Rugby Nutrition: Eating for England

Manu TuilagiMuch of the focus of the ‘New England’ era has been on team selection and performance on the pitch, but here we can get a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at elite rugby nutrition. has analysed an 85-page document created by the Nutritional Team at the RFU for the England team entitled, ‘Nutritional Guidelines for England Players and Coaches’, and here is a summary.

So what will you find in an elite, England rugby player’s fridge and cupboard? Well firstly the nutritionist team at the RFU are quick to highlight the importance of getting the right quantity and quality of the 3 primary macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Without these, all the sports drinks, creatine and energels in the world won’t help fuel a successful Six Nations side.


So firstly let’s consider carbohydrates, a player’s primary source of fuel, the fastest available energy source and always the limiting fuel in sports performance. Although there are many different types of carbohydrates (with differing absorption rates, digestion, effect on blood sugar/ insulin levels) the England players are taught about 2 types, those being refined and unrefined carbohydrates.

Refined carbohydrates include sugar, sweets, chocolate and basically anything that is not how it occurs in nature. These are absorbed very quickly by the body and as a result cause your blood sugar levels to rise. Once your body senses a rise in blood sugar levels it release the hormone insulin to bring those levels back down. Not only can this cause a crash in blood sugar levels leaving the players feeling sluggish and lethargic but also insulin is a storage hormone and it signals to the body to store the glucose from the refined carbohydrate away. This is fine if the players have been training, since the refined carbohydrates are used to replenish muscle glycogen stores, however if you have not been training there will be very little muscle glycogen to top up and so the rest is stored away, being converted and stored as body fat. So a diet that is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates will tend to lead to an increase in body fat which is not what an elite rugby player wants.

The solution for the England players comes in the form of unrefined carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread, pasta, brown rice, vegetables and fruit. Unrefined whole grains are made up of all parts of the grain – the bran (fibre rich outer layer), the endosperm (middle part) and the germ (the nutrient rich part). When grains are milled or refined, the outer parts are removed leaving the endosperm and germ. This generates a refined carbohydrate. Whole grain foods by comparison contain all three layers of the grain. They also contain important plant compounds called phytochemicals:

Phytochemicals, together with the vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre found in grains contribute to these whole foods’ nutritional content and their numerous health benefits. As whole foods they have to be properly digested and this process slows the rate at which the sugar gets absorbed into the blood from the gut.

Essentially they are absorbed far slower than refined carbohydrates, therefore slowly energise the body throughout the day and ensure the players are less prone to storing unwanted, non-functional, body fat.

England Rugby Carbohydrate Tips:

    – Eat less refined and simple carbohydrates, e.g. white pasta, rice, potatoes, white bread, carrots, parsnips, simple sugars – glucose etc.
    – Eat more unrefined, complex carbohydrates and vegetables, e.g. soybeans, sweet potatoes, lentils, apples, oranges, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole wheat bread, oats, fresh vegetables
    – Eat complex carbohydrates approx. 3 hours before exercise/playing
    – An increased frequency of meals to 5 a day of moderate and low GI foods leads to better insulin, blood glucose and fatty acid regulation. This gives greater potential for muscle maintenance and growth as well as generally higher energy levels.
    – Eat sugary refined carbohydrates post hydration after exercise. This is when you want to use an ‘insulin spike’ to get as much carbohydrate into the muscle as possible.
    – Try to match your energy input (food you eat) with energy output (energy you burn); this is achieved by looking at the timing and type of intake of the carbohydrates you are consuming. Eating little and often will assist in portion control, so you never over eat.
    – Never fast – reducing food intake dramatically will lead to muscle loss.
    – Always eat breakfast. Skipping breakfast results in low blood sugar for an extended period of time, your symptoms will worsen and compensatory eating will often be excessive, due to hunger
    – Dilute all fruit juice 1: 5 with water
    – Eat high fibre foods. Vegetables growing above ground and whole grains tend to have good fibre content. Fibre slows the absorption of sugar from the gut, by decreasing gastric emptying and glucose uptake. Cooking root vegetables (carrots and potatoes) alters their structure making the sugars more rapidly absorbed.
    – Replace some starchy carbs with fibrous carbs at each meal. This will increase fibre and help fill you up.
    – Avoid large carbohydrate meals, as these will make you sleepy and excess calories will be converted.
    – Starchy carbohydrates should be limited in the evening meal where fat loss is a goal, as the need for an energy source at night is limited
    – Quinoa was the grain of the Incas and is particularly high in protein. It is readily available in independent health food stores. The flakes are the most versatile as the grains require soaking. Quinoa mixes well with oats in porridge or muesli.
    – Avoid sugar coated and processed breakfast cereals. Half their weight is made up of sugar and the other half is refined carbohydrate! Choose whole grain alternatives.
    – Choose breads that contain whole grain kernels. Do not go by the name alone. Pumpernickel and seed loaves have the lowest glycaemic index and the highest fibre and nutrient content.
    – Stir-fries are a quick and easy way to prepare vegetables. Use a little sesame or peanut oil for flavour and add cashews or crushed peanuts, fresh herbs and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

