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Eat to Compete

Back in the late 1950s at Westwood High School in New Jersey, I concocted a mixture of orange juice, salt, and honey with my trainers, and we gave it to the players at halftime of football games. They loved it. The orange juice cut their thirst and replenished their potassium, the salt replaced the salt they lost in sweat, and the honey was a source of energy for the second half. If we'd only realized that we had invented Gatorade®, we'd be rich today.

      Good nutrition can mean the difference between being physically fit and being physically fizzled. Eating right is imperative for championship athletes, but anyone can gain an edge by knowing the best foods to eat and when to eat them.

      What makes for high-performance nutrition? Unfortunately, most dietary advice buzzed around locker rooms is exaggerated, inaccurate, or downright harmful. This chapter dispels some of these myths and offers solid principles on which to build a better, more competitive body:

  • Eat a winning diet combination.

  • Know what to eat and when.

  • Know what to drink and when.

  • Have your diet and body composition assessed.

  • Gain muscle, lose excess fat.


To support training, performance, and health you should eat a balanced diet of low-fat, moderate-protein, high-carbohydrate foods and beverages; snack on high-carbohydrate, low-fat foods; and drink extra fluids.

      How do you get a balanced diet? For breakfast, choose one item from each of the following categories: bread, cereal, and grains; fruits and juices; and skim or 1% milk or other low-fat dairy products. For lunch and dinner, choose one item each of bread, cereal, and grains; fruits and juices; skim milk; vegetables; fish, poultry, and lean meat; and fats and oils. For seconds and snacks, if you are still hungry or are trying to bulk up, choose from vegetables; fruits and juices; bread, cereal, and grains; or skim milk.

      Within those categories, choose lower-fat items whenever possible:

  • Have a slice of whole wheat bread, an English muffin, a bagel, or a nongranola cereal without nuts or seeds, such as Cheerios®, Wheaties®, or corn flakes.

  • Eat fresh, whole fruits, which are better for weight loss because they contain more fiber than juices. Drink 100 percent fruit juice rather than juice drinks.

  • Develop a taste for low-fat dairy products such as skim or 1% milk.

  • Choose brightly colored vegetables and fresh or frozen vegetables without added fat because they have more vitamins and are more nutritious.

  • Eat fish, seafood, and poultry more often than beef and other red meats. Eat lean cuts of well-trimmed meat with little marbling. Have poultry without the skin and nonbreaded and nonfried whenever possible.

  • Use reduced-fat margarine, mayonnaise, and salad dressing. Use canola or olive oil and salad dressing without cream or cheese. Take in fat primarily in the form of fish, canola oil, or olive oil.

      Making the change to a better diet sometimes comes as the result of pressure from other family members. Children are open to change and can provide an incentive for the rest of the family. A parent might not change the daily meals for herself or her spouse, but she often will for her child. When a child comes home and says, "Coach says I have to eat better," the parent usually becomes motivated to provide more nutritious meals. And the rest of the family ends up eating better, too.

      At the professional level, where virtually all athletes are superior physically and genetically and have nearly similar abilities and training facilities, just a small change in nutrition can make a significant difference in performance. Although you may not have the physical gifts of a professional, good nutrition can help you reach your athletic potential.

Emphasize Carbohydrates

In one research study, doctors put volunteers on a normal diet composed of 50 percent carbohydrates, 34 percent fats, and 16 percent proteins. The maximum amount of time their muscles could work continuously was 114 minutes. On a noncarbohydrate diet composed of 46 percent fats and 54 percent proteins, the maximum was 57 minutes. But on a high-carbohydrate diet of 82 percent carbohydrates and 18 percent proteins, the maximum was 167 minutes, nearly three times as long as for the noncarbohydrate diet.

      Thus, if you eat more carbohydrates, you will have more energy and endurance and will be able to work out longer. Endurance athletes know that a high-carbohydrate diet helps performance by storing more fuel (glycogen) in the muscle. But a high-carbohydrate diet is relevant to all sports. People in stop-and-start sports, such as tennis, after consecutive days of hard training, also deplete their muscle glycogen stores. A diet sufficiently high in carbohydrates is necessary after each day's workout to replace the glycogen used up.

