What to Eat? Some athletes, or highly active people, believe they can eat whatever they want, because they often participate in high intensity workouts. While athletes may not be as affected by having an occasional unhealthy meal, eating poorly can still have negative consequences and prevent optimal performance.
Many athletes focus on pre- and post-workout meals, with more carbohydrates than protein for the pre-workout meal, and more protein than carbohydrates for the post-workout meal. But athletes sometimes forget that they need to focus on their total daily diet to achieve maximum performance levels.
Athletes and active people who are serious about reaching their top performance need to think about how to fuel their body in order to reach that goal. As most of us learned in school, there are five main foods to focus on: vegetables, fruits, protein, grain, and dairy. Try to have at least three kinds of food in every meal, but eating all five is ideal. According to Nancy Clark, in the Sports Nutrition Guidebook, based on an 1,800-calorie diet, athletes should consume one and a half cups of fruit per day, two and a half cups of vegetables per day, six ounces or 180 grams of grain per day, three cups of dairy, and about 5-7 ounces of protein per day. With vegetables and fruits, try to eat different varieties and different colors. This may seem like a lot, but athletes and active people tend to get hungry every 2-4 hours, so it’s important to have multiple meals to continue to fuel the body.
When eating grain, look to consume at least half your grains from whole-grain, such as Wheaties breakfast cereal, or whole-wheat bread on a sandwich. Whole-grain contains more nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, and minerals than refined grain such as white bread and white rice.
When consuming dairy, it does not have to all come from milk, although low-fat milk is an excellent choice. Soy milk, yogurt, and cheese are good choices to get calcium and protein into your daily diet. Also, consuming dairy throughout the day will enhance your calcium absorption. But be aware that some of the nut milks, such as almond milk, do not have as much protein as regular milk.
Athletes should consume about 5-7 ounces of protein per day on a 1,800-calorie diet. This does not seem like a lot, but what most athletes do not realize is they already consume protein in other food that they would not think of as proteins– such as Greek yogurt, peanut butter, pasta, oatmeal, potatoes and many more. There are many ways to get protein, from animal sources such as meat, seafood, eggs, and poultry, and there are plant sources of protein such as soy, beans, nuts and legumes. Protein is important in an athletes diet for amino acids to help build and repair muscles. That is why it is especially important to consume some form of protein after an intense workout, to repair the muscles you just used and to make them stronger.
Which protein to choose is important as well; the leaner proteins like chicken, turkey, and lean beef are top choices of animal sourced protein. If you are anemic (iron-deficient) like I am, then choosing darker meats such as lean roast beef and chicken thighs are ideal. Those are better choices for anemic individuals because they have a higher iron and zinc content.
Athletes should consume at least 7 ounces of fish per week. Fish is a great source of omega-3 and good, healthy fats and oils. Preferable choices of fish are salmon, herring, mackerel, and albacore tuna; but any fish is better than no fish, so don’t limit your options to just these. If you are not a meat eater, there are other sources of protein such as beans, tofu, nuts, eggs, and Greek yogurt. Athletes who do not eat meat sometimes find themselves protein deficient, which can lead to fatigue, and anemia. Being aware of what you’re eating can keep you healthy and prepared for your workouts on a consistent basis.
Athletes’ meals should be carbohydrate based; instead most of us have protein as the main part of our meals. Athletes ought to have at least 200 calories of grain every meal, which isn’t much when some athletes should be having 600-900 calories per meal. And carbohydrates from whole-grain are most ideal.
Now that we have some idea of what to eat, when should we eat? People say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and that’s no exception to athletes. Breakfast should be your biggest meal of the day with lunch your second biggest and dinner your smallest meal. If you are an early riser and have an early practice, and find that you are eating an early breakfast and are hungry for lunch by 10:00 a.m., then try breaking your breakfast in half; or eat two breakfasts before and after your workout. Cereal is a great breakfast choice, if you choose the right one. Cereal can be iron-enriched, fortified with folic acid, high in fiber, whole-grain, and low fat. Cereal with milk and fruit on top contains three of the kinds of food groups; cereal as your grain, milk as your dairy and fruit on top.
Never work out on an empty stomach; you should always have a little something to eat before a workout. A small meal will boost your muscles for performance by raising your blood sugar, lessen the chance of fatigue, and give you energy for your workout. Another way to consume all five food categories is with a smoothie. One of my favorites smoothies containing four of the main food groups contains banana (fruit), peanut butter (protein), milk (dairy), plain Greek yogurt (dairy and protein), and spinach (vegetable). It is fast and easy for people on the go and it is filling.
Unfortunately, there is no room for hamburgers or steaks in an athlete’s diet, especially during the season, if the athlete wants to reach the top. But that is a small price to pay when eating the right foods will enhance athletic abilities. So, with the new school year and fall sports seasons beginning, make the time to eat right, and be aware of what you are eating. A healthy diet will help you to feel better and perform better, no matter what sport you play.
Lesley senior, and women's soccer captain, Hayley Wirth, performing single leg squats on a Bosu ball.