Sports Nutrition

Sports Nutrition

Whether you are an athlete on one of Brown's varsity teams, someone who works out regularly at the gym, or are just considering getting more physically active, you may be wondering how what you eat and drink affects your performance. The world of sports nutrition can be particularly confusing, because you may get conflicting information from magazines, web sites, coaches, or friends. Should you eat special foods before you compete? Should you take special supplements to bulk up? Can you be a vegetarian and expect to be powerful? Checking out the topics and web links in this section will help you fuel up for fitness. 

Macronutrients: Carbs, Proteins and Dietary Fats

Role of Carbs

Carbohydrates, or “carbs” are made up of glucose, the main fuel source for energy. Simply put, they are the gasoline in our gas tank. Would you expect to get very far if your gas tank was on empty? Probably not. But very often, athletes overlook the importance of carbs in fueling their sport and overestimate their protein needs. This is partly due to the popularity of low carb diets and misinformation about the role of carbs in our diet that we see so often in the media.

Our bodies store carbohydrate as glycogen in our muscle and liver, but the amount that we can store is limited. With consistent and adequate carbohydrate intake, glycogen stores are maintained and serve as a primary fuel source when we’re exercising, along with glucose that circulates in our bloodstream. With inadequate carbohydrate intake, glycogen stores are chronically depleted. The main reason athletes report “bonking” or “hitting the wall” is inadequate carb intake, which results in muscle fatigue. When one exercises with depleted glycogen stores (think empty gas tank), the body must convert protein that’s been stored in muscle to a form of carbohydrate that can be used for fuel. This works against you if your fitness goals include maintaining or building muscle mass- the protein that would normally be used to build muscle is now being burned as fuel for exercise.

It is recommended that 50-65% of our total daily intake be comprised of carbohydrates. Excellent sources of carbohydrate include:

  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Oatmeal, whole grain cereals and granola
  • Breads, bagels, tortillas/wraps
  • Starchy vegetables such as corn, peas, and potatoes
  • Beans, legumes (also a protein source)
  • Rice, pasta
  • Ancient grains such as quinoa, farro, barley, wheatberries
  • Dairy products- milk, yogurt (also a protein source)

Role of Protein

Protein contains the building blocks required for muscle tissue repair and growth. While it is a critical macronutrient just as carbs are, athletes often overestimate their protein needs. Protein helps to build muscle, so more must be better, right? Not exactly. Taking in excess protein in the hopes of building more muscle typically happens at the expense of other critical nutrients, mainly carbs. In the absence of adequate carbohydrate  intake, the body uses that excess protein as a form of energy to fuel exercise, not muscle synthesis. Additionally, genetically we are limited as to how big our muscles can grow, and excess protein will not change that. Changes in muscle mass are mainly influenced by training, when accompanied by an adequate, balanced diet which includes carbohydrate, protein, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and calcium.

A common misconception is that an athlete’s protein needs are exceptionally higher than a non-athlete. Protein should comprise 15-20% of your total daily intake. This amount is adequate and sufficient to help you synthesize and maintain muscle mass. A diet consisting of over 20% protein has not been shown to have an added effect on muscle growth. In fact, excess protein that is not needed by the body may be stored as fat, or used as a fuel source in the absence of adequate carbohydrate.  

Whether you are a varsity athlete, or looking to change up your fitness routine, you can easily meet your protein needs through your diet, without relying on a supplement.

Food sources of protein include:

  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Eggs
  • Soy/soybeans (including tofu, tempeh, edamame, soymilk products)
  • Seitan
  • Nuts and seeds, nut or seed butter
  • Legumes such as lentils, beans, black eyed peas
  • Dairy products (milk, regular or Greek yogurt, cheese). Important to note that though calcium-fortified, almond, cashew, coconut, and rice milks contain little protein, therefore would not be considered an adequate source.  

By spreading out your protein intake at meals and snacks throughout the day, you will find that it is fairly easy to meet your nutritional needs without the use of a supplement, and stay energized for your workout. We recommend eating a well-balanced diet rather than using protein supplements. They are usually very expensive, could never replace the nutritional balance and quality of an actual meal, and do not give an athlete a competitive edge.

Role of Dietary Fat

Another common misconception about nutrition is that all dietary fat contributes to fat stores, and thus should be limited in the diet. The truth, however, is that 20-35% of your total nutritional intake for the day should come from dietary fat. The functions of dietary fat include:

  • Absorption of essential fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. from your diet. These vitamins are critical for maintaining healthy eyesight, bone health, and healthy skin and nails. An adequate amount of fat must be present in one’s diet for these nutrients to be absorbed and function properly.

  • Hormone regulation. This includes estrogen, the hormone that is essential in helping people who menstruate to maintain their cycles, without which they begin to lose calcium from their bones, often resulting in stress fractures and the risk of permanent loss of bone density.

  • Supplying essential fatty acids, such as Omega-3’s, that cannot be produced by the body; they must be consumed.

  • Protect internal organs from trauma and may be beneficial in helping athletes reduce muscle and joint inflammation.

  • Vital part of nerve cells

  • Contributes to feelings of fullness, helping our brain receive the signal that we’ve eaten enough.

  • Contains the mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids necessary for good health, especially protection from heart disease and some cancers

Dietary fat also helps to add flavor to meals, and can be found in a variety of foods. Some common sources of fat include:

  • Nuts, seeds, and nut or seed butter (i.e. peanut, almond, or sunflower seed butter)
  • Avocado, guacamole
  • Oils and regular salad dressings
  • Olives
  • Spreads such as butter, margarine, cream cheese, pesto, mayonnaise
  • Dips such as sour cream, hummus
  • Cheese (also a great protein and calcium source)
  • Baked goods, desserts

No other nutrient can provide what dietary fat can, and is not something that should be avoided. You can easily meet your dietary needs by including some foods from the list above in your meals and snacks throughout the day.