      Unfortunately, such a diet is not the norm among recreational athletes. Here is a typical scenario: A busy executive wakes up late and skips breakfast. She eats a small lunch and works out at the gym after work. She doesn't replace her fluids, so she is tired and doesn't eat much for dinner. After a few days of this routine, she feels "flat" because she isn't replacing her carbohydrates on a consistent basis.

      A diet high in carbohydrates, moderate in proteins, and low in fats can also help keep your energy level up during a weight loss program. Carbohydrates also have a fair amount of fiber, so they fill you up with fewer calories. A lot of fatty foods contain fat and fat-soluble vitamins, but nothing else. Many foods high in carbohydrates have small amounts of protein and a number of vitamins and minerals. Sources of carbohydrates include breads, cereals, grains, and other starches such as potatoes, corn, milk, beans, peas, lentils, fruits and fruit juices, and vegetables.

      Without a doubt, carbohydrates are the best foods for athletes to sustain training and competition, promote rapid recovery, and prevent staleness and fatigue.

Remember Protein

Although protein can't be metabolized for energy, it contains the building blocks for body tissue, the amino acids. In any athletic endeavor, there is a breakdown of body tissue. This is obvious for contact sports such as football, but it also occurs in nonviolent sports such as jogging. The continued use of muscle fibers breaks them down, and the body needs protein to repair them.

      While children need a relatively high level of protein in their diets because they are still growing, adults need only enough protein to maintain tissue repair.


Principles of Pregame Eating

In general, you should eat at least 2 hours before working out. In advance of an upcoming game, because of the added anxiety, allow more time than you normally would before a routine workout--about 3 to 4˝ hours. Being nervous slows down digestion, and you may become more aware of stomach upset. This may be tolerable during a regular workout but could affect your game performance, when you are giving your maximum effort.

      Eating foods high in fats and proteins will slow down the stomach-emptying process, so you should drop high-fat, high-protein foods from pre-event meals. Try high-carbohydrate, low-fat foods, such as breads and pasta, at least 2 hours before a workout or competition so that your stomach empties before you exercise.

      Forget the candy bar before you exercise. You may think you are getting quick energy, but you are not. Eating candy causes a sharp increase in blood sugar levels. Your body responds by releasing insulin, which burns up your blood sugar reserves and depletes your overall energy rather than supplying you with an extra boost. Some of the symptoms of low blood sugar are dizziness, inability to think clearly, shakiness or weakness, and difficulty concentrating.

      Your blood sugar supply will be low if you haven't eaten for 8 hours. Eating carbohydrates can restore and maintain your blood sugar during exercise and prevent hunger and exhaustion after a workout. So you need to leave enough time so that food empties from your stomach, yet eat close enough to your workout to prevent hunger and exhaustion later on.

A Pre-Exercise Meal

A pre-exercise meal (or breakfast) for best performance contains lots of carbohydrates and little fat. The meal should include bread, cereal, grains, fruit and fruit juices, skim milk, and lowfat dairy products. An example of a good meal is a bowl of nongranola cereal (which is low in fat), skim milk, and an orange; or a piece of toast with jam, low-fat cottage cheese, and fruit juice. Remember, it should be eaten from 2 to 4˝ hours before you exercise.

Carbo Loading

One specialized method of pregame eating is "carbo loading." This is a widely misunderstood concept. First, carbo loading is valuable only before long-distance events, where you need to delay the conversion to the fat metabolism, or anaerobic energy, cycle. The process is probably of no value for any race distance less than 10 kilometers.

      Second, it is valuable only for widely spaced events. It takes a full week to accomplish the loading, and there should be a prolonged recovery period afterward. Thus, a high school cross-country runner who races three miles twice a week is not a good candidate for carbo loading. Only those who run long-distance races three to four times a year are viable candidates.

