Sports Nutrition    

by Dante Dettamanti, BS, MS

A Major Challenge: Getting Athletes To Eat The Right Foods!

Even more difficult than training and conditioning and teaching the game to water polo players, is getting them to eat the right foods; so that they will perform at their optimal level. In today’s modern world of fast foods and a population that is over 30% obese, it is a huge challenge to get young people to eat right. A coach has to educate his players about the role that diet plays in their performance.

The coach has to convince the players that in order to perform their best, their bodies must be fueled optimally. All the hard training that a player does to prepare for competition can be wasted, if the player does not properly fuel himself. Too often athletes have misconceptions about diet that they learned from their parents. Old habits are hard to break, especially when young people have been brought up on diets in the home that are inadequate. Parents need to be educated about diet as well as the athlete. Many athletes have been brought up on a diet of junk food, either because parents don’t know any better, or it is the easy way out for them. You can talk to the athlete until you are blue in the face; but if he goes home that night for dinner, and his mother has prepared the wrong kinds of foods for him, what good does it do?

One of the responsibilities of the coach is to be the nutrition coach for your athletes. Don’t assume that they are eating correctly at home or in their school cafeteria. You need to stress nutrition as much as you stress the skills, drills and conditioning that is performed in the pool. Young athletes need adequate calories for growth, in addition to the calories required for sport. Getting calories is not the problem. Most young people get plenty of calories! Just look at the overweight young people walking around the malls and you will see that getting enough calories is not a problem. 

Getting the quality calories that help the athlete to perform at his best is the biggest challenge for the coach. The coach can start by setting an example himself. You will have difficulty getting anything across to your players if you walk around the pool deck yelling to them about getting in shape and eating the proper foods, if you are out of shape and overweight yourself. That goes for the parents too!

The coach has to teach the athlete to make the right choices when it comes to the food that they eat. Many times, both at home and on the road, the athlete can minimize the damage done by an improper diet, by choosing and alternative to what is presented at the meal. For instance, using vinegar and oil on a salad instead of gobs of creamy white dressing is one small step that an athlete can take when he has the choice. Choosing fruit instead of French fries is an example of another healthy alternative at a restaurant.

Athletes can also be taught to read labels of products that they buy at the store. The first think they must learn is that the first ingredient listed on the label is the biggest ingredient contained in that product. If the first ingredient listed is sugar, then the athlete should immediately be suspicious of that product. Food companies have clever ways of disguising what is in their product, by using vegetable or other names for sugar and fat. For instance corn syrup or fructose are just other names for sugar.
Honey is also another name for sugar, for that matter. Health food stores use honey in a lot of their dessert products, and claim that it is a health food in order to get you to buy their product. Honey is no better for you than plain white sugar. Just because you buy something in a health food store doesn’t mean that it is healthy. Health food stores are in the “money making” business just like everyone else.

The other thing that athletes should look for on the label are the calories per serving, how much is a serving, and how many of the calories come from sugar and fat. Also, what kind of fat is present in the product? In this article I will try to mention many of the things on the label to look for, or to look out for.

The key words that an athlete has to consider when making food choices are balance, variety, and moderation:

An important thing to remember is that you are not going to get athletes to completely give up junk foods containing lots of fat and sugar. Why? Because they taste good! That is how food manufacturers sell food to people. Why do you think that a breakfast cereal like “sugar pops” is covered with sugar? Because it tastes good, and kids will beg their mothers to buy it until they give in. Your job is to convince the athlete that rolled oats for breakfast that is topped with strawberries and bananas, and served with low-fat milk, is much better suited for them as water polo players. Then once in a while let them have their “sugar pops” as a treat. Who knows? They may even grow to like oats and fruit better than “sugar pops”, especially when they start performing better in their games.

The same holds true for hamburgers and French fries. Much of the flavor in food is in fat. That is why burgers and fries taste so good. Unfortunately they are some of the worst foods that an athlete can eat, loaded with high calorie, saturated and cholesterol producing fats. Most young people were raised on these kinds of foods; some youngsters eat them every day. The goal of the coach is to get them to substitute more nutritious meals that will help them perform better, and limit the junk food to only once or twice per week. Complete withdrawal will never happen. Young people will eat healthier foods if they know that they can get their junk food fix a few times a week.

As we learned in the last article, a common theme to use in encouraging athletes to eat the right food, is that “a lot of protein and fat in your diet does not give you the same energy to practice and play water polo as a lot a carbohydrates do”.