Some athletes, especially those in sports that emphasize appearance or require a weight class such as gymnastics, swimming & diving, endurance runners, wrestling, and figure skating, might restrict their intake of dietary fat to unhealthy levels in an effort to maintain a lower body weight. This can lead to nutritional imbalance in your diet, forcing you to take in most of your energy from carbohydrates and protein. If you stay on a fat-restricted diet for an extended period of time, your body can begin to suffer physiological consequences such as fat soluble vitamin deficiency disorders, loss of skin tone and hair health, poor quality of membranes vital to the the nervous system, and loss of the menstrual cycle. It can also increase the severity of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

In summary, a well-balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, proteins, and dietary fats is the perfect complement to your training. No amount of exercise, and no supplement for that matter, can make up for an inadequate or imbalanced diet.

Timing of Nutrition


In order to put your best effort in with maximum results, paying attention to when and what you eat in accordance with the timing of your workout is critical. Going into a workout, if you haven’t properly fueled, or recovered from the previous day’s workout, then your performance is likely to suffer. You may not notice it right away, but if you’re working out intensely on back-to-back days, eventually you’re likely to notice a dip in your strength and endurance. As an athlete or avid exerciser, you are either fueling for the workout that is to come, or recovering from the one you just had and preparing to do it all over again tomorrow. This section will provide guidelines for fueling before, during, and after your workout.

Nutrition Before Exercise

Whether you have a 6 a.m. lift, a 3:30 p.m. practice, or a 7 p.m. game, your nutrition leading up to that workout is very important. The biggest challenge here is typically for those that have an early morning lift or practice. In this scenario, many athletes tend to work out on an empty stomach, and figure they’ll just eat afterwards. Some might worry about an upset stomach if they eat or drink before a workout.

For a one-hour lift session or short practice, the most important fuel source is carbohydrate. As long as you have time for a balanced breakfast after your workout, a small snack such as a banana, a granola bar, 1-2 all-fruit pouches (such as applesauce) will suffice. This will provide an immediate source of fuel as you begin your workout, helping your energy stores last longer. Without it, you are calling on your energy stores immediately, which increases the likelihood you’ll be gassed at the end of your workout, delaying recovery time.

Pre-Workout Meal: 2-4 hours before Exercise

If your workout, practice, or game is later in the day, then you will want to time your meals and snacks around this. Ideally, you would eat a balanced meal 2-4 hours before your workout, giving yourself plenty of time to digest. You still might want to avoid high-fiber foods such as brown rice, quinoa, or large volumes of vegetables if you tend to have a sensitive stomach when you work out. These foods take longer to digest, which could cause gas, bloating, or other gastrointestinal distress during your workout.

A pre-workout meal should be rich in carbohydrate and protein, and moderate in fat. Fried or heavy foods such as chicken fingers or pizza might also cause an upset stomach during your workout. The following are some examples of a balanced pre-workout meal. Keep in mind that all athletes’ needs are different, so portion sizes may vary. Milk or juice as a beverage will offer additional carbohydrate, but water would be fine too.

  • Bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit or craisins added, 2-3 eggs

  • Turkey/chicken/ham and cheese wrap or sandwich, baked chips or pretzels, fruit, side salad or vegetable (optional)

  • Black bean burger on a bun, baked chips or pretzels, fruit, side salad or vegetable (optional)

  • Chicken, beef, or tofu vegetable stir-fry over rice

Pre-Workout Snack: 30-60 minutes before Exercise

If your pre-workout meal is over 2 hours before you exercise, a small snack beforehand will help you “top off” your energy stores, giving you more long lasting energy during your workout. For workouts over one hour in length, a snack high in carbohydrate and moderate in protein fits the bill perfectly. Some examples:

  • Flavored milk or smoothie (soy as a dairy-free alternative)

  • Banana and string cheese

  • Nut butter & jelly sandwich

  • Fruit leather & package of nuts

  • Energy bar

  • Yogurt w/ fresh or dried fruit

  • Trail mix

  • Turkey/beef jerky & dried fruit

Nutrition During Exercise

For workouts lasting much longer than one hour, fueling during exercise will replenish energy stores, helping you to avoid hitting the wall before it’s time to hit the showers. Again, the key nutrient at this time is carbohydrate, but some protein will also help fuel your muscles. It’s important that the carbohydrate source at this time is one that is quickly digested, which will help keep blood sugar levels up. Aim to fuel every 45-60 mins for workouts and games lasting over an hour. Here are some examples:

  • Fruit snacks, fruit leather, or applesauce pouches

  • Energy chews

  • Dried fruit, bananas, grapes, oranges

  • Chocolate milk

  • Nut butter & jelly sandwich

  • Energy bar

Recovery Nutrition Following Exercise

About 30-45 minutes after exercise, the recovery process starts. This is when your body starts to replenish glycogen, the stored carbohydrate that you’ve just used up during exercise, and muscle synthesis begins, facilitating the building of lean muscle tissue. Depending on the length and intensity of exercise, the recovery process continues for 24-48 hours or longer. This is why performance nutrition is so important- by the time your body has recovered from your last workout, it’s probably time for your next lift session, practice, game, or gym session.

