3.1 – Introduction
Not only is proper training, outlined in Chapter 2: Strength and Skills Training Methods, important to becoming a professional athlete, but having a proper and healthy diet is required as well to fuel the demands of their strenuous workouts and to optimize performance. The body burns calories for fuel, and the more exercise that is being done, the more calories that the body burns. As a result, basketball players require an average of 4,600 calories a day , although this varies drastically depending on the player. For example, Shaquille O’Neal (7’1, 325 lbs) would intake a very different amount of calories than his Phoenix Suns teammate, Steve Nash (6’3, 180 lbs). Providers of calories fall into 3 major nutrient groups – fats, protein, and carbohydrates. Other important nutrients – that do not provide calories – include vitamins and minerals. In this chapter, we’ll examine the importance of each nutrient to a basketball player, recommended daily doses, pre-game and post-game meals, and pro player recipes.
3.2 – Carbohydrates
The primary energy source of any athlete, carbohydrates consist of sugars, starch, and fibers. They can be classified into simple carbohydrates, which contain 1-2 sugars and are digested more quickly, and complex carbohydrates, which usually contain more than 3 sugars and are digested slower than simple carbs . As simple carbohydrates are quicker to digest, they are often consumed for quick bursts of energy. Examples of simple carbohydrates include fruits, while examples of complex carbohydrates include pasta, bread, and legumes . Complex carbohydrates are ideal to consume before matches, as it will digest slower and provide a continuous source of energy, and carbs with a low Glycemic Index (a measure of how quickly carbs break down and raise blood glucose levels) are also ideal, as they are usually loaded with healthy vitamins and minerals. Examples of carbs with a low Glycemic Index include kale, avocado, quinoa, and oats, while examples of carbs with a high Glycemic Index include potatoes, white bread, and sugary cereal . Thus, as illustrated by Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine in an official document by the NBA, basketball players should be consuming complex carbohydrates with a low Glycemic Index value before games and practices to ensure that they will be able to operate at a high level for the entire game .
3.3 – Protein
Protein, despite being calorie dense, is not used as a main calorie source, but is instead used to help build muscle mass and increase recovery. From Harvard University Health Publications , protein is broken down into amino acids, which are used to help repair the muscle. However, not all sources of protein provide the necessary amino acids that we may need. While protein sourced from animals (meat, fish, etc.) provide all the amino acids necessary, alternative sources of protein, such as legumes, usually lack one or more amino acids, requiring vegetarians to supplement their diet with a variety of different protein containing foods . Overall, for basketball players, easy to digest protein – such as greek yogurt – should be consumed directly after games to aid in muscle repair and recovery . Basketball players are recommended to consume 0.6-0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight a day .
3.4 – Fats
While healthy plant based fats should be a part of any healthy athlete’s diet, there is no specific recommendation for fat as part of a basketball diet . While fats are necessary to long distance endurance events such as marathons and triathlons, where they are used as the primary source of fuel, high intensity sports such as basketball use carbohydrates as their main source of fuel . Regardless, healthy fats include avocado, olives, and nuts, and can be used to help athletes put on weight, as it is more calorie dense than both protein and carbohydrates . Additionally, healthy fats help the body process and absorb nutrients, and even help the body lose weight by providing fat instead of storing foods as fat . They also help raise HDL cholesterol (good) and remove LDL cholesterol (bad) from the arteries, thus promoting a healthier heart .
3.5 – Vitamins, Minerals, and Water
Despite not providing the body with calories for fuel, vitamins and minerals, such as iron, sodium, and potassium, help aid the body during exercise in other ways. In the Sliding Filament Theory of Muscle Contraction, moving muscles would not be possible without sufficient sodium and potassium ion flow in the sodium-potassium channel. They are both essential to maintaining fluid balance and nervous system function . Too little of either mineral could thus lead to fatigue, dizziness, or muscle cramping during exercise. Calcium is also necessary for muscle contraction. It is responsible for binding to troponin, thus turning and freeing binding sites on the actin to bind to the myosin heads, which push/slide the muscle . Overall, vitamins and minerals are important for maintaining the health of an athlete, and insufficient vitamins or minerals can severely impact desired performance .
Fluids are also a large part of maintaining athlete health and optimizing performance. Not drinking enough water will hinder metabolism and disrupt temperature regulation , and being dehydrated will decrease plasma volume in the blood, thus forcing your heart to beat faster to maintain cardiac output, which in turn forces you to reach anaerobic threshold earlier – meaning that you’ll start accumulating lactic acid quicker than if you were staying hydrated . The best beverage to drink is water, but for long and hard workouts or for people who sweat heavily, sports drinks might be ideal due to replenishing the body’s stores of sodium and carbohydrates that have been burned or released through sweat .
 Ms. K
3.6.1 – Pre-Game Meals
Moving onto the exciting stuff, a pre-game meal for basketball athletes should be consumed roughly 3-4 hours before the competition. Athletes should aim for a meal with mainly complex carbohydrates, such as rice or bread, to provide a source of energy that can last through the game, with some lean protein to help with recovery during the game . Lebron James, NBA All-Star and NBA MVP, has talked about his pre-game meal, saying “Before competition for me would be like a chicken breast and maybe a little pasta. The carbs help because you’re going out and playing a lot of minutes. But a salad and some veggies will have me perfectly fine. And before the game I might have a protein shake and some fruit, and I’ll be ready to go” . A general outline of a recipe for a pre-game meal 2 hours before game time can be :
- 6-8 oz. of lean protein – Grilled chicken, turkey, or fish
- 1.5 cups of high-fiber rice/pasta
- At least 2 cups of vegetables
Just before the game, most athletes prefer to have a small snack with both complex carbs and simple carbs – usually a peanut butter jelly sandwich (such a popular pre-game snack in the NBA, it had an entire article written about it!) to provide both fast and slow releasing energy for the game .
3.6.2 – Post-Game Meals
After a game, a meal with carbohydrates and protein is needed to replenish glycogen stores and help repair muscle . Hydration is also very important, and recovery drinks can be used to replenish carbohydrates, sodium, water, and provide protein all at once right after the game finishes.
3.7 – Chapter 3 Overview
Not only does becoming a professional basketball player require a strict training regime, but it also requires a strict diet as well. In order to optimize playing performance, a professional basketball athlete should intake appropriate amounts of the necessary nutrients, while avoiding any unnecessarily unhealthy foods. They should be consuming nutrient dense foods, and avoid most calorie dense foods or foods devoid of nutrients. They should be consuming an average of around 4,600 calories per day, (or if you’re Shaq, go for 9,000!), and attempting to consume around 0.6-0.8g of protein a day in order to aid in muscle recovery and growth. An athlete’s body is a finely tuned machine, and using the right type of fuel will help optimize performance, while using the wrong type of fuel will lead to severely impacted performance.