Life Wellbeing Mini-meals: How athletes snack, and why you should follow their lead
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Mini-meals: How athletes snack, and why you should follow their lead

A healthy small meal won't have the hidden calories. sugars and added fats of most snack food. Photo: Getty
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There’s a black comedy playing out in many of our loungerooms when we sit down to watch a football game or the tennis. Out comes the big bowl of chips and plates of biscuits and rocket-shaped bottles of soft drinks. If you’re a bit fancy, you might bring out a platter of recently defrosted sausage rolls or pizzas.

As our heroic athletes go through their super-human paces, and the third bowl of chips hits the coffee table – why not? They’re so moreish – we might find ourselves a little flat and lacking in energy.

The problem is, as we’ve previously reported, most of these snacks are known as ‘discretionary foods’ – they’re not needed to meet nutrient requirements and “generally tend to be high in kilojoules, saturated fat, added sugars, added salt and alcohol”.

But according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the proportion of daily energy intake from discretionary foods for adults ranges from 33 per cent to 36 per cent. We’re a snacking population.

A snapshot of athletic snack life

Dr Dominique Condo, a senior lecturer in sports nutrition with Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences reckons we should get our snacking inspiration from what athletes eat.

Dr Condo, who oversees nutrition programs for the Geelong Cats Football Club and the WNBL Deakin Melbourne Boomers, said that the way athletes eat before and during competition provides an opportunity to rethink the way we snack.

The key to snacking like an athlete, she said, is to eat mini-meals built around protein and good-quality carbohydrates.

“When it comes to snacks, many people will reach for pre-packaged, highly processed foods full of salt and sugar that might be tasty and convenient but have little nutritional value. Whereas athletes use snack time as an opportunity to have a healthy mini-meal,” Dr Condo said.

Dr Dominique Condo. Photo: Deakin

An example of a mini-meal would be scrambled eggs on toast. Which sounds like a full breakfast.

In fact scrambled eggs, which contains quality protein, and will keep you feeling full longer, is about 370 calories with butter and milk thrown in.

A bucket of chips is the same number of calories, but contains a high amount of unhealthy fats, salt and little fibre.

Dr Condo reckons: “While some people may be put off eating a meal-like snack, such as scrambled eggs on toast, thinking it will result in putting on weight, the opposite is likely to happen because a healthy small meal will not have the hidden calories and sugars and added fats of most snack foods.”

Eating at regular intervals

Before and during competitions, said Dr Condo, athletes will eat regular meals, including a main meal two hours before an event and smaller meals or snacks during an event where possible.

“Eating at regular intervals is essential as the body needs a consistent intake of protein across the day, this goes for non-athletes as well,” she said.

In popular snack foods there’s usually little to no protein.

“While most of us don’t have the high-energy requirements of an athlete, we can certainly learn from the way they eat,” she said.

Dr Condo’s alternative snack suggestions

Before filling a bowl with chips and chocolates, Dr Condo offers the following athlete-friendly protein/carbohydrate snack suggestions:

  • Smoothies made with milk, yoghurt, fruits and oats;
  • Air-popped popcorn and dry roasted nuts;
  • Rice cakes or a wholegrain piece of toast spread with cottage cheese and avocado or smoked salmon or tuna on top – which amounts to a mini-meal;
  • High-protein (and no added sugar) yoghurts with some nuts and fruit;
  • Homemade protein balls or muesli bars.

And a personal recipe from the Cats’ food coach

For those looking for a quick and easy snack recipe, here is Dr Condo’s Lean and Mean Zucchini Hash:

Servings: 1

Prep Time: 5 mins

Cooking Time: 10 mins

Ingredients

• 2 large eggs

• 1 cup zucchini, finely grated

• 1/4 cup onion, diced

• 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

• 1/4 teaspoon onion powder

• salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl.

2. Heat a pan on high and then lower to medium heat.

3. Remove pan from heat to apply cooking spray into the pan before returning to heat and spooning the mixture into it.