      Finally, carbo loading should not be confused with eating a high-carbohydrate meal the night before a race. This is a good meal for anyone running any distance.

      The technique of carbo loading begins with starving the body of carbohydrates for four days. When carbohydrate reserves are totally depleted, then large amounts of carbohydrates are consumed for three days. The result is a rebound effect that raises carbohydrate levels higher than a simple high-carbohydrate diet would.

      During the first four days of carbo loading, you should work out heavily and eat foods as high in protein and as low in carbohydrates as possible. This causes total carbohydrate depletion. It also can make you depressed and irritable, so be aware that there are drawbacks. During the last three days, your diet should be all carbohydrates, and your workouts should be minimized or eliminated. This produces the desired rebound effect and should allow you to go longer without lactic acid buildup during the race.

      Carbo loading should be undertaken only under a doctor's supervision. This especially applies to anyone with a medical problem. If you have any health problems, or any questions about how to carbo-load, consult a sports doctor or nutritionist.

Eating after Exercise

For meals and snacks after exercise, eat highcarbohydrate foods first, and then replenish fluids with water, electrolyte drinks, and fruit juices as well as salty and high-potassium foods such as pickles and relish.

      Sodium-sensitive people need to limit their intake of salt. That's fine if you have high blood pressure, but if you're working out regularly in hot weather, don't completely eliminate salty foods. You need some extra salt to compensate for sweat losses, particularly if you do consecutive workouts, as we do during the Giants' summer training camp.

      High-potassium foods such as citrus fruits, bananas, melons, and skim milk are good for athletes because they are great sources of carbohydrates and proteins, contain no fat, and provide lots of vitamins and minerals.


Fluid intake is important because people can suffer heat problems from inadequate fluid replacement. Heat exhaustion or heat stroke can be life-threatening for both professional and amateur athletes.

      There is a good way to determine your need for fluid replacement. First, weigh yourself before exercising. Then immediately after your workout, weigh yourself again. Replace each pound of weight lost with one pint (16 ounces) of water, an electrolyte replacement drink such as Gatorade, or a combination of the two. In this way you will be sure to replace lost fluids and won't get dehydrated.

Before Your Workout

If it's hot and you are doing an endurance activity, prehydrate with 16 ounces of water within 15 minutes of your workout, whether you're thirsty or not. Thirst is not a good guide for fluid replacement. The minute you're thirsty, you're already somewhat dehydrated.

      During the two hours before you exercise, drink only plain, noncarbonated water. The bubbles in carbonated water just fill you up, so plain water is better. Before exercising, don't take any salt pills or drinks containing salt, such as electrolyte replacement drinks. Take no high-carbohydrate supplements, protein powders or amino acids, juices, sodas, candy, sugar, or honey.

      If milk causes problems for you, do without it for the pregame meal. A large percentage of people can't drink milk but don't know it. They don't like milk, and they always seem to have a lot of gas and don't know why. These people probably have lactose intolerance, which is a problem in digesting lactose (milk sugar). Luckily, lactosereduced products, including nonfat milk and cottage cheese, are available. Also, a product called Lactaid®, which contains the enzyme necessary for lactose digestion, can be added to foods.

      During warmup, cold water is always appropriate. Cold water empties from the stomach faster than warm water. If you have stomach cramps, it's probably from taking too much water at once. If you experience cramps, try warm water or fluids with salt or sugar in them.

During Your Workout

Drink four to eight ounces of water every 15 minutes during your performance. Try this in workouts first since your stomach may not tolerate this much fluid. Besides cold water, you can drink watered-down electrolyte replacement drinks, which contain a combination of glucose and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Small amounts of glucose and sodium increase the speed of water absorption from the intestines. Some research indicates that you don't have to water down these drinks, but from a practical standpoint, a number of athletes can't tolerate these drinks straight and get upset stomachs. Generally, it's better to water down the drinks with one or two parts water for every part of the replacement drink. On the sidelines during Giants games you always see three bright orange Gatorade tubs. One is filled with watered-down Gatorade, and the other two contain plain water.

