Expert insights from a sports nutritionist on how athletes nutrition differs from regular people

Everyone eats, but why we eat can vary greatly. Picture: Karolina Grabowska

Everyone eats, but why we eat can vary greatly. Picture: Karolina Grabowska

Published Apr 16, 2024


Everyone eats but why we eat can vary greatly. Some people focus on foods that help with weight loss, others might need nourishing meals to recover from treatments like chemotherapy and then some seek out foods packed with collagen or other ingredients that boost our immune system.

For athletes, however, the story is a bit different. Their bodies often demand more food, not just in quantity but in the specific kinds of food they need to keep their energy up and their muscles in top shape.

Take, for example, the famous athlete Usain Bolt. His diet is a key part of his training regime. To keep up with the demands of his intense workouts, Bolt packs his meals with complex carbohydrates, such as yams, and lean proteins, like chicken.

These nutrients are not just filling; they fuel his energy needs and help his muscles repair and grow after every sprint.

This focus on carbohydrates for energy and protein for muscle health is a common theme for many elite athletes, who often adjust their diets to get the right balance of macronutrients along with essential vitamins and minerals.

The beauty of a dietitian-led, sports-specific and athlete-centred approach is that it can address this level of uniqueness. Picture: Styves Exantus/Pexels

Shelly Meltzer, a registered dietitian, sports nutritionist and spokesperson for The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), shares insights on how serious athletes can enhance performance through tailored nutrition.

In South Africa, thousands of sports lovers are gearing up for tough challenges like the Comrades Marathon and various trail, mountain biking, and triathlon events.

Achieving a personal best is a major goal, serving as a sign that they are truly living their best lives. As these athletes aim for peak performance, understanding the right nutrition is crucial.

Meltzer, a seasoned dietitian, points out that the dietary needs of elite athletes, especially those participating in ultra-endurance events lasting over 2.5 hours, can differ significantly from those of hobby athletes.

"Some of these elite competitors might need between 90-120 grams of carbohydrates every hour during their events," she explains. "However, their bodies would be prepped for this, having been trained to handle such specific carbohydrate-heavy diets."

Despite the higher quantities needed by athletes, the basic tenets of nutrition apply to both athletes and non-athletes. Both require a balanced diet that meets the needs of the body and includes essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Meltzer warns that despite the booming global market for sports nutrition supplements, many products promising to boost athletic performance lack evidence to support their claims.

According to Meltzer, who has years of experience in sports nutrition and bases her advice on the latest scientific research, the effectiveness of a diet or supplement can vary greatly from one athlete to another.

"What helps your competitor might not work for you," she says, highlighting the importance of starting with a nutritionally balanced diet before considering supplements.

"Supplements should just be the finishing touch, not replace meals".

Meltzer also raises a concern for ordinary people who might follow an athlete's diet without engaging in similar levels of physical activity. This could result in an excess intake of nutrients, potentially leading to weight gain or metabolic issues.

She highlights the importance of aligning food consumption with physical activity to ensure a healthy balance between intake, storage, and energy expenditure.

“One also needs to consider potential side effects of supplements, how and when to use them, and athletes need to be aware of banned substances that may be advertently or inadvertently included in nutritional supplements.”

She adds, “This is an industry buffeted by marketing trends. So, from time to time, you will see the market flooded with compelling content about the newest craze supplement.

“In response, the audience shifts focus and suddenly, we have athletes obsessed with the latest ‘magic pill’ or ‘salt’ which may not meet their specific requirement.”

“Ultimately, this kind of blowing in the wind due to mercurial marketing forces falls far short of addressing the essential, complex and multi-dimensional needs of athletes, who must be focused on their individuality, their goals at a particular phase of training.”

“The circumstances of their event, including their travelling and competition demands, the environment and access to food, and their nutritional preferences. The beauty of a dietitian-led, sports-specific and athlete-centred approach is that it can address this level of uniqueness.”