A Pro Footballers' Full Day Of Eating
Written by Shaun Ward
If you’re an up-and-coming footballer aspiring to reach the professional ranks, one logical way to give yourself a better chance of doing so is by replicating what the professionals do. This explains one question that nutritionists hear a lot - “what do professional footballers eat in a day?” - presumably with the player's intention to eat similarly to the nutritionists’ answer. And while this appears to be a pretty simple question to answer on paper, it isn’t.
One of the key points to keep in mind with dietary practices is that individual personalisation is critical. Everyone has different food preferences, performance-related goals, physical traits, health conditions, allergies and intolerances, and also cultural and ethical considerations when it comes to food. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. On top of this, for any individual footballer, food choices will always vary on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. There is no one set ‘day of eating’ that you should prescribe yourself to simply because a professional footballer does it.
This being said, there are still many lessons that can be learned from the dietary practices of professional players, especially regarding the general nutrition patterns, habits, and similarities that most professional footballers share. In this article, I will run through some of these commonalities and provide some brief meal examples for your practical benefit.
Although most of the dietary practices of professional footballers can be replicated, please remember that professional players have the luxury of eating a lot of their meals within their training ground facilities, particularly breakfast and lunch (with snacks). Meals are often provided by a dedicated club chef and each player will have a structured nutrition plan regarding roughly what to eat and how much. This can make it easier for professionals to sustain a structured eating routine compared to someone balancing their football goals with other lifestyle commitments such as school and work. If you think that you can’t implement some of the changes mentioned below, don’t worry! Work as best as possible within your current boundaries.
Breakfast is almost always consumed before the first training session of the day and is a great chance to fuel for the training session ahead, regardless of whether the training session is earlier or later in the day. Fuelling for that session properly starts well ahead of time, and professionals are aware of this. The need for fuelling inevitably leads to a substantial part of the meal coming from carbohydrates (1-2 grams of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight), as this is the primary fuel source used during intense exercise, and most of the carbohydrates eaten at this meal are sourced from complex, wholefood sources.
The carbohydrate source of choice is largely personal preference but typically involves either one or a combination of wholegrain bread, oats, fruit, and yoghurt. Of course many meals can be created from these food sources, but some go-to’s are overnight oats (a combination of oats, yoghurt, nuts and seeds) or bread with eggs and/or beans.
As breakfast always takes place after a long overnight fast, professional players always look to kickstart the recovery process with a protein source early on in the day. You might be thinking, “breakfast, recovery?”, but remember that the training frequency of a professional’s schedule means that recovery is always ongoing and a top priority. They are still recovering from the prior training session when going into the next one, to some degree. If there is a lack of these protein-rich foods at a professional’s breakfast meal, a protein shake is often consumed to ensure an adequate protein intake. A pretty typical intake is 30-50 grams of protein for a breakfast meal.
The protein source of choice is largely personal preference again, but the meal options will often be similar to those listed above: overnight oats or bread with beans or eggs. The dairy, eggs, or beans included in these meals will offer the main protein element.
The fat component of breakfast is probably the most variable between players. Those who have a higher calorie goal for the day will opt to include some fat-dense food sources such as nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocado, or even dairy with a higher fat content like 10% fat greek yoghurt.
Lunch typically occurs in the hours before or immediately after the first training session of the day. As there are often two training sessions in a day at the professional level, in both cases the lunch meal is used to fuel for the next upcoming training session. Much like for breakfast, this again means that carbohydrates will dominate the calories at this meal (1-2 grams of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight). However, as lunch is often eaten closer to or between daily training sessions, the source of carbohydrates is less of a concern. Compared to breakfast, this meal often comprises more simple fast-acting carbohydrate sources that are more readily absorbed and utilised by muscle tissue.
Unsurprisingly, the carbohydrate sources at lunch consist of one or a combination of bread (either wholegrain or white; sometimes a bagel), pasta or rice. For players with less appetite and struggle to meet carbohydrate recommendations at lunch, liquid sources of carbohydrates such as fruit juices or sports drinks are provided.
As with any sandwich, rice, or pasta meal, a protein source will always sit alongside it. Some players consume may have consumed a protein shake after a first training session which makes protein less of a concern at lunch, but if not, a lean source of protein such as chicken, fish, or chickpeas and lentils is included within these lunch meals (again aiming for 30-50 grams of protein for the lunch meal).
Fat is largely absent for the lunch meal because large amounts of fat can cause gastrointestinal distress when consumed close to training. Players that like to consume a fat source to help achieve their daily calorie intake will often opt for something simple like olive oil, or include small amounts of cheese within the lunch meal.
For players that do not like to consume solid meals during the middle of the day, especially between two close training sessions, a recovery shake that is dense in carbohydrates, protein, and electrolytes is provided.
