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Staying in Top Nutritional Performance Shape

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By Page Love, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD

You’ve mastered your meal planning at home, and you are balancing your carbohydrates and protein, keeping fats to a minimum and increasing energy for better performance. That’s great, but what happens when you have to eat out before or after a match? Will the restaurant or tennis club have any of your training diet foods? What if the portion size is wrong? Are there hidden ingredients?

Todd Ellenbecker, director of sports medicine for the ATP World Tour, ATP Medical Services, understands the extreme importance of high-level nutrition, especially when players are on the road. He says it is important for players to know what fuels they are putting in their bodies as they are dining out, and nutrition consultants like myself share recommendations with players for these challenging situations. These include making optimal recovery choices in restaurants and picking healthy performance choices in their ongoing training diets. Utilizing a registered and sport dietitian is a key part of the complete sports medicine care for players, and Ellenbecker recommends that all players include this important type of consultation for their training diets.

Below are some common misconceptions and related important tips that I offer to both professional and recreational players to keep them on track when they are eating on the road:

1. “I skip some meals so I can eat more when I go out.”
When you skip meals, you build an energy deficit that creates a greater-than-normal hunger level. Trying to “save up calories” for a meal typically backfires because your blood sugar will drop so low that you will lose the ability to control your cravings and make sensible choices when it comes to mealtime. Most meal skippers tend to pick higher fat and refined carbohydrate meal choices when they dine out. These meals end up being more caloric than if they had eaten the meals before they dined out. To stay on track, eat regularly the rest of the day, and do not go longer than three to four hours between meals or snacks.

You should have a healthy, balanced snack about an hour before you dine out. This will settle your hunger so that you have your wits about you to order a healthy meal. Consider eating healthy snacks that contain both carbohydrates (whole-wheat crackers, baby carrots or an apple) and protein (a piece of low-fat cheese, a tablespoon of nuts or a glass of skim milk).

2. “I’ll just see what others order and what healthy choices there are.”
A better idea is to decide on your healthy option before you go. Most restaurants have menus online, and some even feature detailed nutritional information. Having an idea about what you will order before you get there will help you stay on track with overall choices to meet your training diet guidelines. In the United States, chain restaurants will be required to provide nutrition information about their menu choices starting Dec. 1. Additionally, some restaurants offer healthy sections in their menus. For example, Olive Garden, a favorite refueling spot for many tennis teams, offers a “Lighter Italian Fare” section. Look for special symbols or sections in menus. Calories, fat grams and cholesterol milligrams are also provided online for many restaurants.

If you feel there are no healthy entree options, design a meal utilizing appetizers or side dishes. Many restaurants now offer “mini” meal options or tapas that can easily meet your needs without putting you over your calorie allotment. Examples of healthy appetizers are broth-based soups, bean soups, side salads, hummus and raw veggies, fruit and cheese and sushi. Make sure to choose both a protein and carbohydrate source to secure satiety and meet your food group needs.

3. “Bread or chips before the main meal will keep me from overeating.”
Limit the breads, rolls or chips brought to the table before meal. These extras add hundreds of unnecessary calories that may slow you down on the court. Either wait to consume bread with the meal or do not have it served at all. If you do opt for bread, or are given choices, consider whole-grain bread or plain tortillas instead of fried tortilla chips. If you are ordering a salad as your entree, make sure that you consume bread with your meal or that the salad contains a starchy topping like black beans, corn or couscous.

Sometimes you can’t control what’s placed on the table, but instead of diving into the breadbasket, drink a glass of water to settle hunger and to hydrate. Tennis players should have several hydrating beverages during the entire meal to help with digestion. Make sure that the majority of your beverage choices are hydrating and not caffeinated. Research shows that moderate caffeine intake is not as negative as previously thought, so go ahead and have your cup of coffee or iced tea before a match, but aim to allow one to two additional cups of water or even a sports beverage, fruit juice or milk to adequately hydrate and meet your other nutritional needs for liquids.

4. “If I just have a vegetarian dish, I should be fine on calories.”
Choosing a balanced meal is key for having a satisfying meal. It shouldn’t leave you hungry and should provide the correct fuels, before or after playing tennis. Choose from three or four food groups, including sources of carbohydrates and protein and small amounts of fat to aid in satiety. Try to pick a lean protein source, such as grilled meat, and a complex carbohydrate side, such as a brown rice, beans, wheat pasta or sweet potato. Use the restaurant opportunity as a chance to choose plenty of garden vegetable choices, even two choices at a meal, such as side salad or vegetable soup plus sautéed vegetables.