After Your Workout

After your workout, drink plain cold water or a watered-down electrolyte drink. Within two hours after exercise, and preferably within 15 minutes, have a high-carbohydrate drink as well. Ingesting carbohydrates within that time frame seems to accelerate the replacement of muscle glycogen reserves. Some of the drinks available are Gatorlode®, Exceed High Carb®, and Carboplex®. Regardless of what these drinks say on their labels, take them only after you have completed exercise, not during or before. The manufacturers want you to believe that the drinks give you a jolt of energy. In reality, they will sit in your stomach during exercise, preventing fluids from passing through and, as a result, lowering your blood sugar.

      Since high-carbohydrate drinks slow fluid replacement, it's best to get some fluid replacement under way first. A good rule of thumb is to take water, then an electrolyte replacement drink, and then a high-carbohydrate drink within two hours, and as close to 15 minutes as possible, after exercise.

      When you rehydrate, limit caffeinated drinks such as coffee, cola, and iced tea. This can be hard to do because you're tired, and a quick shot of caffeine makes you feel better. But if you drink too much caffeine, you will urinate more and lose fluids. The same goes for alcohol, which goes through your body as if it were a leaky tub. Limit yourself to two drinks or less of caffeine or alcohol a day because both promote water loss.


Nutrition is not an exact science. No dietitian can say, "I'm going to put you on a 5,000-calorie diet for your ultimate performance." What he or she can do is assess what foods you are eating and your body composition and then look at what you need to do to gain muscle, bulk up, or reduce fat.

      It's important to go to a reputable person such as a registered dietitian, preferably one who specializes in sports and cardiovascular nutrition. Anyone with little or no training can call himself a "nutritionist." For a reliable reference, contact the American Dietetic Association for one of the 3,000 or so specialized dietitians across the country, contact your state dietetic association, or look in the Yellow Pages under "Dietitian."

Dietary Assessment

The dietitian will probably ask you to keep a three-day food diary. From that you will receive a printout of the percentage of total calories you get from carbohydrates, protein, and fat; your total calorie intake; and whether you are getting significant amounts of the main nutrients: iron, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, sodium, and potassium. Or the dietitian may simply assess the frequency with which you eat certain foods or note the foods you tend to eat more than once a week.

      Once your diet has been assessed and found to be balanced, you can take a multivitamin supplement that has 100 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA) of nutrients. Take no more than 100 percent of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are stored in the body, because they can build up to toxic levels. The water-soluble vitamins B and C don't build up in the body as much, though they can reach toxic levels, too. The trace elements iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, fluoride, magnesium, molybdenum, and chromium should be kept at recommended levels for safety.

      The mechanism of absorption for one nutrient may not be the same as that for another. If your intake of amino acids and trace elements is not balanced, you may inadequately absorb one or the other nutrient.

      The recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals is not the best guide for athletes since it was devised to avoid vitamin deficiencies, not to enhance performance. Different nutritionists may recommend different levels of vitamins and minerals. But you can use the RDA as an overall guide for adding to a balanced diet. And a good, balanced diet is your highest priority.

Body Weight versus
Body Composition

Whether you want to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight, you need to look not just at your body weight but at your body composition, that is, how much muscle and how much fat you have. When you participate in any diet or exercise program, you can't rely on the scale. Muscle weighs more than fat, and as you increase muscle mass with exercise, you may weigh more even though your total body fat is dropping.

      Changes in body composition can be monitored through body fat determinations. Some health clubs use reputable methods to determine body fat but don't follow the proper protocol when testing. For example, testing body fat after a workout when you're dehydrated will result in a lower-than-normal reading. Also, be wary of wonderful-looking computer printouts that don't mean a thing.

