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Diets for athletes include low carb, vegetarian, Paleo, Noakes

Athletes' diets range dramatically.
Athletes' diets range dramatically.
Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

If you have picky eaters at home who make you feel like you're catering to a crowd of choosy celebrities, consider the challenges faced by John Stew, the catering manager at Leicestershire County Cricket Club for the past two years. From vegetarian diets to low carb plans, John must concoct meals for different athletes that optimize "their chances of winning," he said in an August 3 interview with the Leicester Mercury News.

To determine the best diet for the professional athletes, nutrition specialists customize foods plans based on body fat, weight and other factors. "They’re educated to consider what they’re eating but no diet is forced on them," clarified John.

John factors in the time of year and the sports season in creating meals with different amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats. For example, the pre-season theme calls for carbohydrates.

"In the middle of winter, during pre-season, when they’re burning lots of calories while building up their fitness levels, the players will indulge in potato and rice dishes such as shepherd’s pie," he explained. He also makes a healthy version of French fries with sliced potatoes that are baked with spices.

During the season, the athletes use a low carb diet approach. It includes vegetables, fruit, lean protein such as chicken and some dairy such as yogurt. They also eat energy bars and nuts.

The post-match menu features more carbohydrates, including bread. However, John also pays attention to the needs of visiting teams, which sometimes means offering vegetarian meals.

The "perfect" diet for athletes has become an increasingly controversial topic in recent years. Endurance sports expert Tim Noakes, for example, attracted international attention when he announced he had stopped advocating a high carbohydrate diet. Instead, said Noakes, he believes high fat low carb diets are most effective for everyone, and he's become so famed for his views that some simply refer to the plan as the "Noakes diet," reported the Times Live on August 4.

Noakes believes that many people are carbohydrate-intolerant. For such individuals, consuming a diet high in carbohydrates results in obesity and a higher risk of heart attacks.

Heart and Stroke Foundation CEO Dr. Vash Mungal-Singh agreed that everyone should "avoid sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates. We need to have more whole foods."

As for the notion that athletes should eat a high carb diet? A runner himself, Noakes said in an exclusive interview that when he switched, he experienced a dramatic improvement in his performance.

"Within eight weeks I had lost 11kg and improved my running times to those I had last run 20 years earlier," he said. And Noakes, along with low carb diet experts Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek, recently authored an essay for the British Journal of Sports Medicine pointing the lack of studies on low-carb sports performance.

With only 11 low-carb diet performance studies reported, nine revealed that the study participants did as well or better on low carb diets. "Studies of elite athletes chronically adapted to low-carbohydrate diets have uncovered one unexpected finding–their extraordinary ability to produce energy at very high rates purely from the oxidation of fat," wrote these experts in the essay.

What is even more unknown, however: Paleo diet performance. However, using the principles of what some call the ancestral health approach has been a winning formula for several NBA players, reported CBS Sports recently.

Ray Allen is a Paleo fan. ""I think guys are becoming more aware," said Allen. "When you start eating the salads and the proteins and fruits...you just feel so much fresher and cleaner."

Allen experimented, however, with eating more carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, for energy. "That's absolutely what needs to be done," said Robb Wolf, a biochemist and author of "The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet."

"When you start looking at any type of high-level athlete, they need a lot of carbs to be able to function optimally – potatoes, some sweet potatoes, some white rice," Wolf said. "That's spot on to make this thing work."