What does an optimal athlete diet look like?
It’s safe to say there’s a growing interest among elite and professional athletes in how food choices are influencing their overall health and competitive advantage.
Teams and individuals are seeking more homemade, seasonal, and local whole foods as part of their training regimen. These simple concepts are proving to be great building blocks to help put any level athlete in the best position for peak performance in sport and beyond.
My experiences as a competitive athlete, combined with an education in nutritional sciences have taught me not only what to eat, but how to make it happen during a busy training season. What’s worked for me has been the “primal diet” approach.
I’m excited to share my best tips on eating for athletic performance, including choosing the best foods and meal planning to stay on top of your game.
Why is nutrition important for an athlete?
EVERYONE can benefit from a healthful and nourishing way of eating, but the benefits for athletes extend beyond basic health and towards top-notch performance! When it comes to sport, we are asking the body and mind to pull off extraordinary feats.
The extra demands athletes need to think about in planning the right diet include:
- Fueling movement: Running fast, jumping high, and moving in coordination requires reactions at the cellular level to be powered by nutrients! Without them, an athlete’s strength, endurance, agility, and mobility will suffer.
- Powering the brain: Athletes are admired for their physical abilities, but the role of the brain in sports performance is critical. Nutrition can enhance alertness, clarity, memory, and problem-solving.
- Balancing hormones: Hormones are the chemical messengers meant to keep the body in balance. Choosing certain foods helps an athlete regulate hunger, metabolism, and efficient usage of nutrients.
- Training: From the recreational to elite level, hours spent practicing must be juggled with everyday life. Nutrition choices can help support an athlete to tackle the necessary output.
- Growth and development: Children and adolescents are often thought to be resilient when it comes to food. Think about how often we hear, “They can eat anything and they’ll be fine.” I would argue that such years are the most important for proper nourishment. Tissues, hormones, and pathways of all types are developing, and adding on the demands that sport requires makes nutrient-rich foods a top priority.
- Recovery and repair: Training hard results in inflammation and tearing of tissues. Along with pure rest, the athletic diet aids in healing, rebuilding and preparing the body for the next session.
- Competitive advantage: As sport opportunity increases, coaches gain new knowledge, and techniques improve, finding a competitive edge is ever more important. Making nutrition a priority will put YOU in a position to reach your peak performance.
What nutrients do athletes need?
The energy needs of an athlete exceed those of the average person. But, simply consuming more calories is not going to get the job done.
Maximizing the nutrient density of an athlete’s calories is what we are aiming for.
Most of us are familiar with the words protein, fat, and carbohydrate. We understand that they are each a necessary part of an athlete’s diet and responsible for different roles in the body.
While these macronutrients tend to dominate the focus of sports nutrition, vitamins, minerals, and fluids are also key to success. Let’s take a closer look.
Macronutrients are the elements of food that we need large quantities of. It’s common to categorize foods as being a source of one macronutrient or another, yet most foods are made up of a mixture of macros.
Protein is an essential nutrient. There are nine amino acids (the molecules that protein is made up of) that are necessary for us to consume through food because the body cannot make them on its own.
Athletes need to include high-quality protein in their diets for:
- Building and repairing tissue
- Keeping the immune system healthy
- Regulating hormones
The most complete and bioavailable proteins come from animal sources. It is possible to pair plant proteins together to acquire all the necessary amino acids. However, it takes careful planning and can result in higher consumption of calories and carbohydrates to reach adequate levels.
Fat is another essential nutrient, but unlike protein, it is a very efficient source of fuel. It’s what we think of as a slow-burning energy. When our body is at rest, sitting, walking, or engaged in long, slower speed endurance events, the majority of fuel we burn is fat.
Athletes need to include high-quality natural fat in their diet for:
- Cell structure
- Absorption of many vitamins and minerals
- Proper hormone function
- Organ protection
- Temperature regulation
Despite the bad rap that fat, especially saturated fat, received for many years, we now know it’s a vital part of nutrition for athletes.
