Nutrition and Scuba Diving

Eating for Diving

As your diving season arrives, it might be a good time to remind everyone about eating for diving. Over my many years of diving, I have had the occasion to learn through trial and (mostly) error, as well as watching others, what it takes to have a pleasant day of diving. What you eat just might make the difference between a good, safe dive and what might be a ‘bummer’, a trip to the chamber. What follows is my ‘fool-proof’ list of things to eat or drink in preparation for your long-awaited dive trip.

Six to three days before

This is the time to build your water and carbohydrate stores. Note the order of importance. It is a must to drink enough water so that your urine is ‘copious and clear’ the last few days before a dive. Being well-hydrated is thought by many to be vital to the prevention of decompression sickness. Excessive alcohol intake or a bout of local “Montezuma’s Revenge” will dehydrate one rapidly, and it might take a day or two to recover from becoming dehydrated.

Be sure to choose a good portion of your foods from the bread/starch and fruit categories. Roughly one-half to two-thirds of your calories should be from complex carbohydrates (whole grains, pasta, veggies, fruit, etc.) depending on the intensity of your diving. If you’re doing a full week of repetitive dives, stay closer to the two-thirds calories from carbs and eat plenty of calories. Also, make sure you get enough protein by taking in low-fat dairy products, beans, nuts (use for salads and cooking) soy products, and lean meat and fish.

Two days before

This is the day to be sure you have plenty of water in your system and plenty of calories. It’s here that some people get into trouble on long airplane trips by ingesting too much alcohol containing beverages. The alcohol acts as a diuretic, directly causing dehydration. In addition, the dry atmosphere of the airplane cabin can cause significant fluid loss.

Most people do well to eat a little more than usual on this day, sticking to high carbohydrate foods and evenly spaced meals. Some people prefer to get the extra calories from food while others like sports drinks or milk. Also, work on getting a few good nights sleep here, because it can be difficult to sleep restfully on a plane trip to the dive site.

Day before

Here is where most divers get into trouble–overeating during the trip to the dive site. Avoid bad eating habits you may slip into if you have to travel to the dive. Eating a little less than usual today will make you a little lighter tomorrow on your dive day, so drop your intake by about 500 calories. One of the worst things you can do is raid the pre-dive pasta bash. Lots of oil-laced pasta, buttered bread, and high-fat salad dressing will only give you plenty of “ammo” for the boat head in the morning. At this point, it’s too late to make up for poor eating earlier in the week. Diarrhea on a diveboat is not a good thing! Stick with broth-based soup, Jello, cereal, low-fat pudding, fruit, vegetables, carnation instant breakfast, and sports drinks on this day. Be sure to drink a little extra water.

Dive day

Stay away from unusual foods. Eat a small breakfast if you suffer from heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux). Be sure to eat at least two hours before the dive and avoid high-fat muffins, doughnuts, and honey buns. If the dive is in the afternoon, keep the portions small and choose high-carbohydrate foods and sports drinks or water for lunch. You should be drinking water up to one-half hour before the dive. About 10 or 15 minutes before the have a water bottle handy and take in two-four ounces of water. Water consumed this close to the dive start will help counteract the obligatory diuresis of your initial water immersion.

During the dive

Depending on the number of dives, drinking water is usually best. Most dive boats have a supply of cold water available with plenty of cups. If it’s a long way to and from dive sites with a long off-gassing between dive period, consider a sports drink or try easy to eat, high-carbohydrate foods (fig bars, bananas, sports bars/gels, low-fat cookies, etc.) and plenty of liquids. Most divers bring their own sources of energy (lemon drops, hard candy, oranges). I’ve not seen any divers using any of the ‘sports gels’ that runners use. One word of caution–on some dive sites in distant, ethnic spots, the food served for the between dive lunches is indigestible if not inedible.

After the dive

Scarf down high-carbohydrate foods after a dive as soon as possible (this doesn’t include beer if you’re diving the next day). Try to eat something every couple of hours all day long if you’re diving again and at least for four-six hours after short dives. Avoid alcohol as long as possible the few hours after a dive as it will dehydrate you as well as slow the restoration process of your liver and exercising muscles.

While following these tips may not allow you to dive any deeper or use less air, it can make a big difference how you feel during and after the dives. It is just possible that you might ward off getting bent and ruining a good vacation or even having permanent neurological damage. In addition, your slim physique also might also save a few bucks by you being able to get into last years wet suit and BC.


Ernest S. Campbell, M.D., FACS

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