Recovery Meal or Snack: 30-45 minutes after Exercise

In order to maximize the recovery process, your body needs the fuel for it. If you plan to have a meal within an hour after your workout, this will serve as your recovery meal. If you’re unable to have a meal right away, then opt for a recovery snack 30-45 minutes following exercise, and aim to have a recovery meal within 2 hours following exercise. A recovery snack should be high in carbohydrate (for glycogen synthesis) and moderate in protein (for muscle synthesis). It should look very similar to your pre-workout snack:

  • Flavored milk or smoothie (soy as a dairy-free alternative)

  • Banana and string cheese

  • Nut butter & jelly sandwich

  • Fruit leather & package of nuts

  • Energy bar

  • Yogurt w/ fresh or dried fruit

  • Trail mix

  • Turkey/beef jerky & dried fruit

The first meal following a workout will serve as the recovery meal. It should be carbohydrate-rich with adequate protein and fat. Since you don’t have to worry about exercising soon after you eat, it’s fine to eat foods that are higher in fiber and fat because your body has longer to digest. Here are some examples of a recovery meal. Again, please keep in mind that portion sizes will vary dependent on an athlete’s individual nutritional needs. Recommended beverages are milk, juice, or water.

  • 1-2 chicken breasts over pasta, salad, roll

  • 4-6 oz pork, baked or mashed potato with butter or sour cream, cooked vegetable, dessert  

  • Tofu and veggies over a bed of rice or noodles, fruit parfait

  • Hamburger or black bean burger on a bun, roasted potatoes or french fries, side salad or cooked vegetable

The Athlete’s Plate

Training volume and intensity can vary week to week. The Athlete’s Plates are visual tools to help you adjust your eating to the physical demands of your sport.

Easy Training: light training or offseason workout

Moderate Training: One intense workout or practice, with or without additional lift session

Hard Training/Competition/Game Day: 2 relatively hard workouts in a day or competition/game day


Micronutrients: Calcium, Vitamin D and Iron


A variety of foods contain calcium. Foods with the highest amounts of calcium per serving include milk and milk products, calcium-fortified milk substitutes (e.g., soy, almond, rice, oat, etc.), calcium-fortified orange juice, tofu packed in calcium brine, canned sardines with bones and coffee lattes, mochas, cappuccinos, etc. Foods with lower amounts of calcium per serving include shrimp, canned tuna, broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, dried figs, beans, chickpeas, kiwi, oranges, and fortified cereals (check labels).

Recommendations for daily calcium intake:

Individuals aged 9 to 18, need 1300 mg of calcium per day, which is equal to approximately 4 servings of dairy products or the equivalent of calcium-containing nondairy foods and beverages (see below for suggestions and quantities). After the age of 19, calcium requirements drop to around 1000 mg/day (~ 3 servings of dairy products or the equivalent of nondairy alternatives). During periods of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and after menopause, needs rise to around 1500 mg. Athletes who previously menstruated and have been diagnosed with amenorrhea (3 or more missed periods in a row) may be encouraged to consume 1500 mg/day until their menses are restored. Significantly underweight and/or undernourished individuals may are encouraged to consume 1500 mg of calcium per day until they are weight restored.

Up to 90% of "peak bone mass" Is acquired between the ages of 18 to 20, but bone mass can continue to increase until around age 30. You have this last window of opportunity to get as much calcium into your skeletal frame as you can. Three servings of dairy products per day would only get you to about 900 mg, and for many individuals, even getting that much is a challenge. If you can get your intake up to 4 servings of dairy (or the equivalent of nondairy alternatives), you're doing just fine! If you are in the range of 3 or less and are consuming an adequate amount of calcium-fortified foods and/or calcium-containing nondairy alternatives, your bones are thanking you. Anything lower than that means you should start thinking about increasing your calcium intake in order to prevent problems of stress fractures and osteopenia (loss of bone tissue, which can eventually lead to osteoporosis, a more serious condition, and often irreversible).

If you’re unable to consume adequate calcium from food and beverages, a calcium supplement may be warranted. Always consult a health care professional (primary care doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist) before deciding to take a supplement since supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Your health care professional can work with you to determine the appropriate amount to take, the best time(s) to take it and the best brand. Calcium supplements are available in the Brown Health Services pharmacy on the 2nd floor.

There are a variety of dairy  products to choose from. Try different ones to see which ones you like best. If you find you don’t care for them try other nondairy calcium-rich alternatives and enjoy the ones you like in order to meet your calcium needs. If you have lactose intolerance you can easily find lactose-free versions of milk in Brown's Dining Services. You can also purchase low lactose or lactose free milk and other dairy products in local markets. Try taking a lactase enzyme tablet or two (available in local pharmacies) right before eating a regular dairy product, to ease digestion. No need to miss out on late night pizza parties!

What is a serving of dairy?

A serving of dairy is equal to approximately 300 mg of calcium. Below is a list of foods and beverages that supply this amount of calcium.

  • 1 cup milk or nondairy calcium-fortified milk (soy, rice, almond, oat, hemp, coconut, etc.)

  • 1 cup calcium-fortified orange juice

  • 1 cup yogurt or nondairy calcium-fortified yogurt (i.e. soy or coconut)

  • 1 ½ ounces hard cheese including cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, Parmesan

  • 1/3 cup shredded cheese

  • 2 ounces processed cheese such as, American cheese

  • ½ cup ricotta cheese

  • 2 cups cottage cheese

If you choose a non-dairy milk alternative, it’s important to note that other than soymilk, they do not contain notable amounts of protein.

There are also nondairy sources of calcium; however, they contain less calcium per serving.

≥ 150 mg calcium

≥ 100 mg calcium

≥ 50 mg calcium

1 cup cooked spinach 1 cup raw kale or 1/2 cup cooked turnip/collard greens 1/2 cup cooked broccoli
1 tbsp blackstrap molasses 1/4 cup almonds 1/2 cup winter squash
1/2 cup tofu, firm uncooked w/calcium added (varies by brand) 1 tbsp sesame seeds (whole dried) 1 orange
3 oz canned salmon or sardines 1/2 cup tempeh 1/2 cup beans
  4 dried figs  

Weight bearing activity and bone health

"Weight bearing exercise" (e.g., walking, running, tennis, soccer, basketball and especially strength training with weights) also contributes to a strong skeletal structure, but cannot make up for an inadequate calcium intake, which only you can provide.