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers in our foods. But interestingly, carbohydrate is not an essential nutrient because the body can convert both protein and fat into glucose (a simple sugar) if need be.
Athletes should include whole food carbohydrates in their diet for:
- Energy for muscles (and the brain)
Most commonly, athletes have been encouraged to build their nutrition base from carbohydrate. However, this advice really depends on the type of sport an athlete is training for, the intensity of their activity, and how efficiently they utilize fat.
Fiber is another type of carbohydrate that doesn’t provide the body with energy, but it plays an important role in moving food through our gastrointestinal tract. Fiber feeds the healthy gut bacteria that keep our digestive and immune system working properly. Vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds are all great sources of fiber.
It’s hard to talk nutrition without mentioning proteins, fats, and carbs, but we must also give attention to vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients in food. While they don’t contain energy and we need smaller amounts of them, they are just as critical for health and performance. In fact, these tiny powerhouses actually bring life to the macronutrients and allow us to extract and use the energy within.
Vitamins are natural compounds in foods that are made by plants or animals. They are essential for physiologic functions ranging from muscle movement, bone development, blood health, vision, and everything in between.
There are two categories of vitamins: those that are fat-soluble (A, D, E and K), which means they require fat to be absorbed and utilized, and those that are water-soluble (mostly B vitamins and vitamin C).
Minerals come into our bodies through the soil and water that plants are grown in and that animals consume. Minerals play an important role in energy production, bone health, immunity and LOTS MORE.
There are two categories of minerals: MACRO-minerals and MICRO-minerals. As you can guess, we need greater amounts of macro-minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and sodium chloride than we do of the micro-minerals, such as iron, zinc, copper, chromium, fluoride, iodine, selenium, and manganese.
Getting Enough Micronutrients
With so many micronutrients to keep track of, how do you know if you’re getting enough?
Choosing a variety of naturally colorful, locally, and seasonally grown whole foods from each macronutrient category is one of the best ways to ensure your vitamin and mineral content is adequate.
I call it the “magic synergy sauce” of real foods. The nutrients work together, and the body knows how to handle them in a superior way than isolated supplemental forms. Sure, there’s a time and place for additional capsules and powders, but nutrition through food comes first.
Hydration for Athletes
Last, but not least, fluids round out the nutrient categories of the athlete diet. The sensation of thirst comes to us as a signal that water is needed for its life-sustaining functions including:
- Regulating body temperature
- Supporting muscle contraction and relaxation
- Transporting nutrients and oxygen through the body
- Lubricating joints
- Eliminating waste
All major systems in the body depend on water, so we can all agree that hydration for athletes must be addressed.
Water or Sports Drinks?
What’s often not agreed on is where the fluids in an athlete’s diet should come from. I’m here to encourage you to leave the soda (diet, too), energy drinks, flavored beverages, fruit juices, and sweetened lattes on the shelf.
These fluids tend to be full of sugar and artificial ingredients. Energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine, herbs, and stimulants that are unregulated and have unknown long-term effects for hard-charging athletes.
We hear again and again that water is the beverage of choice. But what about the sports drinks that are so heavily marketed to athletes? In most cases if the athlete is eating balanced healthy foods and paying attention to fluid needs, water will do the trick.
Long duration (more than three to four hours), high-intensity events, and hot and humid conditions may warrant a touch of sugar and additional electrolytes. In these situations, I would recommend trying a homemade electrolyte drink, or diluted sports beverage without artificial coloring and sweeteners.
How Much Water Should an Athlete Drink?
Our thirst mechanism works really well to help prevent dehydration, but sometimes we forget to tune in. An athlete must make sure that they pay attention to thirst signals.
One helpful tip is to drink early and often. Start your morning with a glass of water and keep a water bottle with you to take sips throughout the day.
Drinking ½ an oz. of water per pound of body weight is a general guideline for minimum fluid intake.
More water is necessary in hot weather or during intense training sessions. Just being 2% dehydrated can negatively affect an athlete’s performance. Read more about general guidelines HERE.
