The Meat & Potatoes of Sports Nutrition

29 09 2011

Many active people today have somehow ended up eschewing meat & potatoes and instead are choosing purified protein and carbs.

By Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD

The Myth

Once upon a time, athletes used to chow on meat and potatoes. That changed when red meat got categorized as bad, “a heart attack on a plate.” (That is, until the Atkins Diet came along.) Next, potatoes got the bad rap. Potatoes, after all, have a high glycemic index. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a rating system that assigns a numerical value to carbohydrate-rich foods, based on their impact on blood sugar. The rumor goes like this:

  1. Potatoes quickly elevate blood sugar (i.e., have a high glycemic index).
  2. This stimulates the release of insulin.
  3. Insulin causes the blood sugar to drop.
  4. Low blood sugar stimulates hunger and the desire to (over) eat …
  5. Potatoes become “fattening.”

Although this is not true, the bottom line is many weight-conscious athletes have stopped eating potatoes–as well as rice, pasta and other carbs needed to fuel their muscles.

The Truth

The truth is, athletes have a different biochemistry than unfit people. Athletes are unlikely to experience an insulin surge that leads to overeating and “getting fat” from enjoying potato with dinner. Athletes’ depleted muscles readily take up carbs and store them as glycogen. Also, most athletes eat potato with meat or other protein foods; this slows the release of glucose and the insulin response.

The Reality

Never the less, many of today’s active people have somehow ended up eschewing meat & potatoes (or beans & rice, if they are vegetarians) and instead are choosing purified protein and carbs. That is, they slug down protein shakes for breakfast, choose protein bars for mid-morning and late afternoon snacks, and refuel with carb-protein supplements for recovery. The sports food industry leads us to believe these commercially prepared, purified carbs and protein are indispensable for superior performance. Not the case; real food has worked well for years!

While there is a time and place for sports supplements, many of my clients mis-use them. For example:

  • Does the high school athlete really need a sports drink at lunch?
  • Will the lawyer/runner benefit from a protein bar for an afternoon snack?
  • Will the body builder gain mass with yet-another protein shake for a mid-morning meal?

Doubtful. But these engineered foods have become so mainstream that athletes have forgotten about the meat-and-potatoes of sports nutrition: meats (and beans) and potatoes! If you are over-consuming engineered foods, here’s some food for thought about meat, potatoes and your sports diet.


Many athletes believe meat is unhealthful because it is cholesterol-rich. Wrong. The amount of cholesterol in beef is similar to that in chicken and fish. Cholesterol is part of cell walls; all animal proteins contain a similar amount (85-95 mg cholesterol/four ounces; target intake <300 mg/day).

  • The fat in meat, not the meat itself, is the culprit when it comes to heart disease. Choose lean beef, pork and lamb for your heart-healthy sports diet. Buy organic, if desired.
  • Red meats offer two minerals that are important for athletes: iron (prevents anemia, needless fatigue) and zinc (helps heal injuries). While many protein supplements are fortified with iron and zinc, these minerals tend to be better absorbed from animal foods.
  • Deli roast beef offers 24 grams protein per three ounces–the same as many protein bars or an average sandwich.


Potatoes are an excellent source of carbohydrates. Potatoes (and all carbs) are not fattening; excess calories are fattening. Consistently overeating French fries or butter-filled baked potatoes can, indeed, be fattening, but so can overeating any food, even sport drinks and protein shakes.

  • A large (10 oz. when raw) restaurant-size potato can fuel your muscles with about 200 carbohydrate-rich calories … as can 200 calories of a candy-like energy bar. But the carbs in many sports supplements–glucose, fructose, rice syrup and other sweeteners–offer no nutritional value (that is, unless the manufacturers add some vitamins to make the product appear more nutritious).
  • Potatoes, in comparison, are nutrient-rich, a natural source of potassium and vitamin C. Hence, a pre-baked (or microwave) pre- or post-exercise potato offers nutritional advantages over an engineered energy bar. When eaten naked, potatoes contain no fat, cholesterol or sodium–and they even come in an edible, fiber-rich wrapper!
  • To make a plain, baked potato more “exciting,” top it with these effortless protein ideas: cottage cheese, canned bake beans, and chili. Or drizzle a little heart-healthy olive oil on top with a sprinkling of oregano.

For a family favorite, make oven fries. Slice raw potatoes into strips, drizzle with olive or canola oil, mix to coat evenly; spread on a baking sheet, cook at 425 for 20 to 35 minutes (depending on the thickness of the “fries”). For more recipes, visit!

The Bottom Line

By enjoying potatoes or other natural carbs as the foundation of each meal, and meat/protein as the accompaniment, you’ll get the right balance of carbs and protein that enhances sports performance. Here are some examples of easy carb-protein combinations of “real foods.” Note: protein quickly adds up. Most athletes need to focus on getting enough carbs … More potatoes, please!

Carb (gm) Protein (gm)
Target daily intake (150 lb athlete) 450-750+ 75-120
2 cups Wheaties with 1 cup milk 60 14
PB & J Sandwich 60 16
1 med zapped potato + 1/2 c cot. cheese 55 20
2 cups Spaghetti + meat (2 oz) sauce 102 30
Total 277 80
Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels casual and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, new Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist’s Food Guide are available at Also see for information about her online workshop.



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