Nutrition Article – The Athlete’s Guide to Healthy Eating

Written By: Christopher D. Jensen, PhD, MPH, RD, Nutrition and Epidemiology Researcher

While sports drinks, bars and gels have a proven role in improving athletic performance, their intended use just before, during and after exercise is for hydration, fueling or to help speed up recovery. What you’re eating and drinking the rest of the time is just as important, however. Your daily eating pattern is critical, because it serves as the foundation from which you train and compete. Your daily diet supplies you with the fuel and nutrients you need to optimize adaptations to your training, to recover quickly between workouts, to maintain an appropriate body weight while you train, and to stay in good health so you can train and compete at your best.

The following guidelines will help you eat healthfully everyday.

Carbohydrates are a precious fuel source for anyone engaged in a training program. Your daily eating pattern should be mostly made up of foods that are good source of this important macronutrient. The high-carb food groups are vegetables, fruits and the breads, cereal, rice and pasta group.

A healthy diet includes the following:

  • Vegetables Group- 3-5 serving daily. A serving is 1/2 cup cooked vegetables, 1 cup lettuce or spinach, 1/2 baked potato, or 3/4 cup vegetable juice.
  • Fruit Group – 2-4 servings daily. A serving is 1 piece of whole fruit like a banana, apple or orange. 1/2 cup of berries, strawberries, or peaches.
  • Bread, Cereal, Rice, & Pasta Group – 6-11 servings daily. A serving is 1 slice bread, 1 roll, 1 ounce cold breakfast cereal, 1/2 cup cooked cereal or 1/2 cooked rice or pasta.

As your training level increases, so too will your need for calories and carbs. Feel free to get those extra carbs from the three food groups above.

Protein provides the amino acid building blocks you need to repair and build new muscle tissue in response to your training. Food groups particularly rich in protein include nuts, beans, dairy, fish, poultry, meat and eggs.

  • Dairy Foods – 2-4 servings per day for those who consume dairy. A serving is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1.5 ounces of cheese, 1/2 cup cottage cheese, or 1/2 cup ice cream. Whenever possible, consume low fat and nonfat dairy items. If you don’t or can’t consume dairy foods, consider a daily calcium supplement with vitamin D.
  • Other Protein Foods – 2-3 servings daily. A serving is 4 tablespoons of peanut butter, 1 cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils, 3 ounces of tofu, 3 ounces of fish, poultry, or meat, or 2 eggs. If you eat poultry, consume it without the skin. If you eat meat, select leaner cuts or trim the fat before cooking. Baking, grilling, broiling and poaching are preferred over frying.

A few words to the wise about fats, oils, and sauces, as well as snacks and sweets:

  • Fats, oils, and sauces can pack a lot of calories, and you need your extra calories to come from carbs. So do not overdo it on butter, margarine, mayonnaise, salad dressing, cream sauces or gravies. Put them on the side and only use as much as you need. Low fat salad dressing and mayonnaise, ketchup, cocktail sauce, mustard, relish, barbeque sauce, salsa, and vinegar get the green light.
  • Sweet snacks and sodas are high in carbs, but don’t consume them in place of fresh fruits, vegetables, cereal, grains, and pasta. Jams and fruit preserves get the thumbs up for satisfying a sweet tooth, but minimize your intake of high- fat, sweet desserts like cookies, cakes, pies, and candy bars. Air- popped or microwaved light popcorn is a great high- carb, healthy snack.