Let’s begin by looking at the three major types of macronutrients for the body, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. As mentioned in previous nutritional articles, carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for water polo players, and should comprise a major portion of a players diet, somewhere between 55-65 percent of the total each day. The body cannot live by carbohydrates alone, however. Proteins are also needed for building and repairing muscle fibers, supplying hemoglobin, and producing enzymes and hormones. Proteins should comprise approximately 20-25 percent of the total diet. Fats are also needed for other body functions like transporting fat-soluble vitamins and helping build healthy skin and hair. Healthy fats should comprise 15-20 percent of the total diet each day.


Athletes are not expected to measure and analyze every portion of food before every meal to insure that they are getting the correct amount. A simple way to figure it out is to break down what you are eating into meals and snacks. An athlete like a water polo player, who trains with a lot of intensity for several hours a day, needs three full meals and at least two snack meals per day in order to get enough calories to insure high performance. If the athlete breaks down each meal into portions, each of two of the main meals should comprise two portions of carbohydrates, one portion of protein and one portion of fat. The third main meal should be two portions of carbohydrates and one portion of protein; eliminating the fat portion. The two snack meals should be mainly composed of carbohydrates, with little or no protein and fat. The result will be close to the required 60% carbohydrates, 25% protein and 15% fat.


There usually is not a problem getting enough carbohydrates in the diet. Carbohydrates are readily available, easy to prepare and affordable. Complex carbohydrates are found in bread, cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes and other starchy vegetables; while simple sugars are found in fruits, vegetables and refined sugar products. Not all carbohydrates are created equal, however.


The quality of the carbohydrates that you eat are determined by how much they are processed. Many years ago, before modern storage facilities, grains were stripped of their outer husks because that was the part of the grain that spoiled the easiest. Because of refrigeration and other methods of storage and transport, whole grains do not spoil as they once did. However, refined white grains became a habit that consumers preferred. Removing the brown outer part of wheat and rice not only removed most of the vitamins and minerals, but also removed the taste components of the grain. The result was a mass of pure white tasteless carbohydrates, that only supplied carbohydrates, but no nutrients; an essential part of any diet. In order to make the white product taste better, fat products like gravy on mashed potatoes and butter on white bread were added, making the meal even more unhealthy.

There is a saying that “you can your calories from anywhere, not so for nutrients”. You can meet your carbohydrate needs by eating bagels, plates of spaghetti, and an energy bar or two; but your health and performance would undoubtedly benefit from including whole grains such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, whole wheat bagels and tortillas, brown rice and other products made from whole grains. “Whole” means that the outer layer of nutrients has not been stripped off the grain. Look at the label on breads and make sure that the word “whole” or “whole grain” is listed ahead of any flour.

Refined sugar is the ultimate in “empty calories”. Full of carbohydrate (simple sugar) but completely empty of any kinds of vitamins, minerals or fiber. Complex carbohydrates in grain are much better for the athlete than the refined sugar found in candy bars, snack items, desserts and soft drinks. A good rule of thumb for better nutrition is to “eat brown, not white” whenever you can. Do a taste comparison (without any toppings) between the nutty taste of brown rice and the tasteless mass of white rice, and you will never go back to white rice again.


One of the best sources of complex carbohydrates and simple sugars are fruits and vegetables, the more colorful the better. Not only do fruits and vegetables provide lots of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants; but also healthy fiber that aids in digestion and avoiding constipation. Fiber and anti-oxidants are only found in fruit and vegetables; not in meat and fat products. A perfectly balanced meal, that includes two portions of carbohydrates, can be met with one of the portions consisting of vegetables along with another portion of whole grains of some kind. Add veggies to a pizza instead of fatty meats, steam you veggies instead of boiling for better nutrition, and eat your veggie salads with low fat dressings instead of gobs of high fat dressing. Add a portion of low-fat or non-fat yogurt topped with fruit for dessert, instead of cookies and ice cream, and you will be getting additional carbohydrates and nutrients and nutrients at the same time.


Potatoes are a great choice for complex carbohydrates. Yams or sweet potatoes are even better, because they also contain vitamin A. Potatoes should be baked and not fried or boiled. Deep frying in saturated and trans-fats is one of the worst things that can be done to a healthy potato. These are the absolute worst fats that a person can eat, and are the cause of many of the closed arteries that bring on heart attacks, the cause of more deaths in modern industrialized nations than any other cause. We take a perfectly healthy potato and deep fry it, adding unnecessary fat and calories.

