obesity.
Research shows that adults who ate more than one-third of their calories in the evening had twice the risk of being obese. Among 60,000 Japanese adults, the combination of late-night eating plus skipping breakfast was associated with a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
A study with 2,200 US middle-aged women reports each 10% increase in the number of calories eaten between 5:00 PM and midnight was associated with a 3% increase in C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. Inflammation is associated with diabetes, CVD and obesity.
The wise soccer players try to eat most of their calories earlier in the day.
The Best Plan: Plan to Eat Intentionally.
Failing to plan for meals can easily end up in missed meals, chaotic fueling patterns and impaired health, to say nothing of reduced performance. If you struggle with getting your food-act together, consult with a sports dietitian who will help you develop a winning food plan.
Instead of holding off to have a big dinner, enjoy food when your body needs the fuel: when it is most active.
If you worry you’ll eat just as much at night if you eat more during the day (and you’ll “get fat”), think again. Be mindful before you eat and ask yourself: Does my body actually need this fuel?
Most active women and men can and should enjoy at least 500 to 700 calories four times a day: breakfast, early lunch, second lunch, and dinner. To overcome the fear that this much food will make you fat, reframe your thoughts.
You are simply moving calories in your pre/post-dinner snacks into a substantial and wholesome second lunch — such as a peanut butter-honey sandwich, or apple, cheese & crackers. The purpose of this second lunch is to curb your evening appetite, refuel your muscles from your training earlier in the day — or fuel them for a late afternoon session– and align your food intake to your circadian rhythms.
Sounds smart? Give it a try!
SIDEBAR: Nutritional and medical advice changes with new discoveries and interpretations. Always check with your medical provider and/or nutritionalist for what is best for you and your family. And research and read information on nutrition!
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area, where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and Food Guide for Soccer, as well as teaching materials, are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com.
For online and live workshops, visit www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.