In the third nutrition article of our year-long Build A Better Athlete series, UConn director of sports nutrition Dr. Nancy Rodriguez offers the best food options to help athletes maximize their workouts. Rodriguez has worked with several star athletes at UConn, including Diana Taurasi, Emeka Okafor, Maya Moore, Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker.
ESPNHS: What's an ideal, small meal you can eat before your workout?
Rodriguez: A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a good fallback option. It has a little bit of fat, protein and carbs. You can also do yogurt with some granola or light cereal to give you protein and carbs. Deli turkey on an English muffin could also work, as would a small bowl of oatmeal with a banana. But you should try out these foods before a workout or a practice to make sure your stomach can handle them.
ESPNHS: If you don't have time for a full breakfast before a workout, what's something that's both quick and nutritious?
Rodriguez: You can throw some waffles in a toaster and then put honey, peanut butter or syrup on them. You can also try a toasted English muffin with cold cuts and cheese. It's got carbs and protein, which will sustain you. Chocolate milk is always great because of the mix of protein, carbs and calcium. Calcium is so important because up to 25 years of age your body is set up to take in calcium to build bone mass.
ESPNHS: If you only have time for fast food before a game, what are some relatively healthy options?
Rodriguez: Grilled chicken and egg & cheese sandwiches are always good. They have protein and are low in fat. With the egg and cheese sandwiches, avoid adding bacon or sausage because of the fat and sodium content in each. Beef and chicken tacos are good options, too. You want to take in foods that provide carbohydrates and protein but won't stick with you.
ESPNHS: What's the worst thing you can eat prior to a workout?
Rodriguez: You don't want a lot of fat because it will slow you down. When there's too much fat, it draws oxygen and blood flow from the muscle to the gut. You want everything to go toward that muscle so you can do work and perform. For example, if you're eating a pre-game meal, don't use Alfredo sauce. It's too high in fat. Instead, try it tossed in olive oil, light marinara or lightly in butter for flavor with a little bit of grated parmesan cheese. Also, avoid fried foods like fries and potato chips.
ESPNHS: What ingredients should you be wary of the most?
Rodriguez: You have to be wary of saturated fat and trans fat. Saturated fat will increase cholesterol. Trans fats aren't metabolized the way natural fats are. It's an artificially produced fat and can be found in partially hydrogenated oils, which can be found in fried food. Saturated fat can be found in high-fat cuts of meat. The type of fat you want to consume is Omega-3, which can be found in nuts such as almonds and pistachios. Nuts are also a good source of protein and fiber.