Nutrition for Athletes: Needs & Guidelines

Instructor: Veronika Polozkova

Masters in International Health. Lesson development experience on different levels from basic alimentary school to academic master level. Languages: English, Dutch, Russian

Athletes who intensively practice sports have slightly different nutrition requirements for the body to function well. This is caused by high energy expenditure and additional nutrient requirements for building muscles. But because the information that is provided often varies a lot depending on a source, it can be difficult to find estimates of the real needs and guidelines for nutritional intake.

What is different for athletes?

Athletes that exercise or play sports daily have special diet requirements to fulfill the body's needs. Specifically, athletes need to consumer more calories. But it is not that simple as just drinking or eating any energy and protein-rich products. The intake of nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats, and the quality of energy sources must be taken into account. An unbalanced diet for athletes can be detrimental to performance and harmful to their health. Let's take a closer look at some nutritional guidelines for athletes.


When you think of an athlete during exercise, what do you think of? Maybe you think of heaving breathing, sweating, or endurance? Or maybe you think to yourself, how can they possible run that fast, that long or have that much energy? While many athletes seem to have super human qualities, there is a science behind their success, and much of it has to do with the way they consume calories. If athletes want to perform physical activity at their very best, they must fulfill the energy needs that will allow them to continue exercise. Energy can come from foods and drinks in form of: carbohydrates, fats and protein. These nutrients all serve different purposes in the body and therefore need to be balanced well.


A calorie is a unit of energy. The average adult woman needs about 2000 calories a day to meet the needs of the body, while an average adult man needs about 2500 calories. But we are not talking average when talking about athletes. Male and female athletes can require anywhere from 4000-12,000 calories a day. If the average male or female consumed 12,000 calories a day, the extra energy would be stored as fat. But athletes depend on this energy to keep up with the demands of their sport.

Most of this energy should come from carbohydrates (around 40-70%). The rest should come from fat (20-40% of which saturated fat cannot exceed 10%) and protein (10-15%). These percentages are calculated based on human body needs. All people, no matter if they are athletes or not, have to eat within these percentage margins to maintain healthy.


Carbohydrates come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, and are the primary source of energy for the body. They are important because they can be directly turned into energy. Athletes eat carbohydrate-rich foods before training.


Fat has many purposes in the body, but can also serve as an energy source, however it takes a metabolic process to turn fat cells into energy. Healthy fats include omega 3 fats, found in fish such as salmon and tuna. Other healthy fats come from foods like avocado, beans, seeds, nuts and oils.

Balanced intake of all nutrients is important.

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