Milk and athletic performance: Debunking the myths

There are several myths that seem to keep circulating about milk's effects on athletic performance. Nancy Clark, Boston area sports dietitian nutritionist and consultant for pro and amateur athletes, writes about some of these "Milk Myths" in her book Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Handbook.

  • Drinking too much milk leads to calcium deposits - For most healthy people, this is not true. If you take in more calcium than your body needs, you will simply excrete it.

  • Milk causes "cotton mouth" - Again, this has not been shown. This feeling in the mouth or throat is usually caused by not getting enough fluid before exercising, or by being nervous or anxious before a competitive event.

  • Milk is hard to digest and will cause cramping and bloating - Milk and yogurt are actually very soothing and easy to digest, unless you are lactose intolerant. If you are, there are many lower lactose and non-lactose alternatives available.

  • Drinking more milk than normal will speed healing of fractures - Unfortunately, this is not true. Continue with your healthy, balanced diet, have patience, and set up a good plan of rehabilitation from your physician and/or trainer. Six to 8 weeks is usually the time frame for most fractures to heal. 

Weight bearing activity and bone health

"Weight bearing exercise" (e.g., walking, running, tennis, soccer, basketball and especially strength training with weights) also contributes to a strong skeletal structure, but cannot make up for an inadequate calcium intake, which only you can provide.

Milk and athletic performance: Debunking the myths

There are several myths that seem to keep circulating about milk's effects on athletic performance. Nancy Clark, Boston area sports dietitian nutritionist and consultant for pro and amateur athletes, writes about some of these "Milk Myths" in her book Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Handbook.

  • Drinking too much milk leads to calcium deposits - For most healthy people, this is not true. If you take in more calcium than your body needs, you will simply excrete it.

  • Milk causes "cotton mouth" - Again, this has not been shown. This feeling in the mouth or throat is usually caused by not getting enough fluid before exercising, or by being nervous or anxious before a competitive event.

  • Milk is hard to digest and will cause cramping and bloating - Milk and yogurt are actually very soothing and easy to digest, unless you are lactose intolerant. If you are, there are many lower lactose and non-lactose alternatives available.

  • Drinking more milk than normal will speed healing of fractures - Unfortunately, this is not true. Continue with your healthy, balanced diet, have patience, and set up a good plan of rehabilitation from your physician and/or trainer. Six to 8 weeks is usually the time frame for most fractures to heal. 


What Is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a unique fat-soluble vitamin and is known as “the sunshine vitamin” because it is produced when skin is exposed to UVB light. Therefore, vitamin D levels are likely to be lower in athletes who live in areas with less sunlight, those who train in the early morning, evening, or inside, those with a dark complexion, and those who wear protective clothing or sunblock. In addition, the older you are, the less vitamin D your body is able to produce from exposure to UVB.

The Benefits of Vitamin D

The benefits of optimal vitamin D levels are staggering. A review of the latest research on vitamin D3 has shown that it may enhance athletic performance and lead to multiple physiological enhancements. Sufficient vitamin D levels:  

  • reduce exercise-induced inflammation

  • optimize energy and bone health

  • influences skeletal muscle repair and remodeling

  • positively effect muscle strength

  • reduce risk of cancer

  • boost immunity

  • impact neurological function, cardiovascular health, and glucose metabolism

  • may increase aerobic capacity, muscle growth, force and power production

  • could decrease recovery time from exercise

Vitamin D Deficiency

Surprisingly, approximately 88% of the world’s population has inadequate vitamin D levels. Deficiency has been shown to be associated with a variety of adverse psychological and health consequences, such as suicidal thoughts, depression, cognitive decline and neurological impairment, increased risk of cancer, and increased risk of bone fractures. Deficiency also breaks down muscle tissue, resulting in weakness. Because of the increase in enzymatic activity of exercise, athletes may be as susceptible, if not more susceptible to becoming vitamin D deficient when compared to the general population.

How Can I Get Sufficient Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is naturally present in only a few foods. The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Small amounts of vitamin D are found in beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, and mushrooms exposed to sunlight. Some foods may be supplemented with vitamin D such as, milk, yogurt, cereal, and orange juice. Athletes typically consume only small amounts of vitamin D. Therefore, vitamin D supplements may be warranted; as always, discuss the use of supplements with a qualified health professional.

In the Northeast United States, your body can produce vitamin D from April through October.  To obtain adequate vitamin D during these months you can receive sensible sun exposure (at least 3 times a week with arms, back and legs exposed between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm).  While it is advantageous to get vitamin D from sunlight, we have to keep sun safety and skin cancer prevention in mind as well. It takes about 15 minutes after application for sunscreen to become effective. So if you apply sunscreen immediately before going outside, you can soak up some vitamin D safely in the first 15 minutes of sun exposure.

How Much Supplemental Vitamin D Do I Need?

If you you typically receive little sun exposure and do not consume vitamin D-containing foods on a daily basis, you may want to consider a daily supplement of 1000-2000 I.U. vitamin D3 (should be taken with food for best absorption).  Please note: It is advisable that you have your plasma vitamin D level tested before taking more than 2,000 IU daily in supplemental form. To learn more about vitamin D and how much you should take in supplemental form based on your current plasma levels, visit the Vitamin D Council’s website.

Supplement Recommendations

Look for a supplement that has one of the following certifications: CL, USP, NSF or Informed-Choice.  These certifications verify that the product has been tested by a third party for quality, purity and disintegration.  Also, look for a supplement that does not contain any artificial colors. Read the ingredient list carefully for any allergies you may have such as, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, shellfish, wheat, or gluten as some supplements can contain these ingredients.

