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5 Nutrition Myths Footballers Need to STOP Believing

5 Nutrition Myths Footballers Need to STOP Believing

Written by Shaun Ward

Scrolling through social media and reading popular websites exposes you to endless information about nutrition and health — most of which is incorrect. The field of nutrition is particularly notorious for having a lot of myths. 

Here are 5 of the biggest sport nutrition myths, and why holding these beliefs may be holding back your progress. 

1. Simple Carbohydrates Should Be Avoided 

Typically, people label carbohydrates as either complex (“good”) or simple (“bad”) carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are foods such as oats, sweet potatoes, and wholegrains, while simple carbohydrates are foods such as sugary sport drinks, energy bars, and white grains (white bread, white pasta, white rice). And while the distinction between these different carbohydrate types is great, and in the general population the prioritisation of complex carbohydrates is important for bodyweight and health management, things are a little different for you as an active competitive footballer. 

For you, all carbohydrates serve their own beneficial purpose: 

  1. Complex carbohydrates should still make up the bulk of your daily carbohydrate intake for health and weight management reasons. These should usually be eaten at your main, large meals throughout the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner). This includes oats, potatoes, wholegrain bread, legumes, brown rice and wholewheat pasta. 
  1. Simple carbohydrates have a sport-specific purpose. I call them “sport-specific carbohydrates” rather than “bad” carbohydrates. As sport-specific carbohydrates are digested, absorbed, and taken up by the working muscles much faster than complex carbohydrates, this allows them to offer a unique fuelling benefit in and around exercise periods. They are typically consumed right before, during and after training and matches to best support your energy levels, performance, and immediate recovery. For instance, a recent systematic review showed that 82% of relevant studies reported significant benefits of carbohydrate supplementation (mainly sport drinks and gels) on endurance performance [7]. Sport-specific carbohydrates includes fruit, energy drinks, energy bars, energy gels, rice cakes, crackers, juices, milk, among other examples. 

Please note that, even for athletes, sport-specific carbohydrates should always be part of an overall balanced diet. As they do not increase fullness to the same extent as other food sources, sport-specific carbohydrates can still promote bodyweight gain when eaten in excess. The amount that you personally require is very dependent on your goals and it is best for you to speak with a sport nutritionist to approach carbohydrate sources in a sensible manner. 

2. Eating Before Bedtime Increases Fat Storage

A nutrition myth that has been around for decades is that eating before bed will make you more susceptible to storing bodyfat. This myth is easy to believe because eating just before a long period of inactivity (i.e sleeping) leads us to conceptualise that everything we have just eaten will not be used for fuel and must be stored. 

However, this myth fails to account for 24-hour energy expenditure. Over the course of each day, we will always have periods of activity and inactivity, and it is primarily how our energy intake (via food and drink) matches up with total daily energy expenditure that determines bodyweight change. 

If you eat the majority of calories before bed but have not eaten much up until that point, then this means that you have used more of your body’s energy stores throughout the day when you are more active, and will use less during the night. If you eat the majority of calories earlier in the day but do not eat much before bed, then this means that you have used less of your body’s energy stores throughout the day when you are more active, and will use more during the night. It’s the total daily number of calories relative to energy expenditure that ultimately matters, and meal timing is largely irrelevant in regards to bodyweight change. 

This myth is important to know because footballers are required to eat before bed to remain well-fuelled and best recover. Missing out on a good opportunity to increase energy stores for the next day’s training, or to top-up on your protein intake, is most likely going to be detrimental to your progress. 

3. There is a Best Macronutrient Ratio 

People interested in nutrition will often claim that a specific macronutrient is “best” for a particular goal, i.e. 50% carbohydrate, 20% protein, 30% fat. This is nonsense. While different macronutrients play different roles in the body, the practical implementation of macronutrient ratios into a nutrition plan is counterintuitive for best results. 