      The gold standard for determining body fat is hydrostatic weighing. This is a rather complicated procedure that involves full-body immersion in water. A simple yet reliable method is to have a registered dietitian measure your skin thickness in several areas of the body using calipers. This provides a reading of body fat percentage within a narrow range under controlled conditions.

      The dietitian can help you track your body fat by measuring several areas of the body every six to eight weeks. For the Giants, we do body fat measurements at the beginning of off-season training in March and at the end of off-season training in May. We also check during the regular season. Working out four times a week, the Giants' players can make fast gains in the reduction of body fat. A player's weight may stay the same during off-season training, but he may have gained 10 pounds of muscle and lost 10 pounds of fat. He doesn't see a change on the scale, but his body composition has changed dramatically. On the other hand, players may weigh the same but have done nothing to reduce their body fat. This often motivates them to start eating a high-performance diet.

      You may train less intensely than the pros but make similar changes in body fat composition. There's no rush; you can do it slowly over time. Knowing your body fat level and watching it change is a good motivation to keep fit.

Overweight versus Overfat

Many people who exercise are overweight but not overfat. Being overweight alone is not a health risk, but being overfat is. You need to have some way of determining whether you need to lose weight or lose fat.

      A "thin" person could have lower-than-normal weight for his or her age and sex due to one or more of the following factors: shorter height (shorter bones), a smaller frame (smaller, lighter bones), less muscle, and less body fat. A "heavy" person's weight could be due to one or more of these factors that is higher than normal.

      Body fat interferes with athletic performance more than the other factors. The more muscle and less fat you have, the faster and quicker you will be. You'll have a higher tolerance for exercising in the heat. Your heart and muscles won't have to work as hard. And you'll be less prone to injury because you are carrying less dead weight on the lower back, hip, knee, and ankle joints. This is why a body fat determination is so important. Once you know how much of your current body weight is body fat, you will be able to set an ideal body weight goal.

      Although you may be trying to lower your body fat, you must maintain a certain level for general health. For men the essential body fat level is at least 3 percent. We don't let the Giants' players go below 6 percent body fat because of possible hydration problems. Big linemen, in particular, tend to get dehydrated in hot weather if their body fat is too low. For women the optimal body fat level is between 9 percent and 12 percent for elite athletes and about 15 percent for amateur athletes. Some women athletes, particularly runners and gymnasts, try to get their body fat levels as low as a man's. This can be dangerous. A woman needs a higher level of body fat to maintain her menstrual function and reproductive capabilities.

      If you are 20 percent over your ideal body weight, you are considered obese by doctors. Obesity can lead to heart disease, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, and cancer of the breast, prostate, and colon.

      Your body fat goals will differ depending on your sport and whether you are playing for fitness or performance, or just for fun. Sports that require more speed and quickness and less body contact require lower levels of body fat.

      For other sports, athletes need body fat for protection. For example, hockey and football players need body fat to protect themselves from the pounding they take from opponents. Although receivers and defensive backs can't have a lot of excess body fat (because it slows them down), defensive linemen need the extra bulk provided by more body fat.


Gaining muscle and losing fat makes you stronger. Therefore, all athletes, not just football players and body builders, should strive to gain muscle and lose fat. To do so, you need to increase your calorie intake through a combination of low-fat, high-protein and low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods and beverages.

Gaining Weight

It's not easy to gain muscle weight. An increase of one to two pounds of muscle per week through a combination of diet and weight training is feasible. Any more weight gain than that is due to excess fat and fluid retention.

      Your first priority should be to start an appropriate exercise program. You need to train with weights regularly to stimulate muscle cells to grow. You will waste a lot less time and get much better results if you consult a certified strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainer, exercise physiologist, or physical therapist to set up a safe, productive weight-training program. You need the right type of resistance exercises, such as those listed in the strength-training program of Chapter 1, to build muscle.

      Remember, too, that rest is an essential element of training. It helps muscles grow and recover and restores their energy so that you will be ready for the next workout. If you are not getting enough rest, you won't be able to do the necessary workouts to gain weight.