Nature Made and Kirkland Signature are two brands that offer USP verified vitamin D supplements that can be purchased at most grocery stores, CVS and Walgreens. Look for a supplement with a third-party verification symbol such as USP, Informed-Choice or NSF. Just because it’s Nature Made or Kirkland Signature supplement does not mean that it is USP verified.  

For a quick overview of Vitamin D, view this pdf:  SunnySideVitaminD_2016.pdf.


Iron transports oxygen and manufactures hemoglobin, which are both vital in maintaining energy and good health.

Food sources of iron include meat (especially red meats such as, beef, venison, lamb), poultry, fish, egg yolks, iron-fortified cereals, breads and other grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and blackstrap molasses.

Recommendations for daily iron intake:

  • 8-18 mg/day

  • Upper end of range recommended for those who typically menstruate

The most frequent cause of insufficient iron in the diet is the elimination of red meat from the diet and for some, the monthly loss of iron in the menstrual period. Even though iron can be found in other food sources, the "heme" form found in the muscle of red meats in particular (and to a lesser extent poultry and some fish) contains the highest concentration of the form best absorbed by your body. Nonheme iron found in plants is not absorbed as well as it is from animal sources. However, there are several factors that enhance nonheme iron including:

  • MFP factor found in meat, fish and poultry

  • Vitamin C – Excellent food sources of vitamin C are tomatoes, oranges and other citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi fruit, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage

  • Vitamin A found in the greatest amounts in carrots, kale, spinach, cantaloupe

  • Higher intakes of vitamin C and of fruits and vegetables

  • Hydrochloric acid in the stomach

Strategies to enhance iron intake and bioavailability

Below are suggestions for enhancing iron intake and bioavailability.

  • Eat lean red meat 3 to 4 times per week

  • Enjoy lean red meat, poultry or seafood at meals daily

  • Combine the following iron-rich vegetarian foods with vitamin C- or vitamin A-rich foods that are listed above

    • Whole grain, enriched breads

    • Fortified breakfast cereals

    • Potatoes

    • Beans, lentils

    • Peanuts, cashews  

    • Soybeans

    • Eggs

    • Tofu

    • Dark leafy greens such as spinach and chard  

  • Cook with cast iron skillets

  • If diagnosed with depleted iron stores or with iron deficiency:

    • Avoid or limit added bran or wheat germ to meals and include vitamin C-rich food to help decrease inhibitory effect of phytate, an antioxidant compound that interferes with iron absorption.

  • Avoid the following at meal or snack containing iron:

    • Tea, coffee, cocoa, red wine (rich in polyphenols & tannins)

    • Black tea & coffee have 2x as much polyphenols as herb & green teas (similar amount of tannins as red wine)

    • High fiber

    • Chocolate

    • Dairy

  • Avoid calcium supplements or antacids within 2 hours of iron supplement or meal containing iron

Iron deficiency

When your blood is too low in iron, this is called iron deficiency anemia. As an athlete, when you become anemic, you usually have a lot less energy as you participate in your sport or activity. The reason for this is because an important function of iron in the body is to form substances in the muscle that help bind oxygen, necessary for the muscle to perform for you. In addition, iron helps to manufacture enzymes that help with the energy-making process.

Dietary causes of iron deficiency

  • Inadequate energy intake: most common for athletes

  • Vegetarian diets

  • Avoidance of iron-fortified commercial foods

  • Low intake of vitamin C- or A-rich foods with meals

  • Regular consumption of strong tea or coffee with most meals

  • Poor food knowledge, limited cooking skills, and reliance on takeaway foods

  • Irregular or erratic eating patterns

  • Unbalanced diets, fad diets, limited variety of food choices

Athletes are sometimes more likely to develop anemia than less active students. This is because iron is lost in sweat, urine, and feces, as well as in small breakdowns in tissue that occur in the pounding of feet in long distance running and other surface contact. If your eating patterns don't replace these iron losses (e.g., if you are restricting calories or you’re vegetarian/vegan and unable to eat sufficient iron-rich alternatives), you could be at risk for developing iron deficiency anemia. Periodic testing of iron status is often recommended for athletes. You may want to ask your coach or medical provider about this if you have been experiencing fatigue and/or think your iron intakes have been low. A long-term deficiency in iron can markedly affect your performance as an athlete, and if you have developed anemia, the earlier you start treatment the faster you can be back at your peak level of performance. Although iron deficiency anemia is usually not considered a serious illness, full recovery can take from 3 to 6 months. Prevention is certainly preferable to treatment! 

Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia

At first, iron depletion can be so mild that it goes unnoticed. Yet, as the body becomes more deficient in iron and anemia worsens, the signs and symptoms intensify.

The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may include:

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Weakness

  • Pale skin

  • Shortness of breath, fast heartbeat or chest pain

  • Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Cold hands and feet

  • Inflammation or soreness of your tongue

  • Brittle nails

  • Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch

  • Poor appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anemia

If you experience any of the above signs and symptoms that correlate with iron deficiency anemia and/or you lack adequate intake of iron-rich foods (e.g. avoid red meat or are a vegetarian or vegan) it is recommended that you make an appointment with Health Services. Iron deficiency anemia should not be self-diagnosed or treated.

Bottom Line

  • Iron deficiency anemia can require 3 to 6 months to reverse – prevention is key.

  • Food first – enjoy iron-rich foods combined with vitamin C or vitamin A-rich foods.

  • Routine, unmonitored supplementation is not recommended since it may result in deficiencies in both copper and zinc.

    • Note: Hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder that predisposes individuals to a toxic build-up of iron. Because iron supplementation may accelerate the effects of this condition, individuals with this condition should avoid taking supplements that include iron. Check with your primary doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist before taking a supplement.

    • Supplementation is warranted if you have tested low for iron – work with your doctor and/or a registered dietitian nutritionist.  For information on what to look for in a supplement, click here.