Nutrition during training is highly variable and depends on the nature (intensity and duration) of the exercise and also the environmental conditions (temperature and humidity). For less demanding or shorter training sessions, only water may be consumed, sometimes with a hydration tablet or a pinch of salt if the temperature will lead to excessive sweating. For more demanding or longer training sessions, one or a combination of electrolyte and carbohydrate-rich energy drinks or sports gels may be consumed to fuel performance and combat fatigue. Water will still be consumed to thirst to avoid dehydration.
It is also now becoming common practice for players to regularly weigh themselves throughout a training day to ensure they are not dehydrated (>2% bodyweight loss from pre- to post-training). Some clubs may even tailor individual fluid requirements to each player during training based on their bodyweight losses and sweating rates.
Dinner is not too dissimilar to lunch, but as training is usually finished by this point and there are no concerns with a large bulk of food in the gut later in the day, the portion sizes and calorie content of dinner is usually the highest of the day. It is often asked why the dinner meal often contains the most calories when training takes place earlier in the day (when fuel is most needed), but this is actually part of the reason. As professionals train in the early periods of the day, their pre-exercise fuelling must start the evening prior. Sufficient pre-exercise fuelling, in many cases, is not able to be achieved fully by a large breakfast meal alone. Therefore, dinner is not only part of the daily recovery process but also integral for the next days fuelling.
Although the protein component of a dinner meal is very similar to lunch (lean protein source), the carbohydrate portions of pasta or rice can be ~25% larger and the fat component of the meal is more considerable. For the latter, the fat content is typically sourced from dairy (usually cheese) or oil that is used in the cooking process. Some players also like to use fresh red meat at dinner meals, which will offer a higher fat content than leaner sources of protein used at lunch.
Some of the more common dinner meals are bolognese, stir-frys, curries, meat and potatoes, and burritos. Personal preference is always encouraged, though, and improving cooking skills and experimenting with finding enjoyable and sustainable meals is fundamental to any professional’s nutrition plan. In all cases, freshly prepared, wholefoods are the base ingredients used for these meals.
Snacking is highly variable between professional players. Those with a much higher calorie need for the day tend to snack a lot more than those with less of an energy demand. I have also noticed that snacking is pushed more on younger players with a lot more physical development than the older players, and snacking offers easy opportunities to consume additional energy.
The types of snacks that are consumed are typically high in both carbohydrate and protein. Convenient and straightforward protein bars or oat-based bars with a protein component (Trek bars, Nature Valley bars, CLIF bars etc) are used a lot as they can be kept in a player’s bag and eaten with minimal preparation. Alternatively, a protein shake with a piece of fruit, or trail mix (nuts and dried fruit) are commonly eaten.
A more typical time for snacking among all players is pre-bed as a final chance to consume a protein source, which is particularly important when you know there will be many hours without a meal during sleep. Snacking before bed often uses different protein sources compared to during the day, such as cottage cheese, greek yoghurt, or a slower-releasing casein protein.
Don’t be fooled into thinking professionals never snack on “junk foods” such as crisps or chocolate, though. They do; it’s just usually a small part of their overall eating patterns and within moderation to not offset other dietary goals. In some cases, certain professionals will actually purposely utilise high-calorie snacks to meet their goal (high daily energy need), particularly if they tend to underconsume calories when sticking exclusively to more natural and less processed food sources. This is not uncommon but certainly not something I would advise unless required for the individuals. An ‘80:20 rule’ works best for most players: 80% of calories souced from wholefoods that are minimally processed and up to 20% of calories sourced from more processed and refined foods.
I have left vegetables out from the above to this point as they don’t necessarily fit with any one of the food categories above; they are more relevant to daily vegetable intake. Professional players are encouraged to consume at least one large portion (half a plate or one bowl) of mixed vegetables per day for health reasons, but the time these vegetables are consumed is variable. Due to the nature of the breakfast meal and the inconvenience of having a large bulk of food in the gut during training periods, I’d say most players choose to consume the majority of their cooked vegetables at their evening meal and, if anything, only include few leafy greens, peppers, and onions for earlier meals (spinach or rocket in sandwich or pasta/rice meals is common).
A Final Word
You may be thinking, “that’s strange – professional’s don’t act much different to what I’m doing already”. That may be true, and it may be the case that you are already on track with your nutritional habits. However, remember that in sports nutrition, food quantity is just as important as food sources and quality. It is tough to outline how much of each food a professional football player eats because it is highly variable and entirely dependent on the individual’s needs. What I can say, though, is that it’s rare to find a professional footballer who consumes under 3000kcal per day (on average) due to the high training and competition demands. This means that portion sizes are fairly large compared to what most non-professionals players are used to.
We encourage players interested in optimising their nutrition to consult with us to clarify some of these finer details, such as meal timing and portion sizes around specific goals and training schedules. These details are hard to know when generalising “professional footballers” as a broad category.