A Weight-Gain Diet

To gain one to two pounds, you need to eat an extra 700 to 1,000 calories a day beyond your normal diet. First, have your diet assessed and any nutritional deficits corrected to ensure that you have a balanced diet. Then you can add extra calories. You need calories for muscle growth and to support the heavy training required to build muscle. Those calories should come mostly from low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, such as vegetables, fruits and juices, breads, nongranola cereals, rice, pasta, peas, legumes, and other starches.

      Incorporate extra foods and beverages into your daily diet by having larger portions, second helpings, more frequent meals, or snacks between meals. Be sure to maintain adequate protein intake to supply the building blocks for more muscle.

      An easy, convenient way to work in extra calories is to add a low-fat liquid meal plus extra skim milk and fruit juice to a balanced diet. Examples of low-fat liquid meals are Carnation Instant Breakfast®, Sustical®, and Nutrament®. Or you can eat low-fat foods such as skim or low-fat milk, nonfat yogurt, cooked egg whites or egg substitutes (which should be cholesterol-free and pasteurized), low-fat cottage cheese, and reduced-calorie and reduced-fat cheeses, such as those offered by Weight Watchers® or Lite-Line®.

      You may notice that these are the same foods eaten to lose weight. The difference is in the quantity and total number of calories consumed. To gain weight, the source of calories consists mainly of liquids, which allow you to slip down a lot of calories easily. For example, you can drink two glasses of orange juice more quickly than you can eat two oranges. To lose weight, eat bulkier foods with fewer calories, such as vegetables and fruits, rather than juices, because such foods take longer to eat.

Losing Weight

The goals of any weight loss program should be to lose excess body fat while maintaining muscle and keeping up fluid intake. Any program that significantly depletes muscle mass or fluids isn't healthy and will not be effective for long-term weight control.

      People get excited when they lose two pounds after a workout. But this sudden weight loss usually is due to loss of fluids, which you will need to replenish. Losing excess fluid is counterproductive because it lowers the body's volume of blood. The blood circulates oxygen to working muscles and takes waste products away, and with a lower blood volume, you can't do that as efficiently. In addition, your heart has to work harder to keep the blood circulating. A low blood volume also lowers your sweat volume so that your body doesn't cool off as quickly.

      A weight loss of one to two pounds of fat per week through combined diet and exercise is feasible. If you drop any more weight than that, you are probably losing muscle and fluid, not body fat.

      The best way to lose body fat is to decrease your intake of food fats and increase aerobic exercise. This dynamic duo is not only the best program for training, performance, and weight control, but for overall health as well.

A Weight-Loss Diet

Where do fats appear in our food? We get fats from meat, fish, poultry, cooking fat and oil, butter and margarine, mayonnaise and salad dressing, nuts and nut butter, whole milk, cream, most cheeses, ice cream, nondairy creamers, pastries, cake, donuts, pies, cookies, chips, and other greasy snacks. A simple way of testing if a food is fatty is to put it on a paper napkin. If it leaves a grease spot, you know it's full of fat.

      To lose weight, you need to cut down on the portions of high-fat foods you eat. If you are going to eat fat, at least have it in nutritious foods.

      People tend to think of foods high in carbohydrates as fattening. But fats have more than twice the calories (9) per gram than carbohydrates (4) or proteins (4). Foods that supply the most calories tend to have the least nutrition. Alcohol is nearly as bad as fat, with 7 calories per gram. Thus, fat and alcohol have the highest number of calories per gram and provide the least nutrition per calorie.

      One way to lose weight is to replace fats with carbohydrates. A registered dietitian can help point out high-fat foods in the diet and offer lower-fat alternatives. For example, you can switch from eating donuts (high fat) to bagels (low fat), or from ice cream (high fat) to frozen yogurt (low fat).

      Plugging in a suitable, tasty alternative makes a long-term behavior change feasible. Most people hate sitting down to wimpy food portions. By eating lower-fat foods, you can still have fairly large portions and eat when you're hungry.

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