Source: Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (2010). Clinical Sports Nutrition. (4th ed.). Sydney, Australia: McGaw-Hill

What about other vitamins and minerals?

Many other vitamins and minerals play very important roles in the diet of an athlete. To date, research has not shown any direct benefit or enhanced performance results from taking added supplements of any specific vitamin or mineral, no matter the size of the athlete or the chosen sport. Even the potassium and sodium losses experienced by athletes who sweat on a hot day or in a long event can easily be met by drinking fluids and eating a normal diet, since these electrolytes are so widely available in foods. Any athlete or active student can meet the needs for these nutrients by consuming a sports-healthy diet, following the guidelines discussed in this section. However, it is suggested that most people take a daily needs level multiple vitamin and mineral supplement every day. This shouldn't replace eating a healthy diet but will help to insure that your daily vitamin and mineral needs are met. 

Do special supplements help me put on muscle or perform better?

Many athletes, from high school sports through the pro level, have come to believe that taking some type of supplement, varying from protein shakes touted to build muscle mass to the more controversial steroid-related products, will give them an edge in their athletic endeavors. You may have been encouraged to try some of these supplements by friends, magazine or web site ads, or coaches and trainers. Many of these products are advertised as "natural" and therefore appear to be safe. Unfortunately, there is little guarantee of the safety or even the efficacy of what you are getting. Under heavy lobbying from the supplement industry, a federal law was passed in 1994 that pulled dietary supplements from under the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory authority. This included all vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and other botanicals. It is therefore practically impossible for you to know, as a consumer, whether what you purchase as a supplement is safe, will do what it says it does, or even contains in the bottle what it claims to have.

When you look on web sites or read articles to do your own research, always beware of studies done by companies or individuals selling products. Look for scientific studies published in reputable journals, not just anecdotal stories. Also be sure the studies were done on humans and not animals - results are not always the same on different species.

If you are a competitive athlete, know that many substances contained in supplements have been banned by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and/or the IOC (International Olympic Committee). You can be eliminated from competition if you are found to have taken these substances, even if you were not aware that the supplement you consumed contained that substance. Banned substances can also exist in foods and beverages that athletes might not even consider supplements. In 2009, for example, the NCAA banned 6 flavors of the Coca-Cola Company's VitaminWater. (Power-C, Energy, B-Relaxed, Rescue, Vital-T, and Balance were determined to containe the impermissible or banned substances taurine, caffeine, guarana seed extract, L-theanine, green-tea extract, ecgc, Rooibus tea extract, or glucosamine.) You can go to the web site of the NCAA to look for lists of banned substances. 

Commonly used sports supplements

Amino Acids - Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are claimed to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, and increase growth hormone secretion. Recommendations: Large intakes of single amino acids may interfere with absorption of protein, cause intestinal upset and metabolic imbalances. You are better off consuming recommended levels of protein foods as stated above.

Androstenedione - This drug became well known after several baseball players used it during record-setting home run seasons. This chemical, which is present in the body naturally, is technically a steroid. Its action does increase muscle mass. Proponents of "andro" claim that since it occurs naturally, it should be a legal anabolic steroid. Its manufactured form, which has been around since being synthesized in the 1930s, is legal, but has been banned by the NCAA, the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Football League, and the Association of Tennis Professionals. Recommendations: Because no safety data are published, and andro is known to raise testosterone levels in users, just as with illegal steroid users, some of the same unhealthy side effects could result. You would be wise to stay away from this supplement.

Chromium Picolinate (CrPl) - Claims for this supplement are that it increases muscle mass, is a safe alternate to anabolic steroids, decreases body fat, and increases insulin sensitivity. Both chromium and picolinic acid do function in the pathways in the body that help with energy metabolism and insulin function. The original studies supporting these claims were poorly designed, and further studies have not backed up the earlier results. The Federal Trade Commission has been able to stop some of the false claims about CrPl's ability to cause weight loss and loss of body fat. Recommendations: Because athletes lose chromium through increased urine losses, they should be sure to include a wide variety of foods in their diet. Since chromium is widely available in many foods, special supplements are not necessary.

Creatine - Creatine, along with phosphate, occurs in the body naturally as a very important component of your energy metabolism system. Research has shown that the effects of supplements of combined creatine phosphate are due to increased muscle mass, making this supplement especially useful for athletes who are involved in "short burst" activities, such as lifting heavy weights, making tackles as a football lineman, etc. Creatine has been found to have no benefit for endurance athletes. Some anecdotal reports have linked creatine usage with muscle cramping, muscle and tendon pulls, and slower injury recovery, but research does not back up these claims. Recommendations: Because there is still no long-term data available on the safety of creatine, athletes should be especially careful about using this supplement and athletes below the age of 18 should not use creatine at all. If you have decided to use creatine, do not exceed the recommendations for dosage or length of use. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have used a dose of 5 grams 4 times per day for 5 days to increase anaerobic work capacity. Studies have used a dose of 20 grams per day for 4-7 days to boost athletic strength and performance. For daily maintenance, doses of 2-5 grams or .3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight have been used.

Ephedra/Ephedrine (Ma Huang) - Claims for ephedra are that it improves athletic performance and will promote weight loss. Ephedra has been used in Chinese medicine practices for thousands of years. It was first used commonly in this country as an ingredient on many nasal decongestants and cold medicines. A few years ago, it showed up as an ingredient of many non-prescription weight loss pills. A direct effect of ephedra is to raise one's heart rate, because it is a stimulant. It does not increase your energy as an athlete. There were very serious consequences in some individuals, and several deaths were linked to the use of ephedra, until the U.S. government finally pulled all substances containing ephedra from the shelves. If you see a product containing ephedra, know that it NOT effective for weight loss or athletic performance enhancement, and it could be very dangerous to take, especially in combination with other, even something as benign as caffeine!