Tip from If you need a form of unrefined carbohydrates on the go, try looking at sports supplements such as Instant Oats (£2.39 for 1kg)


The next primary macronutrient essential for the players is protein. Whilst carbohydrates provide the body with the necessary fuel needed to train and compete, protein is required for muscular repair and regrowth. Research varies quite a lot regarding the actual amount of protein needed by an elite level rugby player, but it seems the major studies carried out seem to support the daily intake recommended by Dave Reddin and the nutrition team at the RFU: ‘consume between 1.2 and 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.’ To put this into perspective (and using the RFU nutritional guidelines) below is the protein requirements for various members of the England team.

Matt Stevens:
Matt Stevens
Date of Birth: 1st Oct 1982
Position: Prop
Height: 1.83 m (6′ 0″)
Weight: 123 kg (19 st 5 lb)
Daily Protein Intake: 147.6 – 2702.6 grams of protein per day

Chris Ashton:
Date of Birth: 29th Mar 1987
Position: Wing
Height: 1.83 m (6′ 0″)
Weight: 92 kg (14 st 6 lb)
Daily Protein Intake: 110.4 – 202.4 grams of protein per day

Manu Tuilagi
Date of Birth: 18th May 1991
Position: Centre
Height: 1.85 m (6′ 1″)
Weight: 110 kg (17 st 4 lb)
Daily Protein Intake: 132 – 242 grams of protein per day

It should be noted that since whole protein sources require a considerable amount of digestion it is important not to try to eat your entire requirement at one sitting. The RFU Nutrition team recommend that you drip feed in your requirement in 5 or 6 meals a day and that protein with every meal will help to control blood glucose levels, support muscle mass maintenance and growth and improve appetite control.

England Rugby Protein Tips:

    – Think ‘protein’ first for every meal
    – Choose low fat protein sources
    – Think savoury at breakfast – if you’ve got time, have a healthy cooked breakfast, e.g. grilled lean meats, poached, boiled or scrambled eggs
    – Protein snacks – cottage cheese, hard boiled eggs, low fat houmous
    – All proteins are good, but not all are equal – some of them mix in bad company, e.g. hidden fats
    – When training hard, continue to take your protein supplements on rest days as well as training days. The rest period is when your body makes new protein – it needs raw material to do this.

Tip from Consider supplementing your diet with extra protein in the form of fat free shakes using protein powders (1kg of Impact Whey Protein is £12.99 and is low in fat, carbohydrates and calories).


