It is extremely common for footballers to have difficulty consuming the required amount of calories to fuel their busy exercise schedules.
Specifically, a recent scientific review stated that the vast majority of semi-professional athletes do not meet calorie (energy) and carbohydrate recommendations during training and competition.
The same story can be found with professional athletes, but to a much lesser extent, and partially explains the reason why professional players have superior abilities to perform and recover.
With nutrition being such a crucial determinant ofperformance and training adaptations, it cannot be overemphasised how important it is for you as a footballer to overcome this potential issue.
However, recognizing the need for a greater caloric intake is just the start. From my experience as a sport nutritionist, I know that the struggles of implementing a high calorie intake can feel like an impossible task if the appetite does not match the demand.
In most cases, not being able to eat enough is an indirect effect of being easily satiated (feeling of being satisfied after a meal), but many other psychological and physiological aspects are usually at play.
Here are some of the best ways to try increase your hunger levels and calorie intake:
1. Eat Less Dietary Fiber
Dietary fibers are the portions of plant-based carbohydrates that are indigestible.
Unlike other carbohydrates, such as sugar and starch, fiber cannot be digested in the small intestine and therefore passes onto the large intestine where they feed healthy populations of gut bacteria.
This process is linked to various health benefits such as reduced inflammation, lower blood sugar levels, and improved gut health.
However, fiber also has a profound effect on reducing hunger as it is able to increase digestion times and influence the gut hormones which regulate appetite control.
From the perspective of a footballer trying to match their high energy demands this may be counter-intuitive if you struggle to consume enough food.
In this scenario it would be ideal to switch some of your carbohydrate sources to those that are lower in fiber and less likely to increase satiation– ultimately increasing the amount of food that can be eaten throughout the day.
Good options for this will be:
- Low-fiber cereals
- White rice
- White pasta
- White bread
These may act as a partial replacement for typical high fiber foods in the diet such as cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and broccoli), wholegrains (oats, quinoa, barley, wholegrain bread), and legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas).
Clearly these dietary switches are not necessarily ideal for human health, but since having an adequate energy intake is the main priority of an athlete from a nutritional perspective, the pro’s will outweigh the cons until more healthy and sustainable eating habits are achieved.
Over time it is your responsibility to find the correct balance between meeting your caloric requirements whilst incorporating as many fresh wholefoods as possible.
2. Incorporate Liquid Calories
A simple way to bump up your calorie intake without forcing yourself to eat more food is to take advantage of opportunities to use liquid calories.
Yes, this will require the use of a blender and/or shakerbottle.
The fluid consistency of liquid calories requires less, if any, chewing, and therefore travels faster through the digestive tract. This allows them to have lesser impact on satiety hormones such as leptin and have a larger impact on “hunger hormones” such as ghrelin.
This physiological effect relates back to evolutionary times, as the body is psychologically adapted to seek out calorically-dense food sources that were more beneficial for survival.
Unsurprisingly current data shows a great benefit for liquid calories in more easily obtaining a positive energy balance, and therefore represents a good option for athletes struggling to hit their caloric requirements.
In my experience, liquid calories are best used as an addition between meals as opposed to being meal replacements. Taking advantage of high-calorie smoothies immediately post-training and post-match is usually the most beneficial place to start if this protocol is not already in place.
Another option would be to consume these shakes prior to one or more of your typical meals, because they generally fail to impact on the amount of food eaten at proceeding meals.
An example of a high-calorie liquid shake might consist of:
- Walnut butter
- Protein powder
Alternatively, there are plenty of “weight gainer” shakes on the market that are typically made with maltodextrin (carbohydrate powder that is extracted from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat) and protein powder.
Homemade shakes will be superior in terms of health, but premade shakes could be ideal for athletes solely focused on convenience.
3. Schedule Frequent Meals
There are a lot of physiological, behavioral, and sociological factors that play a critical role in the regulation of food intake.
One of the most important stimulators of appetite is the consistency of a person’s schedule.
Quite simply, eating lots of meals per day will eventually cause metabolic changes that make you hungry more frequently. On the other hand, eating only 1-2 meals a day will achieve the opposite.
To some extent the body will psychologically adapt to the feeding schedule that is placed upon it.
This is evidenced in numerous epidemiological studies and controlled clinical studies, which identify a strong inverse relationship between eating frequency and body weight.
A greater number of main meals is even positively associated with a greater “enjoyment of food” and “responsiveness to food” which can indirectly help to increase daily food consumption.
From a practical standpoint, it is advised that you analyse the forthcoming days of training and matches (and any other life events) and strategically pre-plan your meals around this schedule.
Footballers that write down their meal times, and even the meal to be eaten, are always the ones that tend to have a superior diet. Try not to leave it to the last minute and then check what is left in the fridge!