Herbs claimed to be "natural anabolic agents" that build muscle (e.g., yohimbe, smilax, tribulus, wild yams, and gamma oryzanol): The body is unable to convert these herbs into testosterone or other anabolic steroids, and they do not increase muscle mass. Ginseng is an herb historically used for Chinese medicinal practices. Current research does not back up earlier studies that claimed that ginseng enhanced exercise performance.

Protein powders and other protein supplements - See a discussion of protein as a nutrition supplement above.

(Adapted from Sports Nutrition, 3rd Ed., C.A. Rosenbloom, The American Dietetic Assn., 2000) 

Is there a way to know how much water or fluid I need as an athlete?

Staying hydrated during your workouts and competition can make an enormous difference on both how you feel as well as how well you actually execute your sport. Yet ignoring hydration needs is one of the most common errors athletes often make in their training regimens. Water is important for many functions in your body, including cushioning your joints and muscles, regulating your body temperature (extremely important for you as an athlete!), bringing all the nutrients to your cells, and removing waste products from the body.

To stay well-hydrated before, during and after exercise or competition, the American Dietetic Association recommends the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids with meals.
  • Drink 16 oz. 2 hours before activity.
  • Drink another 8 to 16 oz. 15 minutes before activity.
  • Drink 6 to 12 oz. every 15 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink 24 oz. for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.

In events lasting longer than one hour, performance will likely be enhanced with the use of a sports drink containing carbohydrates and a small amount of sodium.

It is recommended that you occasionally weigh yourself before and after a workout to see how much weight you have lost. This will be fluid loss, and you can figure that for every pound lost, you will need to replace that with 3 cups, or 24 ounces, of water.

You cannot depend on feeling thirsty to know when your body needs water. By the time you notice that you are thirsty, you have lost about 1% of your body weight. A 2% loss of body weight in fluid can actually decrease your performance by 10 to 15%! It is important to get in the habit of increasing your fluid intake routinely if you are active, not just on competition days. During extreme conditions (either hot OR cold weather and at high altitudes), your intake should increase even more, because your body is working harder. Water is usually the best fluid to use for fluid replacement, but if you are involved in an "all day" activity, you should consider a commercial sports drink that has carbohydrate added. A less expensive alternative is to dilute any fruit juice by about half with water. Try drinking your fluid when it is cool, but not too cold - it will leave the stomach more quickly and get into your system at this temperature.

Keep in mind that some juices, high water content fruits (e.g., watermelon, berries, and peaches), and non-caffeinated drinks can substitute for some of your water. Generally it is recommended that at least half of your water needs be met by plain water to spare your kidneys from having to filter out too many extra substances. You can increase your water intake by getting in the habit of always having a glass of water with meals, in addition to low-fat milk and/or juice. You can also carry a bottle of water in your backpack, take water breaks instead of coffee breaks, alternate sparkling waters with other beverages at parties, and drink before, during, and after any physical activity. Also remember than caffeine and alcohol dehydrate you and increase your fluid needs. 

Can I be a vegetarian and still be a powerful athlete?

Absolutely! Many collegiate and Olympic records are held by athletes who are vegetarians. There are some nutritional challenges, however, if you are a vegetarian and are physically active. It is sometimes difficult to take in enough calories while eating a vegetarian diet, which is naturally high in fiber and therefore very filling. You may need to be sure that you are not filling up quickly on large salads that give you "bulk" without the energy you need. You may need to eat many small, high-energy, nutrient-rich meals and snacks throughout the day and evening in order to satisfy your body's need to fuel up for the energy demands of your sport.

A specific nutrient that your diet may not supply enough of is protein. This may be especially true if you have been limiting your calories to reduce extra body fat for a sport that demands a limited weight or expects a certain physical form (e.g., gymnastics, diving, crew coxswain). Good protein choices to look for as a vegetarian would be nuts and seeds, peanut butter, soy products, tofu, garden burgers, legume-based soups, and any dairy products. It is also important to remember to keep your proteins varied throughout the day, to ensure that you are getting a mixture of the essential amino acids you need for the building blocks of protein you are creating for muscle, all cells and tissue.

Vegetarian athletes usually take in adequate amounts of carbohydrate, because they consume large amounts of grains, cereals, fruits, starchy vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

Calcium can be a nutrient that is not eaten in adequate amounts in the diet of vegetarians, especially if you a person who menstruates as you can be prone to stress fractures and shin splints, and may not be having regular menstrual periods because of heavy training. If you are not a vegan, be sure you are getting at least 3+ servings of dairy products/day (also a super source of protein!), or 3 servings and a good calcium supplement.

Because vegetarians eliminate red meats and poultry, there are fewer dietary sources of "heme" iron, the form of iron most easily absorbed by the body. For athletes this is a special concern because anemia is more common. If you are a vegetarian, it is recommended that you take a 100% RDA-level multiple vitamin and mineral supplement that contains 100% of the daily requirements for iron (a generic supplement of this type is sold in the Brown Health Services pharmacy). 

If you are a vegan, who eats no type of animal product (and therefore have eliminated dairy products, eggs, and fish from your diet as well as red meats and poultry), your diet may be lacking in vitamin B12. Be sure that you take either a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement daily (a good idea for most people) and/or drink a soy based milk substitute that has been fortified with vitamin B12.

The more varied your diet is, the more likely you are to have a nutritious, well-balanced diet that includes all the vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that you need to keep at the top of your sport. This is especially important for vegetarians, who sometimes get in a rut with their eating patterns. If you are eating on meal plan at Brown, and find yourself always heading for the same items at the Ratty or the V-Dub, try to think a little more creatively at meals. See how you can combine things from the salad bar with the good homemade breads, grains and soups, and try some of the vegetarian dishes that you may not have tasted before. Keep expanding your palate! You may find new things you can add to your list of favorite foods.

