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Dining Out: Tips For Athletes

Author: Stan Reents, PharmD
Original Posting: 05/06/2007 08:23 AM
Last Revision: 01/15/2016 07:51 AM

Athletes do not always eat right. Body-builders sometimes consume too much protein, while some female athletes eat so little they develop a condition known as the "female athlete triad".

Other athletes can't consume enough. At the 2005 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, research was presented showing that Tour de France cyclists lose weight despite consuming over 6000 calories per day. It turns out that they burn as much as 9000 calories per day and simply cannot take in that many calories when not on the bike.

Of course, these are all extreme examples, but, it sets the stage for what we'll discuss in this review. The topic of what to eat for optimum performance is covered in greater detail in other Articles. Here, we will discuss some pointers when dining out.


Here are some tips for athletes when dining out:

Know your calorie sources

Memorize the following values:

  • Fats and Oils: 9 kcal/g
  • Alcohol: 7 kcal/g
  • Carbohydrates: 4 kcal/g
  • Protein: 4 kcal/g
  • Fiber: 0 kcal/g

("kcal/g": kilocalories per gram of food; in conversation, the term "calories" is commonly used instead)

If you're concerned about calories, pay special attention to the amount of fat in a menu item...this is often where the majority of calories come from.


Make sure that you are consuming quality carbohydrates. Use glycemic index and glycemic load to guide your carbohydrate choices. One study showed that, as the percent of sweets, snacks, and condiments in the diet increased, so did percent body fat (McCrory MA, et al. 1999). A small study from the UK showed that when distance runners consumed a diet of low glycemic index (GI) foods after running, they were able to run longer the following day compared to runners who consumed a diet of high GI foods in between the 2 runs (Stevenson E, et al. 2005).

The concepts of glycemic index and glycemic load are discussed in greater detail in other Articles, so they won't be reviewed here.


Yes, alcohol is a carbohydrate, but, drinking a lot of alcohol before a race does NOT qualify as "carbo loading". Alcohol is a diuretic; you do not want to be dehydrated just before a long race or athletic event. Also, some evidence shows that alcohol can impair performance for up to 14 hours after ingestion (Yesavage JA, et al. 1986). Keep in mind that alcohol offers 7 kcal/g compared to other dietary carbohydrates which offer only 4 kcal/g.

Do some homework

Write down everything you eat in a 7-day period. Once you see this list, it will become apparent where you need to make changes.

Carry a food reference

Watch out for appetizers. At many restaurants, appetizers are loaded with fat and calories. For example, the Bloomin' Onion at Outback Steakhouse contains 110 g of fat and over 1700 calories! When U. Arkansas researchers asked people to guess the number of calories in sample restaurant meals, the responses underestimated the actual amount by as much as 600 calories. Another source of a surprising number of calories is coffee drinks.

So, to avoid some menu "surprises" when dining out, carry a food reference with you. Two good ones are: Bob Greene’s Guide To Fast Food & Family Restaurants and Eating On The Run by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD (see below).  An option for those who use smart-phones is to purchase our Mobile App .  This is the hand-held version of our Exercise Calorie Converter.


Q: What is the best diet for an athlete?

ANSWER: Obviously, there is no one single answer for this question. What is optimum for a Tour de France cyclist may not be best for a football player. Men and women have slightly different requirements. Also, climate is another variable. But, in general terms, the optimum diet would look something like this (the values represent the percent of total daily calories):

  • Carbs: 60-70%
  • Fats: 20-30%
  • Protein: 10-15%

Endurance athletes should emphasize easily-digestible carbs during a race. Athletes who train heavily with weights should take in slightly more protein than other athletes (eg., 1.5 - 1.8 g protein/kg/day for strength-training athletes, vs. 0.8 - 1.5 g protein/kg/day for others).

Chris Carmichael, in his book Food For Fitness - Eat Right To Train Right, recommends a carb/fat/protein ratio of 65%/22%/13% in the "foundation" phase of training and modifies this to 70%/16%/14% as training becomes more intense and specialized. Of course, this plan is designed for endurance athletes like cyclists. Power athletes will probably want to decrease the carbohydrate percentage and increase the protein percentage slightly.

