CHICAGO – With game day energy needs exceeding 3,400 calories for the average World Cup soccer player, it is essential for the U.S. Men's National Team to have the proper diet to achieve success. Since 2012, registered dietitian and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics member Danielle LaFata has provided the team with the knowledge and resources they need to power their bodies through one of the most challenging endurance sports in the world.
"Since Jurgen Klinsmann became the head coach of the U.S. Men's National Team, there has been an even greater emphasis on providing the appropriate sources of fuel and energy to achieve maximum success," LaFata said. "By serving as a personal example and by bringing a registered dietitian on staff, we were able to transform the team’s diet and improve their performance. For example, snacks like candy, crackers, pretzels and fruit snacks have been replaced with natural peanut butter, almond butter, cashews, walnuts, almonds, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and wholesome snack bars — all foods better suited for the energy expenditure of these athletes."
How do you balance the high-calorie needs of these athletes while also keeping their diets healthy? LaFata, a board-certified sports dietitian, explains how some of her nutrition secrets keep the U.S. National Team fueled up in the humid weather of Brazil.
Proper hydration. Even the slightest dehydration will impact performance. Playing soccer in Brazil's hot and humid climate increases fluid needs, and players may require as much as six liters per day. Electrolyte beverages, fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies all contribute to a player’s hydration needs. All contain vital nutrients such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, which are lost in sweating.
Food first. In a sports world of heavy supplementing, the goal of the U.S. National Team is to get their primary fuel from nutrient-rich foods. If needed, supplementation is customized for the individual, but food always comes first. An example of a meal three to four hours prior to a game would include whole-grain pasta with bolognese sauce, chicken breast, grilled asparagus, watermelon and pineapple.
Post-workout eating. To minimize muscle soreness and maximize muscle recovery, post-workout smoothies with the right amount of protein and carbohydrates are given within 30 to 45 minutes after workouts. One post-workout smoothie LaFata makes for the team includes 25 grams of whey protein mixed with water and one and a half bananas.
80/20 principle. Eighty percent of the time, athletes should eat highly nutritious foods including lean proteins, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy. For the "other 20 percent," there is some flexibility on what they eat. This can be 24 to 48 hours after a game or scattered throughout the week. After that, it's back to healthful eating.
High nutrition with healthy fats. Players reach their high-calorie needs by blasting their diet with a variety of plant-based foods while also adding healthy fats through nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. The higher the calorie needs, the more generous you can be with healthy fats.
Healing foods for injuries. The United States team has dealt with its share of injuries at the World Cup. For injury recovery, LaFata recommends emphasizing whole-grain foods such as oatmeal, quinoa and wild rice. Other injury recovery foods include fatty fish, green leafy vegetables and legumes.
Visit the Academy's Food & Nutrition Magazine for a recipe for one of LaFata's favorite energy-boosting snacks, Peanut Butter Flax Seed Power Bites. And for more information on how a registered dietitian can help improve sports performance, visit eatright.org's Sports Nutrition section.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. The Academy is committed to improving the nation's health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy. Visit the Academy at eatrightPRO.org