Athletes are always looking for an edge over the competition, including altering their diet to achieve maximum performance. When looking at the different fueling options available to athletes, whole food is the best source of fuel, naturally providing the body with what it needs to actively perform as opposed to supplements. This blog will provide an overview of foods athletes can eat that will help them boost their performance, recovery and stay game ready.
Foods that Can Slow Down Athletes
There are a lot of foods that offer little-to-no nutritional value. Some foods even increase inflammation which can slow athletes down, hinder recovery time or increase risk of injury. Some foods that can cause issues for athletes include:
- Sugar and high fructose corn syrup
- Trans fats (margarine and some oils)
- Foods that cause intolerance (this is specific to each person, but some of the most consistent culprits include dairy, corn, soy, eggs and wheat)
- Highly processed foods
- Foods containing a lot of sodium
The body uses carbohydrates for energy which is very important for keeping an athlete fueled. A carbohydrate-restricted diet can impact how the body is able to move, often causing it to slow down. A highly active athlete should avoid diets that are low-carb or not well-rounded with nutrients. Healthy fats are best eaten after athletic performance since they can take a long time to digest and can slow you down and make you feel lethargic.
10 Foods to Fuel Athletic Performance
While there are some foods that should be avoided by athletes, there are many foods that offer a lot of nutritional value. You may find it helpful to focus on the foods that are beneficial since increasing certain foods is often easier than avoidance diets. Of course, your body is different than anyone else’s, so some foods may prove to increase your speed and performance more than others.
1. Wild Salmon
While you should avoid unhealthy fats, fish offers a rich source of omega-3s that are great for your brain, hair and skin. Salmon due to its high omega-3 content is naturally anti-inflammatory and has been tied to lowering the risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. Due to the way fish are fed in captivity, not all salmon are the same for nutritional content so go for wild salmon from the US over farm-raised.
Experts have said that eating wild salmon twice a week is the best way to take advantage of its anti-inflammatory benefits. And, while canned and frozen wild salmon have similar benefits, fish oil pills do not offer the same amount of nutrient benefit that the whole food source provides.
Bananas are a low-calorie fruit that aren’t exceptionally high in sugar. They are a great source of sustainable energy without the risk of a sugar crash. Bananas are filling due to their fiber content and offer great post-workout recovery benefits. The average banana has 422mg of potassium and will reduce the chance of muscle cramps or spasms by helping your body regulate fluids. While exercising you sweat out potassium, so athletes should make sure they are eating enough potassium rich foods afterward to keep their levels high.
If you don’t love bananas, most fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium, as well. Oranges, cantaloupe, grapefruit, raisins, dates, prunes, apricots, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, peas, cucumbers and potatoes all contain high amounts of potassium.
Filled with vitamin E, B, magnesium and manganese, almonds are a great choice for fuel between athletic events and workouts. They contain healthy fats, protein and fiber that are good for sustaining energy and supporting a healthy body. Some studies have found that athletes are able to burn more carbohydrates after eating almonds than they do with other foods. The antioxidants in almonds are also beneficial for athletes.
When you are working hard, you may often need a fast meal that is filling without bogging you down. Oatmeal is a low-fat, low-sugar meal that takes just minutes to make. Oatmeal on its own offers a rich dose of vitamin B, thiamine, manganese, phosphorus, folate, iron, magnesium and zinc. The vitamin B6 it contains can be turned into energy by the body.
You can load your oatmeal up with berries, nuts and your milk of choice to increase the nutrients, natural energy boost and flavor. Rather than sweetening it with sugar, try raw honey—a natural ingredient that has been shown to offer many nutrients and boost performance for athletes.
One of the more versatile foods is chicken. It can be roasted, baked, diced, minced, and ground just to name a couple ways that it can be a filling main course. This is one of the more well-known foods that is deemed good for athletes since it is naturally low in sugar and high in protein. Protein is important for building and sustaining muscles. It is also one of the cheaper ingredients—certainly the cheapest meat.
To get the most out of your chicken choices, go mostly for the white meat (chicken breast) that will be lower in fat than the darker meat (legs and thighs). If you find chicken breast dry, you may want to look into marinating it or brining it before cooking. If looking to eat chicked in a restaurant choose grilled or baked versions that aren’t breaded or fried to avoid ingredients that may naturally slow you down.
6. Mixed Berries
Berries are high in vitamins, fiber and antioxidants. These sweet little gems might taste incredible, but they are actually low in sugar compared to other fruits. Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries are some favorites that offer dense nutrients and are considered superfoods. Cherries naturally reduce inflammation. Cranberries are great for improving immune function and lowering blood pressure—watch out for added sugars to make them taste less sour! Grapes, acai berries and raisins are other options that offer vitamins and minerals great for an athlete’s diet.
7. Whole-grain Pasta
If wheat isn’t a source of intolerance for you, then whole wheat foods (like pasta and bread) can offer a nutrient-dense, fiber-filled meal. White pastas are simple carbs that respond more like sugar in the body than nutrient dense whole wheat versions. Many athletes turn to pasta for carb-loading between hard workouts or performances. Whole grain pasta offers extra proteins that come from the grain, vitamin E, and polyphenols that can improve endurance. This is a much better way to carb-load than turning to the breads and pastas that have been bleached and stripped of their natural benefits. Whole grain pasta tend to take a little longer to cook so make sure you are following the directions on the box. Due to this pasta being a little denser than traditional white pasta, try making your whole grain pasta with a flavorful sauce sauce such as a pesto or arrabiata to help balance out the flavor. Whole wheat couscous is another pasta option with the same benefits, but in smaller form that can makes it easier to mask the flavor with other ingredients. You can also add whole wheat vermicelli to your brown rice for a blend of nutrients and long-lasting complex carbs for energy.
Another whole food that is high in protein is quinoa. Quinoa is an ancient grain that recently really came into the spotlight for US diets. Its high levels of amino acids are also beneficial for muscle growth and performance. This high-fiber food is delicious when mixed with garlic and then sauteed with kale or spinach. This can create a quick, high-carb meal. Almost more like a seed than a grain, one cup will give you 8g of protein and 5g of fiber.
If you don’t have an egg allergy or intolerance, then eggs offer an incredible source of healthy fats, protein, Vitamin B and more. Eggs contain vitamins B1, B2, B6 and B12 which provide a lot of natural energy to help boost your performance. Eggs are also high in choline, which will delay fatigue and offers a lot of value for endurance. The magnesium in eggs can help with recovery, and zinc is helpful for building lean muscle mass.
To focus on protein over fat, you can reduce the number of yolks in the eggs you make. Those trying to lose body fat and tone up will want to go for a strictly egg white option or only use one yolk so they get a lighter, protein-rich meal. Athletes can process and utilize fat better so using a small amount of yolk can be a good way to add protein, antioxidants and vitamins.
10. Green Vegetables
Green vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, swiss chard, brussels sprouts and asparagus are some of the best vegetables for athletes because they are high in nutrients, vitamins, plant proteins and fiber. They are nutrient powerhouses that will help improve your blood flow, heart rate, energy level, mood and more. You don’t want to skimp on the green vegetables as an athlete.
If you struggle with the flavor or just feel like salads take too long, greens are easy to mix into smoothies. You can add spinach to berries and your favorite vanilla protein powder for a smoothie packed with vitamins and antioxidants.
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