Next the RFU was keen to point out that certain fats in the diet are needed, and a diet completely void of fats could actually be bad for you. To clear up matters Dave Reddin and his team classified fats into 3 main categories for the players:

Polyunsaturated fats (good fats)
‘These include the Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fatty acids (which actually are the vitamins of the fat world) and Omega 9 non-essential fatty acid, which you will know as olive oil. The good fats are liquid at room temperature. They play an important part in many functions, for example controlling inflammation, supporting normal immune activity to infection and allowing your brain to operate optimally as well as structures such as every cell wall in your body. The body cannot manufacture these ‘essential’ fats and we need to obtain them from our food. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, herring and tuna. These fish should be included in the diet at least twice a week. You obtain the omega 6 fatty acid from vegetable oils. Good sources are cold pressed such as flaxseed oil and virgin olive oil. Good sources of both omega 3 and 6 are nuts and seeds.’

Saturated fats (Bad fats)
‘The “bad” are the saturated animal fats. They are known to increase the risk of heart disease, some cancers and strokes. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature like butter and lard. They are the fats you see in meats and are found in dairy products. Saturated fats if not used as energy will be stored as body fat and tend to get dropped in your blood vessels leading to furring up of the arteries (atherosclerosis). It is this that increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases when they are eaten.’

Hydrogenated and Trans-fatty acids (hidden fats)
‘The “hidden” fats are the hydrogenated and Trans-fatty acids (formed when fats are fried). These have been chemically altered and are used in food to improve texture and shelf life. Functionally they tend to act like very sticky saturated fatty acids and should be avoided. You will need to read your food labels. Many margarines contain these fatty acids and their consumption is associated with an increased risk in heart disease.’

England Rugby Fat Tips:

    Avoid saturated and trans (fried) fats whenever possible – fried foods, burgers, butter, etc. They increase cholesterol and decrease membrane fluidity.
    – Use cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil as your main source of fat – very good source of monounsaturated fatty acids.
    – Eat at least 2 meals per week of cold water fish – e.g. salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines – and take capsules of essential fish oils such as EPA (omega 3) and GLA (omega 6).
    – These foods contain high quantities of Omega 3 fatty acids which improve insulin action, reduce muscle catabolism and enhance testosterone production.
    – Try to keep fat intake down to 15-20% of your total calories – if you are eating 4000 calories a day that is about 65- 89g of fat per day.
    – Avoid deep fried foods, preferring stir-fried, dry roasted, baked, grilled or steamed.
    – Snack on nuts and seeds.
    – Add fresh herbs instead of butter to vegetables to make flavours more interesting. Use chopped mint to add to green beans, mange tout and new potatoes. Try coriander in stir-fries and an assortment of herbs in soups.
    – Dress salads with olive oil and fresh lemon juice or flavoured vinegar. Use tomato juice or low fat yoghurt for a dressing with a difference. Use fresh herbs, chopped nuts and dried fruit to add flavour and texture.

11 thoughts on “Rugby Nutrition: Eating for England

  1. “147.6 – 2702.6 grams of protein per day”
    Matt Stevens is going to be a big old boy by the end of the year if he keeps that up!!
    I’m guessing he’ll just be keeping it to 270 max.

  2. Hello there, I’m a 17 year old boy from the Bahamas. I’ve recently started playing rugby and I played my first game last week Saturday. I’m a 5’10 165 pound back not very fast and not very strong. I don’t lift weights, but I just started doing squats push ups, pull ups, squats, lunges, and planks in my room every night. I want to put on muscle, but at the same time get the other nutrients I need to compete in practice. Our Practice sessions are every tuesday and thursday from 6:30 – 8:00 and are comprised of stretching, running, scrimmages, passing drills, push ups, sit ups, planks and squats. I would like you to recommend me a Nutrient supplement or shake I should take and how often should I take it. I my kness get soar easily and I have low stamina. I just want to become a better Rugby player so I can be an asset to my team. Thanks in advance

  3. Wow , manu tuilagi . iam fullback in high school . hope can be more tough and good in play :D

  4. i am playing rugby and training very regular I want to maintain my energy and speed, is there a website showing meals of food for breakfast, snacks, what to take just before a game and after and best food while training. also the best protein drinks etc, there are so many products around not sure which are the best thanks.

