March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Team USA maximizes their performance through diet. The quality of their meals and snacks have completely transformed since Jürgen Klinsmann signed on to be head coach of the U.S. Men's National Team. Since 2012, Klinsmann has had Danielle LaFata, MS, RD, CSSD, fueling America's team. Klinsmann himself models healthy eating by emphasizing organic and local varieties of whole foods in his own diet. Prior to this duo's entrance, the team snacked on candy, cheese snack crackers, pretzels and fruit snacks. The snack menu now consists of natural peanut butter, almond butter, cashews, walnuts, almonds, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and wholesome snack bars.
How do you balance the high-calorie needs of these athletes — LaFata estimates game day energy needs to be roughly 3,400 to 3,600 calories for a player 5 feet 10 inches and weighing 170 pounds — while also keeping their diets healthy? LaFata explains how some of her nutrition secrets keep Team USA fueled up.
Proper hydration. Even the slightest dehydration will impact performance. Playing soccer, especially in hot and humid weather, increases fluid needs, and players may require as much as 10 liters per day. Electrolyte beverages, fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies contribute to a player's hydration needs. All contain vital nutrients such as potassium and magnesium, which are lost in sweating.
Food first. In a sports world of heavy supplementing, Team USA's goal is to get their primary fuel from nutrient-rich foods. If needed, supplementing is customized for the individual, but food always comes first. An example of a meal three to four hours prior to a game would include whole grain pasta with Bolognese sauce, chicken breast, grilled asparagus, watermelon and pineapple.
Post workout eating. In order to minimize muscle soreness and maximize muscle recovery, post-workout smoothies with the right amount of protein and carbohydrates are given after workouts within 30 to 45 minutes. One post-workout snack LaFata makes for the team includes 25 grams of whey protein mixed with water and 1½ bananas.
80/20 principle. Athletes should eat highly nutritious foods including lean proteins, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent can be other foods that might be higher in fat and sugar. Team USA has their "20-percent meal" 24 to 48 hours after a game. After that, it's back to fit eating.
High nutrition with healthy fats. Players achieve high calorie needs by blasting their diet with a variety of plant-based foods while also adding healthy fats through nuts, seeds and olive or canola oils. The higher the calorie needs, the more generous you can be with healthy fats.
Healing foods for injuries. For injury recovery, LaFata recommends emphasizing whole-grain foods such as oatmeal, quinoa and wild rice. Other injury recovery foods include fatty fish, green leafy vegetables and legumes.