Dan Benardot is an energy expert. While he works with the elite, the big question he tries to answer for them is the is the same one we all ask: What should we eat to help ourselves play harder, last longer, feel stronger?
Dr. Dan, who is co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athletic Performance at Georgia State University, says that, more and more, the answer points to six vs. three meals a day. The meals should be small and loaded with carbs, because carbohydrates (NOT protein) are the best fuel for athletes.
Snacks are good. His research has made him a big believer that healthy snacks or "energy breaks," as he prefers to call them mid-morning and mid-afternoon are a way to keep your energy level up all day long. Athletes who let their carbohydrate storage run low by loading up on protein or skipping meals invite all sorts of problems, he says, including a lower level of athletic performance and a greater risk of injury.
Eat more, weigh less. Will six smaller hi-carb meals a day make you gain weight? Dr. Dan says no. Indeed, according to his research and experience, athletes who make a point of eating fewer carbs (and more fat or protein a la The Zone diet) tend to develop higher body-fat levels. This is because eating too few carbs slows down their metabolic rate, whereas eating more carbs increases it.
Use common sense. Naturally, you can't double the amount you usually eat and expect to drop weight and boost energy. Calories still count! Instead, to begin, Dr. Dan suggests you divide your meals in half, so you're eating half your breakfast at the usual time, and the other half around mid-morning. Do the same at lunch, snacking about 3 or 4 p.m. Have a satisfying but not huge dinner, and eat a little something before you go to bed.
More meals, steady energy. Speaking at a recent Sports Nutrition 2001 seminar sponsored by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Dr. Dan said that this way of eating frequent small meals is especially important with young athletes, who typically don't drink enough fluid or eat the right kind of energy-producing foods.
Drink! This point was driven home by researcher after researcher: Active people typically do not drink enough fluids to replace what they lose during exercise.