We do the same thing to chicken and fish, all in the name of adding “taste” to what we eat. The fish fillets that you get at McDonalds and the fried chicken that you get at Colonel Sanders, are just as unhealthy as the French fries; yet chicken and fish can be healthy choices of protein if baked, grilled or broiled. There are other ways to make them taste good without deep-frying. Eating French fries once in a while is not going to hurt you if you have an otherwise healthy diet. Just don’t make them a major part of your diet. Use low-fat sour cream or yogurt on baked potatoes, instead of full fat sour cream or saturated butter. Leave the skin on the potato. It is a great source of vitamin C and fiber.


The United States is a meat eating country when compared to most other countries. We also suffer the most cardiovascular diseases than any country in the world. Since meat products are a source of protein, you very rarely see a deficiency of protein in our diet. In fact, just the opposite is true. We probably get too much protein in our diet. Several problems can occur because of this. First of all, the meat that supplies the protein in our diet is usually surrounded by fat. Usually the worst kind of saturated fat that is so unhealthy in our diet. So if you are going to eat meat as a source of protein, eat smaller amounts and eat as lean of a cut as you can find. You can trim the fat off of steaks and even buy leaner hamburger; or substitute ground turkey for ground beef, a much healthier alternative. You don’t need to eat a huge 16 oz steak to meet your protein needs. 5-7 ounces of meat and three cups of milk can supply the minimum requirement of protein for the average person for one day.

Many people have the misconception that red meat has more protein than other sources of meat. This is not true at all. Athletes such as football players have been brainwashed by coaches to think that they need to eat a huge steak before their game in order to perform better. They would be better off eating a carbohydrate rich meal that will supply the energy they need for the game. Extra protein and fat before a game do not help much in supplying energy for performance. What the steak has is more artery-clogging fat than other meat products. Other sources of protein that are just as effective as red meat, but with less fat, are chicken (remove the fatty skin), fish, eggs, beans and peas, low fat dairy products, small amounts of peanut butter and soy foods. A combination of brown rice and black beans is a great source of complete protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals, without all of the fat associated with meat products.

Another problem with eating too much protein and fat dominated meals is that they fill you up, take longer to digest, and don’t leave room in your stomach for the necessary carbohydrates that you need to supply energy for muscle contraction. Carbohydrates should be the “center of attraction” for most of the water polo player’s meal, while fats and proteins should play more of a minor role. They both are necessary for a healthy diet, but they are not needed in huge amounts and at every meal. Try to substitute other protein sources for red meat when you can. Limit your red meat to only once or twice a week, and keep the size of the portion down. Eat less Bacon, sausage, hot dogs and fatty deli meats, and more of the alternative sources of protein listed above.


Just as all carbohydrates are not created equal, so are all fats not created equal. There is such a thing as healthy fats, the kind found in avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish. There is a reason why the “Mediterranean” diet is so healthy. They eat a lot of fat from olive oil and fish, and they walk everywhere they go. You don’t see a lot of fast-food restaurants in the Mediterranean countries that are a source of a lot of the saturated and trans-fats that are very unhealthy for you. You also don’t see a lot of store-bought packaged bakery goods that use trans-fats as a preservative and for taste. In other countries, baked good are made fresh daily in a local bakery and are made for immediate consumption; not to sit on a store shelf for four weeks. The same as in carbohydrates, food manufactures try to hide their fats by using vegetable names and scientific jargon that people don’t understand. Partially-hydrogenated palm oil is one of unsuspecting names found on labels that is just another name for trans-fat. Avoid it at all costs.

Read the label and watch out for products that list these kinds of ingredients. Most labels are required to list all ingredients found in the food. If you can’t figure out what they are, look at the summary that is also on the label. It has to list number of grams of each kind of fat, number of grams of sugar or carbohydrates. and percentage of calories from fats and from carbohydrates. Becoming a label reader can save you a lot of problems with your diet in the long run.


Some of the best foods that an athlete can eat and drink are low-fat dairy products and low-fat milk. Not only are they great sources of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals; but also are the primary sources of Calcium. Calcium is needed by everyone to strengthen and build bones; and especially young boys and girls whose bones are still growing. Great sources of Calcium are low or non-fat yogurt and milk, low fat fruit and dairy smoothies, a slice of low fat cheese on a sandwich, and parmesan cheese sprinkled on your pasta dish. Don’t let less nutritious beverages like sodas, or flavored fruit drinks, squeeze milk out of your diet. By the way fruit-flavored fruit drinks usually contain no fruit, only artificial flavors and sugar. READ THE LABEL! 

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]