Sports dietitians tend to receive the same questions over and over again from different clients when it comes to losing fat, gaining muscle, and achieving their athletic goals. With the amount of conflicting information on the Internet, it’s no wonder that many athletes are confused. That’s why we enlisted the help of several registered dietitians to set the record straight on sports nutrition myths that might be interfering with your training regimen. Here’s what they had to say.
“They’ll actually do the opposite,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. Most people know that taking in protein after a workout will help to build muscles and burn fat, but the same is true for carbs. During a workout, your muscles rely on glycogen (stored carbohydrates) to fuel and power your movements, and that glycogen needs to be replenished after a workout. “Without carbs in the equation, your body would instead break down protein and hinder muscle recovery to get that glycogen,” says Gorin. After a workout, it’s essential to eat something that combines protein and carbs. “One of my favorite combos is a Flatout ProteinUP Carb Down flatbread, which provides a good combo of refueling protein and carbs, topped with peanut butter and banana slices. The peanut butter provides satiating healthy fats, and the banana offers additional refueling carbohydrates,” says Gorin.
“A high-protein diet can be beneficial, but only up to a point,” says Alissa Rumsey M.S., R.D., owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. Research suggests that people cannot absorb more than 30-40g of protein in one sitting. Any more than that will be broken down and used for energy or stored as fat. “Aim for 30-35% of your calories to come from protein at each meal, so that you meet your needs without falling short on other nutrients like essential fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” says Rumsey. She also recommends her nutrition clients eat real food whenever possible to try to obtain those nutrition goals since whole foods often contain other essential nutrients to help replenish muscles. “For example, one large egg contains 6g of high-quality protein (all nine essential amino acids), and 13 vitamins and minerals.”
This recommendation, although very well-known, is not entirely accurate. Since hydration needs are not “one size fits all,” there is no set recommendation for the amount of water each of us needs in a day. Instead, the dietary reference intake suggests an average daily intake of 3.7 liters for men and 2.7 liters for women. For exercising individuals, this may be more of less based on intensity and duration of the workout, size, and sweat rate. Rather than worrying about an ideal amount of water to drink, it’s better to be familiar with the signs of dehydration. If you feel lightheaded, get headaches often, or have dark yellow-colored urine, you may be dehydrated. Drink more until your urine is a pale yellow color.
Most nutritionists would agree that if you eat more calories than you burn, you are likely going to gain weight. In theory, that would mean that slashing tons of calories from your diet can help you drop weight quickly. But that’s not necessarily the case. “When your calorie [intake] drops, your body responds to this by burning fewer calories and increasing your hunger signal. This effect, along with the rise in cortisol from the stress of dieting, can cause your body to hold on to the weight and retain more water,” says Rumsey. She suggests that rather than focus on cutting calories, try to incorporate more filling sources of calories into the diet, like vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. “Long-lasting weight loss should be relatively slow—about half a pound to one pound per week,” says Rumsey.
Believe it or not, your body can not tell the time of day by the clock on the wall. It doesn’t magically know to hold on to more calories after 8 p.m. than it does at lunchtime. Many people have different schedules, which causes them to eat at different times of the day. If you work until 6 p.m. and hit the gym after work, it’s likely that your dinner is around 8 p.m. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The most important factor for weight gain and loss is not when you eat but what you eat. Eating nutrient-dense foods, like lean proteins and veggies, will fill you up without weighing you down. But, if you eat a very rich and calorie-dense meal at 8 p.m. and hit the sheets an hour later, you’ll most likely experience indigestion and hold on to some of those unwanted calories.
As an athlete who sweats regularly, you need more sodium than the average person. “When you sweat, you lose sodium—and sodium is an important electrolyte that your body needs to not only help maintain fluid balance but also to help your intestines and body stay hydrated,” says Gorin. Rather than making you bloated, salt actually helps to keep you hydrated. That’s why sports drinks contain sodium, as well as other electrolytes like potassium.
“Fasting prior to exercise has been shown to increase the percentage of fat utilization by up to 20%,” says Kelli Shallal, M.P.H, R.D., owner of Hungry Hobby. However, she cautions, if the body does not have ample glycogen stores, it may start to breakdown its own muscle for fuel. Therefore, rather than burning fat, you are likely burning muscle when working out fasted. Plus, not eating before a workout can cause low energy and will hinder your athletic abilities.