  5. Thank you for every other fantastic article.
    Where else may just anyone get that kind of info in such an ideal
    approach of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m at the look for such information.

  6. Somebody made a boob with Matt Stevens daily protein intake between 147-2702g of protein per day there’s no way someone could intake 2702g of protein a day that’s the equivalent of 90 chickens breast a day!!!

  7. One would think that in this day and age of enlightenment, that the carb-maniac and fat phobic nutritionists would be more balanced in their suggestions. Not so looking at this article. These suggestions are more of the same stuff that has been peddled for decades now. Cholesterol is a primary precursor for many hormones including testosterone yet here we have advice to avoid it, as though cholesterol is bad for you. This despite the fact also that there is no linkage between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels. Has all the new research over the last 5 years,proving the exact opposite not by now put these wrong assumptions to bed? Probably not I suppose as this is the dogma you need to learn to be called a nutritionist.

    My diet consists of 80% of calories from saturated fat – lots of butter. Most days I eat less than 40g of carbs a day and only eat more than 1g of protein per kg of body weight when recovering from training. My body fat percentage has varied from 5-8% on this high fat ketogenic diet for many years now.

    There is no one diet for all types of players as each individual has a different body type, metabolism and physiology. The Vunipola brothers and Matt Stevens are clearly of the body type that should stay well clear of high carb diets, vary protein according to training (but be wary of the effects of gluconeogenesis) and eat more saturated fat.

    This article addresses none of the issues of phytic acid (anti nutrient) in whole grains and the estrogenic factors of soy. Perhaps Matt Stevens man-boobs are down to the soy he eats? Oh and most factory farmed salmon has a very low omega 3 level, so is next to useless as a omega 3 food.

    Nice try at an article of interest to the rugby community but frankly this appears to me to be a college project which plays to the text book and not real world facts and experience. As usual it peddles the saturated-fat-is-bad-for-you mantra. One wonders how mankind evolved to its present state over many millions of years while eating meat and fat as a primary high calorie food type. After all there is a reason we have bigger brains than apes, and it’s not down to vegetables and whole grains.

    1. Low carbohydrate diets for athletes would be a poor choice. Carbohydrate is the predominant fuel source utilised during exercise with countess studies demonstrating pre-exercise carbohydrate feedings improve exercise performance.

      Furthermore, recent developments have also shown high fat diets impair exercise performance at high intensities due to a reduction in PDH activity (a rate limiting enzyme of glycogenolysis) which is essential during high intensity bouts.

      Although periods of low carbohydrate intake may be useful to reduce BF, or improve metabolic adaptations to training, chronically training and performing with low carbohydrate will be detrimental to the athlete.

      1. I guess one can say then that health is not a serious issue when performance is key. The goal for most sports nutritionists seems to be to get the player to live long enough to extract maximum performance from them, but no longer. Carbs and sugars are a primary go-to food to extract that performance.

        For some time now I’ve been having some misgivings about rugby and continual head trauma, its effect on player lifespan and subsequent health issues. To that now I am starting to add sub optimal diet for health while competing, even though as you say it appears that diet may increase performance, although many more studies by low carb scientists will dispute these facts. It’s quite easy actually to get into a my study is better than yours scenario, even while casual observation over time may tell you a much different story. How much of the current Aussie cricket teams success is due to some of its key players deciding a while back to go low carb, decreasing their chronic inflammation and time spent out on injury?

        We’ll all be able to reflect on these issues in the coming years. My sense though is that high carb is not the panacea you and most sports nutritionists would make it out to be. My guess also is that while high carb gives short term performance enhancements it contributes over time to a shorter playing career, visited by frequent injury, but as I say that is not science, just casual observation on my part.

  8. hi play rugby for my scholl (under 14) what is a hood way to improve stamina, strenght, speed and loose fat so i can carry on to ay for the 1st team

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