Why Pizza is The Best Food To Fuel Tennis Stars

The final Grand Slam of the year is upon us. The 2019 U.S. Open kicks off on Monday in New York with stars Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, and Ashleigh Barty taking center court.

As anyone who has picked up a racquet knows, tennis is no joke – one hour of singles tennis can burn 400+ calories for a 150-pound person and 500+ calories for a 190-pound person. And that’s just for us amateurs. Just imagine how much energy Serena and Rafael will burn in Queens this week.

Should weekend warriors and tennis pros fuel themselves with pizza? We think that’s an ace idea, so we checked in with Tracy Lockwood Beckerman – registered dietician and the face behind @thehappiestnutritionist – to make sure our game plan is a smash.

Tracy Lockwood Beckerman

Zach Links: What nutritional value can pizza provide for tennis players, both amateurs and pros that train aggressively?

Tracy Lockwood Beckerman: Pizza offers all your food groups in one food. Essential carbs in the crust, veggies from the tomato sauce – and hopefully veggie toppings like spinach, peppers and onions – and protein from the cheese helps fuel the muscles for any type of tennis training regimen.

If you are training aggressively and need a higher caloric intake, then pizza can help fill the gaps in your diet and is a delicious, easy and cheap way to get your calories in.

The cheese in pizza contains calcium, which supports bone growth and strength, which is important for any tennis player who constantly puts stress on their bones.  

ZL: What types of pizza would you recommend?

TLB: Obviously, we recommend fresh pizza over frozen. Adding extra veggies, such as broccoli, mushrooms, onions, and peppers increases the fiber intake, antioxidant load and can help you feel fuller longer. To complete the meal with an added boost from protein, you can add chicken or lean protein, like shrimp or anchovies, to the pizza. 

The pizza to opt for when available is whole wheat thin crust with veggies and protein for a balanced meal. It will save calories if you do a thin crust while adding an extra crunch to your slice, and provide whole grain and a hearty source of fiber. If there are cauliflower pizza crusts, definitely swing for those.

ZL: In terms of nutritional timing – when should tennis players eat their pizza? Before aggressive exercise for fuel? Or afterwards for recovery?

TLB: Pizza should be eaten the night before a match, before excessive exercise.

Due to the high carb content of pizza, you will store the extra energy in your liver and muscles and be able to pull the vigor from your glycogen stores when you exhaust the available glucose in your blood. It is a great meal to have at dinner and will get you ready for your upcoming game, set and match!

As far as the day of, tennis players should eat their pizza four hours before aggressive exercise to fuel their muscles while also giving adequate time for digestion. Tennis players can also eat their pizza about 30 minutes after aggressive exercise, as a slice will provide an athlete with an important source of carbohydrates and protein to repair muscles and restore glycogen stores. 

Healthy Pizza with Chicken

ZL: What are some of the best proteins for tennis players – and, non-tennis players – to pair with pizza?

TLB: Opt for lean meats on your pizza. Think chicken, turkey pepperoni, or lean ground beef, or even crack an egg in the middle of your pizza for some essential fats and stellar vitamins as well.  If you don’t like the idea of meat on your pizza, add it on the side. Grilled chicken pairs nicely – lean fish or shellfish like shrimp, are options you can usually find at a pizza place. 

Sometimes there is nothing better than a plain slice, so add some protein to your pizza pie by pairing it with a side of crispy Brussels sprouts for 5.5 grams of protein per cup or green peas for a whopping 8.5 grams of protein per cup.

I would stay away from meatballs as they are usually made with refined and salty breadcrumbs and we want to limit the carb for our side dish and keep it focused on veggies. 

ZL: We are very biased towards pizza, obviously, but what other nutritional tips would you give to tennis players?

TLB: If pizza isn’t your thing, you can always do a pasta dish, just try to stick to whole wheat when possible. Whole wheat pasta contains large amounts of B-vitamins which are perfect to energize your cells and help you go from ad-in to game. Make sure you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables to keep your immune system high on the road like vitamin A, C, and E. 

In addition, making sure you hit your protein goals is very important. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal sources (like poultry, fish and dairy) and it helps keep your energy sky high.

Look to lean proteins to help build and repair muscles after intense training. 

Stay hydrated – it is HOT on those courts. Making sure you’re drinking electrolytes to help replace the sodium and other electrolytes that are lost through sweat. You can also eat more watermelon or banana (or drink cold watermelon or coconut water) which is loaded with potassium, helping to prevent any muscle cramps. 

Consume foods that are rich in zinc, such as pumpkin seeds, whole grains, animal proteins, and beans—studies have shown that more zinc in someone’s diet can improve hand-eye coordination.

Healthy Pizza with Cheese

ZL: On your Instagram, you’ve noted the hidden nutritional value of pizza. What are pizza’s greatest nutritional qualities? What are the health benefits of those nutrients?

TLB: Let’s start with mozzarella cheese – it’s high in Vitamin D, calcium and Vitamin A. Vitamin D and calcium are good for our bones, which if you’re trying to hit grand slams will help you beat your opponent! Vitamin A is helpful in the immune response and making sure you’re on your A-game come match time. 

Then there’s basil, which has antimicrobial properties which can help boost our immune system and is said to reduce inflammation. That’s great for joints and muscles post game.

Most fresh pizza sauce is made with garlic, which can reduce blood pressure, increase immune cell function, and reduce the risk of cancer.

If you get broccoli and spinach on your pizza, those will increase your intake of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin A, and Folate. They contain over 13 different flavonoid compounds that work to help prevent the occurrence of cancer

Whole wheat pizza on its own or even topped with vegetables provides a great source of belly-filling fiber that will promote digestive health and reduce risk of heart disease.

In general, pizza provides a reliable source of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, all of which are essential macronutrients needed for the body to function and perform properly.

Tracy Lockwood Beckerman is a registered dietitian, the face behind @thehappiestnutritionist on Instagram, and the author of “The Better Period Food Solution”.

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