Do your best to order low fat. The most common problem area with eating healthy when dining out is the challenge of keeping the fat content low. There are hidden fats in rich sauces, dressings, cheese toppings, breading and fried or sautéed foods. Avoid these, because they can cause weight gain and sluggish movement on the tennis court. Ask to have sauces and dressings served on the side and use the fork-dipping method or stick to ordering grilled, broiled or baked entrees. Allowing one fat source per meal for satiety is a good idea, and it is also a needed energy source for tennis players.

5. “I can’t help myself when I eat out — it’s a chance to have foods I don’t get otherwise.”
Don’t let a dining-out experience ruin your meal planning. You can still have a delicious meal while staying on track. You can maximize satisfaction, minimize gastrointestinal stress and be able to internally determine how much you need to eat by eating more slowly. You can slow down your eating by putting down your fork or food item between bites, chewing each bite thoroughly, sipping beverages between bites or engaging in conversation and pausing between bites.

The No. 1 cause of indigestion is eating too quickly. Indigestion before a tennis match can make the difference between winning and losing the first set. Try ordering in courses, starting  with your salad or soup first and waiting at least five minutes before starting your main meal. You will find that you are a better judge of portion size needs if you can slow down.

If there is an issue of portion control, ask for a to-go box or split your entree with someone. Make these requests at the beginning of the meal so that you can pre-portion what you need to stay on track with your menu plan. Splitting an entree can take care of the portion control issue and even save you money. If you split an entree, think about adding a side salad or ordering a garden vegetable side to better meet your vegetable group needs.
General healthy ordering considerations while dining include: choosing grilled, roasted or broiled options with meats and choosing whole grains, brown rice, beans, peas or sweet potatoes as alternative side dishes to more refined carbohydrate choices such as white pasta, white rice or white potatoes.

WHAT ABOUT EATING OUT?
Pre-Match Meal (two to three hours prior to competition)
BREAKFAST
• Bagel with 1 tbsp. peanut butter and banana or oatmeal with toast with peanut butter
• 16 oz. water and/or isotonic sport beverage

LUNCH
• Turkey sub or grilled chicken sandwich with mustard
• Pretzels
• Banana
• 1 cup of skim milk or yogurt
• 16 oz. serving of electrolyte beverage and water

Post-Match Meal (one to two hours after play)
• 2-3 cups of pasta with marinara sauce (light in meat and fat content)
• 2-3 slices of garlic bread (light on margarine)
• Salad with vinaigrette or low-fat dressing
• 2-3 cups of sport beverage, low-fat milk or energy drink
• 2-3 cups of Chinese-steamed rice with vegetables and chicken stir-fry

Best Bets for Dining Out :
Ethnic foods: starches like pasta, rice, beans and lean meats
Pizzerias: vegetable, chicken or shrimp toppings
Cafeterias: hot vegetables and grilled meat
Foods bars: whole grains and alternative lean proteins
• Grilled chicken or sandwiches and soft tacos or wraps
• Baked potatoes instead of fries
• Grilled small hamburgers, flame broiled or rack grilled
• Salad bar choices with both starchy and garden vegetable choices and protein topping options

Ethnic Restaurants
Mexican: fajitas, ask server to hold the chips or order soft tortillas instead of chips with your salsa
Chinese: chicken, vegetable and rice dishes with sauce served on the side, steamed rice, avoid egg rolls and fried rice
Italian: order a half portion of spaghetti with marinara and/or meat sauce and order sauce on the side; skip the bread; side salad with light dressing; grilled lean meats such as fish and poultry with sautéed vegetables; side salads with light oil-based dressings; broth-based soups

Sandwich Shops
• Turkey sub with light or no mayo; oil is also a heart-healthy
topping (or avocado)
• Ask for extra veggies
• Hold the cheese, unless a light variety is available
• Whole-wheat wrap instead of bread
• Side salads with light oil-based dressings
• Broth-based soups

Burger Joints
• Grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad
• Plain hamburger
• Chili
• Yogurt parfait
• Chicken nuggets with a side salad
• Salad

Burrito Places
• Mexican bowl (one or two starches as base, one protein, as many veggies as you like, one topping)
• Medium burritos, but pick one topping between sour cream, cheese and guacamole

Chicken Places
• Grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad
• Chicken salad sandwich with a side salad
• House salad with grilled chicken
• Cobb salad with grilled chicken
• Bleu salad with blackened chicken
• Grilled chicken wrap with a fruit cup
• Asian salad with grilled chicken
• Chicken soup with a side salad
• Chicken nuggets grilled with a side salad