You may also want to ask yourself the reasons why you made the choice to become a vegetarian in the first place. Be honest. Some athletes, and others, find a vegetarian diet and lifestyle an easy way to manage weight. While there is nothing inherently unhealthy with being a vegetarian, and there are many health considerations to recommend this style of eating, for a few people this eating pattern can be a way to cloak disordered eating. It may be helpful to explore your vegetarian eating choices when they are accompanied by the following factors:

  • Weight has dropped significantly or to an unhealthy level,
  • Food and eating choices are accompanied by a lot more guilt, anxiety, or preoccupation,
  • Athletic performance has fallen off,
  • Sports injuries are increasing,
  • For people who menstruate, menstrual cycles have become irregular or ceased altogether, and/or
  • General fatigue and/or anemia is noted.

Eating concerns can easily turn into a more serious eating disorder, and can happen to athletes of any gender. If you think this is a problem for a friend or teammate, you have many resources at Brown to which you can turn. You may also want to check out our web pages that deal with eating concerns.

For more detailed information about vegetarian eating and nutrition suggestions, visit our Being a Vegetarian page. 

When does "enough" exercise become "too much" exercise?

If you are working out in the exercise rooms in the OMAC or the Bear's Lair, you may have noticed from time to time certain students who always seem to be there, no matter what time or day of night you show up. Perhaps you have even made lighthearted comments to them about the amount of time they seemed to be devoting to their fitness regimens. They probably do not view their workout schedules as anything excessive, even though they may have been coming to the gym over an hour at a time, two times a day, every day. Their rationale may have been that they just wanted to "stay fit/healthy," or that they were "in training." Even athletes who are training for the Olympics know the importance of giving themselves a day off every week for muscles and ligaments to rest.

Warning signs that someone is exercising excessively include:

  • Rigid rules about exercising
  • Anxiousness or restlessness if s/he doesn't follow a usual activity schedule
  • Reluctance to change the exercise routine, even when ill, injured, or in need of rest
  • Working out more than a coach or athletic trainer recommends
  • Eating patterns that are rigid or calculated to exactly match the calories expended on exercise
  • Decreased time and energy for relationships, academics, and other activities

All of these behaviors are strong indicators that good intentions for a healthy lifestyle may have gone too far. This person may well be at risk for a sports injury, an eating disorder, or other serious health problems.

You may be questioning how to best approach someone you are worried about. Usually it is not recommended that you focus directly on how much this person is exercising or how little they are eating. This usually puts the person on the defensive and may drive a wedge between the two of you. Keep your comments as statements from your own perspective ("I" statements, vs. "you" statements). An example could be, "I've noticed that you look pretty wiped out after some of these long workouts. I'm concerned. Are you OK? Want to go for a cup of tea when we leave the OMAC?" You may not get a direct or positive response after your first effort, but your words will be heard, and they will know that someone cares and has reached out. Sometimes your voice will be the one that will make the difference, and enable a person who has felt completely alone to begin to feel that there is someone who is there for them. You can also be ready to offer information about some of the resources Brown has to offer students who might want to talk about patterns of compulsive exercise and/or eating concerns. Click on Help at Brown, and Worried About a Friend to learn more. 

On-Campus Resources

Health Services Dietitian 401.863-3558
Confidential information or care is available through individual appointments with a Registered Dietitian.  Students can discuss personal eating concerns, as well as any concerns they may have regarding a friend, a roommate, or a teammate. There are no fees for Dietitian services.

University Health Services 401.863-3953
Confidential information and care is available on a walk-in, or by scheduled appointment basis. Care is available for initial, current or past disordered eating patients. There are no fees for medical care at Health Services. However, there may be fees incurred if laboratory tests, medications, specialist or emergency hospital care is needed.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476 
Confidential appointments are available at Counseling and Psychological Services for students concerned about their eating issues. Guidance is also available for those who are concerned about a friend, roommate, or teammates' eating. Services include crisis intervention, short-term psychotherapy and referrals. There are no fees for appointments at Psychological Services.

Olney-Margolies Athletic Center ("OMAC") 401.863-3537
Includes basketball and volleyball courts, indoor running track, cardio and cybex equipment, weight room, and aerobic studio. Call for information on hours available to students.

Katherine Moran Coleman Aquatics Center
Officially opened in May 2012, the Moran Coleman Aquatics Center is the home to Brown Swimming & Diving and Water Polo, and considered the fastest pool in the Northeast.  The million-gallon pool — 56 meters long and 9 meters deep —is the swimming pool for varsity competition and recreational use, has three-meter diving, seating for 400 spectators overlooking the pool, and a state-of-the-art video HD scoreboard.

Meehan Auditorium 401.863-2236
Available for recreational ice skating. Figure skating, speed skating, pairs skating, and jumps are not allowed during open university skating hours. Call for more information.

Related Links

Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists. A Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. This web site provides reliable information for the athlete on a variety of sports nutrition topics (as well as links to learning more about eating disorders and cardiovascular nutrition). Although the web site is also a resource for nutrition professionals belonging to this practice group, there is much useful information available to non-A.D.A. members as well.

Gatorade Sports Science Institute 
Go to the Sports Science Center on this site for articles by experts in exercise science and sports nutrition. Topics include supplements, hydration and sports psychology.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Articles from the AND on eating disorders, including The Female Athlete, Compulsive Exercise and Anorexia.

Intelihealth's Fitness Program 
Extensive information on healthy ways to get fit, including articles on components of an exercise program, starting a fitness program, frequently asked questions and a body mass index calculator.

NCAA Handbook: Managing the Female Athlete Triad

  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-3558
    Nutrition Appointment Line
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111