For a thorough discussion of the carbs vs. fats vs. protein issue, readers are referred to another review: Carbs, Fats, or Protein for Optimum Performance? Other sports nutrition issues, such as calcium, iron, fluids, etc. are discussed in greater detail in other Articles.

Q: Are the nutritional facts that restaurants and food labels provide accurate?

ANSWER: Food labels on packaged foods are generally accurate, but consumers should realize several "rules" that are in play: First, the Total Calories value is always rounded off to units of 10. In other words, if the total calorie amount is 133 calories, then, it would be reported as "130 calories." Second, for some ingredients, if the actual amount is less than 0.5 g, then manufacturers are allowed to report the amount as "zero." A case-in-point is the term "fat free": this label can be used if the food contains less than 0.5 g of fat. Note that even a very small amount could add up if, say, you are consuming 10 nutrition bars during a century ride, for example.

Regarding the nutritional information provided by restaurants, a study published in the July 20, 2011 issue of JAMA revealed that 19% of food items studied contained at least 100 calories (kcal) more than what was reported (Urban LE, et al. 2011.) For people who are trying to limit their calories, this could be significant. Don't forget that an excess of 500 kcal per day will lead to a 1-lb weight gain after 7 days.


Two of the best sports nutrition books I have found are: Food For Fitness - Eat Right To Train Right by Chris Carmichael (coach of Lance Armstrong), and Sports Nutrition Guidebook by Nancy Clark, MD, RD. If you are looking for a shorter book, Eating For Endurance by Ellen Coleman RD, MA, MPH, provides general sports nutrition information.

Bob Greene’s book in his Get With The Program series is Guide To Fast Food & Family Restaurants (Simon & Schuster, 2004). This handy pocket-sized book (it measures 3" x 8.5") can be carried with you, or kept in the car. It provides lots of quick-reference information on restaurant chains from Applebee's to Bob Evans to Romano's Macaroni Grille to Wendy's.

Eating On The Run (Human Kinetics, 2004) by registered dietician Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, is an excellent book for busy people. Even if you don't read the entire book, the 40-page fast-food data chart is worth the $16.95 price. This book is highly recommended. (see Book Reviews for more information on these books).

A good resource for information on glycemic index and glycemic load is the web site maintained by the University of Sydney.

Also, don't forget to utilize our Exercise Calorie Converter. Here, you can look-up over 2000 menu selections and determine how much exercise is required to burn-off those calories. You may think twice about ordering that appetizer or dessert.

Refer to these other Articles on sports nutrition:


Stan Reents, PharmD, is available to speak on this and many other exercise-related topics. (Here is a downloadable recording of one of his Health Talks.) He also provides a one-on-one Health Coaching Service. Contact him through the Contact Us page.


de Castro JM, de Castro ES. Spontaneous meal patterns of humans: influence of the presence of other people. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;50:237-247. Abstract

Lichtman SW, Pisarska K, Berman ER, et al. Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. N Engl J Med 1992;327:1893-1898. Abstract

McCrory MA, Fuss PJ, McCallum JE, et al. Dietary variety within food groups: association with energy intake and body fatness in adult men and women. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;69:440-447. Abstract

Pomerleau M, Imbeault P, Parker T, et al. Effect of exercise intensity on food intake and appetite in women. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;80:1230-1236. Abstract

Roberts SB, Fuss P, Heyman MB, et al. Control of food intake in older men. JAMA 1994;272:1601-1606. Abstract

Stevenson E, Williams C, McComb G, et al. Improved recovery from prolonged exercise following the consumption of low glycemic index carbohydrate meals. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2005;15:333-349. Abstract

Urban LE, McCrory MA, Dallal GE, et al. Accuracy of stated energy contents of restaurant foods. JAMA 2011;306:287-293. Abstract

Yesavage JA, Leirer VO. Hangover effects on aircraft pilots 14 hours after alcohol ingestion: a preliminary report. Am J Psychiatry 1986;143:1546-1550. Abstract


Stan Reents, PharmD, is a former healthcare professional. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and holds current certifications from ACSM (Health & Fitness Specialist), ACE (Health Coach) and has been certified as a tennis coach by USTA. He is the author of Sport and Exercise Pharmacology (published by Human Kinetics) and has written for Runner's World magazine, Training and Conditioning, Club Solutions, and other fitness publications.

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