If you are like me, nutrition is frustrating. It seems like everyone is a nutrition expert these days even if they don’t have a degree in it. Your mother, your grandmother, your children and all of your friends will tell you what to eat and why, but unfortunately, the lists will never match up. Frustrating! But here in this article, I want to explore some of the basic goals of nutrition for basketball players and clarify a few nutritional facts.

While there is no particular nutritional plan for all basketball players to follow, there are some specific nutritional goals that all players should be aware of. The following goals and guidelines are based on the idea that what we eat can have an impact on our performance.

  1. Eat to increase game performance. This goal is to give players energy before games so they can play harder and with more stamina. This goes beyond just eating a pregame meal.
  2. Eat to improve practice performance. The second (and often overlooked) goal is to give players energy before practices so they can compete harder when developing their skills. This is particularly helpful when you are one of those players who don’t get much playing time in the games and need to perform well in practice in order to show coaches that you can bring energy to the team.
  3. Eat for recovery. The third goal is to eat for recovery; that is, to restore energy levels after a hard practice or game so you can compete again in a short amount of time. This is especially important when playing in tournaments where a team plays games on consecutive days. It also helps in summer tournaments where teams may play several games in a single day.
  4. Eat for meat. And finally the fourth goal is to help develop physical attributes. This can include weight loss goals to increase speed and stamina or weight gain goals to increase muscle mass and strength. Eating the right foods to become leaner is mostly an off season issue but can be a yearlong endeavor for some.

Before we get into the question of what and how much to eat in all these different scenarios, let’s take a look at what increases your energy and what does not.

Macronutrients and Micronutrients: There are basically two types of substances we eat; Macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). It is important to note that people get energy from the macronutrients they eat and not from the micronutrients. Macronutrients when eaten are measured in calories which is a unit of energy. Micronutrients don’t increase someone’s caloric intake and so don’t give people energy. However, because micronutrients help cells in the body work better, a deficiency of them can cause problems. This is especially true for female players who are prone to anemia. Getting enough vitamins and minerals to prevent anemia may not give you more energy but not having them can certainly deplete your energy and ability to play the game.

So what we are concerned with mostly here is macronutrients. In looking at macronutrients then we can break these things down into the three substrates of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. While each substrate provides energy, these nutrients are not equal. Let’s look at some simple facts that we need to know. First, we need to understand that we use measurements of grams and milligrams which are the amounts of a food substance. We said that macronutrients provide us with calories. These calories give us energy but not all food substrates have the same number of calories. Thus it is important to understand that:

There are 4 calories in each gram of protein.
There are 4 calories in each gram of carbohydrate.
And there are 9 calories in each gram of fat.

Secondly, it is important to know how much of each substrate a person needs per kilogram of body weight. To get kilograms, simply divide your body weight by 2.2. Weight in pounds/2.2 equals kilograms. (So if you weigh 150 pounds, then you also weight 68.1 kilograms.)

Let’s turn now to how much food in each substrate one requires for basketball.

Proteins: Proteins are the substrates that we need to help build and repair muscle. It is recommended that the general population eat 0.8 milligrams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Basketball players and other power athletes however, require 1.7 milligrams per kilogram per day during the season and during heavy training periods. This requirement is primarily for muscle tissue repair. So if you weigh 200 pounds for example then your requirement is 618 calories of protein per day. (200/2.2= 90.9kg) (90.9 X 1.7=154.3 grams) (154.3 X 4=617.2 calories per day.)

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the main energy source for playing basketball. They give us the energy we need for quick, short bursts of activity like sprinting down the floor and jumping for a rebound. Because basketball is a power sport and not a true aerobic sport, players only need 5-6 grams of carbohydrates per day (10 grams for true aerobic athletes such as marathon runners). This amounts to about 2,181 calories per day of carbohydrate for our same 200 pound basketball player.

Fats: Despite the bad publicity that eating fatty foods get, the truth is that we all need them. The problem of course is that when we eat too many of any one substrate then we tend to get deficiencies in the other substrates and that causes problems. Eating less than 15% of calories from fat in your diet can lead to decreased testosterone levels and thus decreased muscle mass. A specific calorie requirement is not recommended for basketball players but 20-30% of daily calories should come from fat. For female athletes, this is probably less since females tend to store more fat. Overall, less than 10% of fat intake should be from saturated fats.

If we add this all up, here is what we get. For a 200 pound athlete, you need to consume 618 calories of protein, 2,181 calories of carbohydrate (70% of your daily intake) plus 30% of fat (1,199) equals 3,998 calories per day. So a 200 pound player needs to eat a diet of 4,000 calories in season. Of course, there is more to the story than these simple calculations. We’ll talk about that more later on.

In summary then, it should be noted that there is no “one size fits all” type of diet for basketball players. There will be fluctuations based on where individuals are in their competitive year and fluctuations based on body habitus. The above recommendations are generalizations to get players started on thinking about how nutrition can affect one’s performance on the court.