Updated: Sep 1
When referring to sports nutrition or performance nutrition, it is easy for people's minds to wander to foods and drinks that are marketed as providing more energy, being low in fat, or high in protein. In reality, nutrition is all about balancing the basic intake of food groups known as macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as well as micronutrients commonly known as vitamins and minerals. It is a combination of all of these elements, along with adequate consumption of fluids, that contributes to a healthy diet and enables optimal performance in sports.
Everything we eat and drink, except for water, contains calories. Calories are essential not only for sports performance and recovery but also for essential bodily functions. The calories we consume can be classified as our energy intake, which is compared to the energy we expend, known as energy expenditure. While everyone is different, our bodies will expend a certain number of calories every day, even if we wake up, lie on the bedroom floor, and do nothing before going to bed. This is known as resting or basal metabolic rate. Another component of our energy expenditure is the thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the energy we use to digest any food and drink we consume. TEF accounts for approximately 10% of all food and drink consumed in a day. The final component of energy expenditure is activity energy expenditure, which can vary greatly from day to day and from person to person. For example, a Premier League footballer may expend more than 3,500kcal on a training day, but on a rest day, this number could be closer to 2,000kcal.
With that in mind, we are presented with three typical conditions: energy deficit, energy balance, and energy surplus. Energy deficit refers to when someone is expending more calories than they are consuming. Over time, this can lead to weight loss, but severe energy deficit periods can have implications for both health and performance. On the flip side, energy surplus occurs when calories in are greater than energy expenditure, leading to weight gain. This nutritional approach is often used by athletes who want to increase body or muscle mass by consuming the right balance of macronutrients. Finally, energy balance, as the name suggests, is a state where energy intake matches energy expenditure.
Accurately measuring energy expenditure is very difficult and can be quite expensive. Therefore, making small adjustments to your nutrition is often the best way to achieve energy balance, surplus, or deficit based on your training goals. For example, eating more on training days in the form of snacks around training or additions to meals, or making changes to portion sizes, can make a big difference in performance. Similarly, simple changes such as using lower-fat content meats or changing cooking methods can reduce calorie intake if weight loss is the goal.
It is crucial to enjoy your food and drinks and find meals, snacks, and recipes that you love to eat and enjoy making to achieve your training goals. You should also learn how to tweak them when necessary, but also know when not to tweak and simply enjoy foods and drinks for their taste and enjoyment. Some days it will be easy to achieve an energy deficit, while on other days it may be difficult to achieve an energy surplus, and vice versa. Making small steps over time and allowing yourself time to step back are key to achieving your nutritional goals and understanding energy balance!