The fluid content in fresh, whole foods is usually higher than processed, packaged items, and can help contribute to hydration status.
What foods should athletes eat?
Breaking down food into its macro- and micro- parts is helpful in understanding what the body needs, and what to consider to build a balanced plate. But we don’t go to the market to buy “amino acids” or “magnesium.” We go to the market to buy whole foods.
We also want to grow our young athletes at home into eating a healthy breakfast before their daily activities.
Let’s look at how we can apply what we’ve covered so far to select the best foods for athletes.
The sexiness of sports nutrition often outshines the basics of real food. But, it’s the basics that stand the test of time and establish the disciplined habits that make a great (and healthy) athlete.
I recommend choosing whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods meal after meal before reaching for laboratory bars, shakes in a can, and fancy supplements.
What are nutrient-dense foods?
Foods that we can hunt, gather, and grow from the earth provide us with proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that are naturally full of micronutrients that support the demands on an athlete. Nutrient-dense foods are those packed with vitamins and minerals and give the most bang for your buck per calorie.
No fluff, no fillers, no empty calories.
A hard-boiled egg and a “100 calorie snack pack” have roughly the same amount of energy, or Kcals. But the hard-boiled egg is full of antioxidants, vitamin D, choline, healthy fats, and is a source of complete protein. The “100 calorie snack pack” contains sugar and fillers that will carry you through a moment of hunger, and then leave your cells starving for actual nutrients.
Let’s consider two different plates of food. One contains a salad with blackberries, carrots, portabella mushrooms, and a grass-fed burger with fresh guacamole. The other contains chicken fingers and French fries.
Which plate do you think is more nutrient-dense? Without actually knowing the nutrient breakdown, you probably guessed right. What clues did you use?
A variety of natural colors and being able to recognize the original source of the food are simple strategies that help us seek out deep nutrition.
Best foods for athletes
The best sources of protein for athletes come from:
- Whole dairy (ideally organic and/or raw)
The best quality fats for athletes come from:
- Olives and olive oil
- Avocado and avocado oil
- Coconut and coconut oil
- Butter and ghee
- Whole dairy (ideally organic and/or raw)
- Nuts and seeds
- Animal fat (grass-fed, pasture-raised, or wild-caught) – that comes along with the meat
The best whole food carbohydrates for athletes come from:
- Vegetables (colorful, fibrous, and leafy greens)
- Roots and tubers (sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, and winter squashes)
- Whole grains (oats, rice, quinoa)
Foods to eliminate or reduce
As an athlete, it’s not only important to reach for healthy foods, but also to reduce the junk (or inflammatory foods) such as:
- Sugars and artificial sweeteners
- Industrialized oils (man-made oils such as canola, vegetable, corn, and soybean)
- Highly processed foods (often in brightly colored packaging with long ingredient lists)
Managing Hunger and Blood Sugar
Different foods trigger different hormonal responses, and as an athlete, it’s important that you feel steady and nourished for hours at a time.
“Hangry” no more!
Have you ever experienced a feeling of hunger paired with anger, shakiness, and irritability? “Hanger” tends to rear its head when we rely on processed foods or excessive carbohydrate for our fuel. Our blood sugar quickly rises, and quickly falls (like a rollercoaster), leaving us tired and craving more.
When the body is fueled by complete proteins, natural fats, and a plethora of veggies, our hormonal food response works really well. We find ourselves in a place of blood sugar stability and sustained energy. Nutrient dense, real foods in the right balance help to keep “hanger” away.
Meal Planning for Success
Understanding the basics of nutrition and the best foods for athletes is a big step in the right direction. Putting this knowledge into action is the real leap necessary for athletes to reap the benefits, although it can be the hardest move to make and maintain.
Here’s how to make meal planning part of your routine.
When you step onto the court, the field, or the mat and you know that you’ve put in the time, effort, and discipline necessary to be at your best, you feel prepared! The same should hold true when it comes to nutrition.