In elite sporting environments, macronutrient quantities are almost always given as a multiplier of an athlete’s bodyweight. For example, aiming for 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. 

The reason why ratios are avoided is twofold. First, a macronutrient ratio says nothing about the amount of any macronutrient that is being consumed, and macronutrient quantity is the main nutritional determinant of influencing performance and recovery. Second, daily energy needs fluctuate depending on the activity demands of the day and, in general, carbohydrate intake is the only macronutrient that should change in accordance with changes in daily energy needs. Dietary protein and fat requirements should be kept relatively similar day-to-day regardless of daily activity levels. 

Considering this, macronutrient ratios are simply unable to work well practically, because every time the ratio of one nutrient changes (carbohydrate), the others must also change (protein and fat). It doesn’t work mathematically. 

Instead of macronutrient ratios, we recommend trying to hit specific daily nutrient goals. For example, 4-6 grams of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight, 1.5-2 grams of protein per kg bodyweight, and 1 gram of dietary fat per kg bodyweight (all of these numbers are generalised examples). As these three macronutrients also comprise your daily calorie intake, this method can easily be used within your overall calorie goal for the day. Also, it makes it far easier to manipulate only the daily carbohydrate goal to match the varying energy demands throughout the week; higher on more active days and lower on less active days. 

4. Creatine is Bad for The Kidneys 

Creatine is arguably the most evidence-based performance-enhancing supplement on the market. However, many people avoid taking it as they believe it is harmful, particularly on the kidneys. This is simply not true. Although creatine supplementation is not advised for those with predisposed kidney issues, the largest well-conducted studies have concluded that creatine does not induce kidney damage [1] and there is no association between creatine intake and kidney dysfunction [2]. Creatine does not significantly alter circulating levels of creatinine or urea as initially hypothesised by researchers that were wary of high creatine intakes on kidney function. 

If you are hesitant about consuming creatine for health reasons, then please discuss with your GP before taking it. We do not advise that people with kidney-related issues or those under 16 years old take creatine as a precaution. This being said, we recommend creatine supplementation for healthy adults looking to maximise their physical and mental performance. 

5. Elite Athletes Do Not Have Good Nutrition 

One of the more frustrating myths as a nutritionist is the belief that elite footballers do not have good nutrition, which only encourages non-professionals to think of nutrition as an area that doesn’t require much attention. This idea probably stems from the fact that nutrition was rather late to the party in professional footballers’ programmes. 

Fitness, psychology and physio were the first areas to be emphasised as part of a footballers needs. However, the UEFA Expert Group recently stated that: 

Nutrition plays a valuable integrated role in optimising performance of elite players during training and match-play, and maintaining their overall health throughout the season. An evidence-based approach to nutrition emphasising, a 'food first' philosophy (ie, food over supplements), is fundamental to ensure effective player support”

This is unsurprising given the vast pool of sport nutrition research that clarifies the importance of diet in health, performance, recovery, injury prevention, and reducing the risk of illness. 

This is not to say that elite footballers have the perfect diet; they do not, but they at least do the basics well, such as ensuring an adequate energy [3], protein [4] and fat intake [5]. From our experience working with professional footballers too, there is a clear trend for professional footballers to understand and implement the nutrition basics in comparison to amateur and semi-professional athletes. 

Even high-level junior academy players tend to be poor at achieving the fundamentals of sport nutrition; for example, they undereat relative to their weekly energy expenditure [6]. However, what you should take as a motivation is that even some elite Premier League footballers fail to properly implement certain sport-specific nutrition recommendations such as periodising carbohydrate intake across the week [5]. This should not be perceived as “nutrition does not matter”, though. Rather, it should be encouraging for you to know there exists a critical area of sport that is not being taken full advantage of by many of your competitors. It is not often that a slight competitive edge is so easily achieved, especially at the professional level! 

If you’d like my help with that, designing a completely custom meal plan for you, then click below. On the next page is a video where we explain how we’ll design and deliver your custom meal plan.

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