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Eat Well, Feel Well: Understanding The Different Energy Sources

Eat Well, Feel Well: Understanding The Different Energy Sources

Eat Well, Feel Well: Understanding The Different Energy Sources

Terry Kennedy of the Ireland Men's Sevens in action at the New Zealand Sevens back in January. ©INPHO/Andrew Cornaga

Eating well to feel well is paramount at the best of times, but even more so now as we all navigate our way through challenging and unprecedented periods. Nutrition is important not just to stay physically healthy but also for your mental health, energy and overall mood and in the third part of our video series from the team of IRFU Performance Nutritionists, we explore the topic of carbohydrates with Marcus Shortall, Performance Nutritionist with the Ireland Sevens programme.

Carbohydrates – Marcus Shortall, Performance Nutritionist with the Ireland Sevens programme

In the IRFU, we operate a ‘Food First’ policy which means that we advise all our athletes to use real foods first when eating to meet the nutritional demands of training and matches. Supplements are only considered when real food options like meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, breads, cereals and other minimally processed foods are no longer practical. Real foods contain a combination of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and water depending on the type of food. For example, beef is mostly made up protein and fat, while oats mostly contain carbohydrate and smaller amounts of protein and fat.

Part of my job as a Performance Nutritionist is knowing the composition of different foods so I can advise players on the amount of each different food they should be eating. The most important foods in a rugby player’s diet are carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes, rice, potatoes, cereals, pastas, fruit, and other vegetables. These foods are an important source of energy which a player needs in order to train at a high intensity and so a large portion of their daily food intake is dedicated to carbohydrate-rich foods.

What players sometimes don’t realise is that there are some key differences between the different carbohydrate-rich foods. Energy dense foods like pasta, rice and cereals are different to potatoes, sweet potatoes and other vegetables in that they contain much less water and fibre. If a food has more fibre then it is less energy dense and more filling. Knowing this key point allows the players to change the types of foods they eat depending on how much they are training on a given day.

A key lesson I educate the Sevens players on is to include energy dense carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, rice and cereals in their meals on heavy training days and then to use less energy dense foods like potatoes and butternut squash on their days off. Another advantage of this tip is that players are less likely to feel hungry on off days if they choose these less energy dense foods.

For example, a 40g portion of carbohydrate coming from pasta takes up much less room on the plate compared to 40g of carbohydrate coming from a combination of potato and broccoli. Players can often overeat if they just focus on rice and pasta in all their meals so it is important for them to include plenty of fibrous vegetables on their days off.

The same principles can also be applied to someone who exercises regularly – for example, 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, three times a week. It can be easy for that person to overeat if most of their plate is taken up by big portions of energy dense carbohydrate foods like pasta and rice.

Some practical tips here included:

  1. Cook more vegetables than you usually would with main meals
  2. Aim for less than a quarter of your plate to be taken up by carbohydrate-rich foods
  3. For pasta dishes, add more vegetables to the sauce or half the amount of pasta and combine with another vegetable e.g. leeks, sprouting broccoli
  4. Snack on fruit as opposed to cereal bars.

I always say to the players: all foods are good, it just depends on the portion.

You can read the first part of our Eat Well, Feel Well series with Emma Tester, Lead Performance Nutritionist Munster Rugby, here, while Daniel Davey, Senior Performance Nutritionist with Leinster Rugby, explored the topic of nutrition fundamentals here.