Nourishing your body for peak performance requires planning and preparation, just like mastering the skills of your sport. Here are some preparation tips to help you make real food part of your training regimen:
- Have a plan: Map out your meals for at least a few days at a time. This will help you maximize variety, avoid “hanger,” and stick to your goals.
- Make a list: From your athlete meal plan, write out what you’ll need from the store.
- Set aside time in the kitchen: It takes less time than you think to prepare fresh foods (washing, chopping, storing, and cooking) and it makes the week run smoothly.
If you are not meal planning for your kid, here is a separate nutrition plan for teenage athletes.
Create a Winning Plate
Compiling a healthful meal can be empowering and fun. This four-step process for putting together a high-performance plate will help you and your athlete emphasize nourishing, real foods for life.
1. Pick your protein
Start by picking a protein source to ensure that it becomes part of each meal. Aiming for about a palm-sized portion is a good starting point. A growing and developing active athlete may need up to about two palm-sized portions in circumference and thickness.
2. Veggie fill up
Load the rest of your plate with colorful, fibrous vegetables for adequate vitamins and minerals. A variety of veggies over the course of a week will help ensure that different beneficial micronutrients are obtained.
3. Fat’s your friend
Top your food with healthy natural fats. Aim for about one thumb-sized portion for oils and butter, and about one small cupped hand for solid foods, such as avocado, nuts, or olives.
4. Choose your carbs
Add a source of complex or starchy carbohydrates in a form as unprocessed as possible. This could be sweet potato, yam, potato, root veggies, winter squashes, rice, oats, quinoa, or other whole grains. Turning to these choices first over pasta, bread, crackers, and sweets will up the nutrient density and help keep the insulin response in check.
Time Your Nutrients Around Training
Learning how to build a balanced meal is a great skill for an athlete, parent, or coach. However, being able to adjust your winning plate in order to take advantage of nutrient timing is also important.
In other words, it’s not just WHAT you eat, but WHEN you eat that matters.
Paying attention to nutrient timing allows you to maintain energy throughout an event, maintain your brain’s ability to think well, decrease injury risk, and improve recovery.
What to eat before training
An athlete’s overall nutrition habits are generally more important than what is consumed directly before training. However, pre-practice choices can certainly influence whether you feel energetic and focused, or sluggish and fuzzy-headed on the field, court, or mat.
The meal or snack eaten before training should be:
- Easy to digest
- Rich in protein and carbs
- Not too high in fat
- Eaten 30 – 90 minutes before practice
What to eat during training
The most important element of nutrition during training is hydration. If an athlete is fueling well prior to and following training, practices lasting one to three hours rarely require food.
Sessions lasting three to five hours can be supplemented with some carbohydrate and protein. Fresh fruit contains fast-acting carbohydrate AND water for hydration. Pairing fruit with quality lunch meat, nut butter, or a hard-boiled egg is a balanced real food option.
What to eat after training
Nutrition is a critical component of the recovery process. Properly nourishing and hydrating will help replete glycogen stores, flush waste, and repair micro-tears.
After training muscle tissues are looking for starchy carbohydrates and protein (in up to a 4:1 ratio). The starchy carbs are important for refilling glycogen stores and stimulate insulin to stop muscle protein breakdown. The protein is critical for rebuilding.
Fueling for Practice vs Competition
The types of foods an athlete eats on a day of competition should look similar to a day of practice.
You always want to turn to foods that you are familiar with and know your body responds well to on game day.
What may differ is your timing of meals and the quantity you eat around the timing of your events.
Putting it all together
In essence, we truly are made of the nutrients we eat. When an athlete feels good, there’s no denying that they are in a place to reach their greatest potential.
Building primal lifestyle friendly meals full of nourishing proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from real food sources will support an athlete’s quest for greatness by meeting their macro- and micro-nutrient needs.
This is as valid for active kids and teens as it is for adults. The primal diet approach allows for all kinds of enjoyable, healthy dinner ideas for kids — even picky ones.
Strength gains, better mobility, mental acuity, hormonal balance, and faster recovery become a reality when nutrition is a priority.