Athletes are always looking for opportunities to improve their skills, including additional training and exploring the relationship between nutrition and performance. When researching the variety of nutrition and diet plans in the marketplace today, consuming whole foods is often preferred and recommended, as they naturally provide the body with essential nutrients and vitamins needed to sustain optimal performance. Let’s discuss the best foods athletes consume to help boost performance, assist with recovery, and stay game-ready.
18 FOODS TO FUEL ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
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 of 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 say 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 nutritional benefit that the whole food source provides.
Green (unripe) bananas are low in sugar and friendly to gut microbiota; because they have more resistant starch that slows digestion, they do not cause a spike in blood sugar. Ripe bananas have more sugar but are high in fiber, which helps manage blood sugar levels. Due to their fiber content, bananas will help you feel full for a longer period of time and offer post-workout recovery benefits. The average banana has 422mg of potassium which 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 vitamins E, B, magnesium, and manganese, almonds are an excellent 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. By regulating the hormones controlling appetite, almonds contribute to reducing food intake. By improving the lipid profile, almonds, when eaten in moderation, have been shown to help reduce body mass in athletes. The antioxidants in almonds are also beneficial for athletes.
When you are working hard, you may often need a quick and filling meal. Oatmeal—a good alternative to cereal, which often lacks essential nutrients and contains high fructose corn syrup—is a low-fat and low-sugar meal that takes just minutes to make. Oatmeal 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 of 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.
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! Strawberries are also a great source of hydration. 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 with plentiful whole grains. 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 tends 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 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 make 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 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.
If you don’t have an egg allergy or intolerance, then eggs offer an incredible source of healthy fats, protein, Vitamin B, calcium, 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.
When you need a quick burst of energy to get you through a game or a long run, where do you turn? If you’re dependent on sports gels or other high-sugar solutions, it’s time to rethink your approach.
Natural options, such as raisins, promise to provide the quick fuel you need via carbohydrates — but potentially without the added sugars, dyes, and other concerning additives that performance products often contain.
A trail mix staple, raisins provide a quick source of energy as well as a healthy opportunity to indulge your sweet tooth. Multiple studies indicate that these tasty morsels boost athletic performance, particularly among those participating in high-intensity activities.
Raisins are just one of many types of dried fruit that can boost both athletic performance and long-term health. Other options worth trying include:
- Dried cranberries
- Dried figs
When selecting these and other dried fruits, look carefully at the sugar content. Sometimes, extra sugar is added to already sweet products. The amount of added sugar can vary significantly from one type of dried fruit to the next, but any addition should be avoided when possible.
12. Beet Juice
Beet juice may not seem like the most appetizing option in this guide, but even a brief glance at its compelling benefits will have you eager to add it to your athletic diet.
Sometimes referred to as beetroot juice, this concoction is rich in epicatechin. This flavonol is popular among bodybuilders, as it improves the production of nitric oxide — an essential molecule that allows your blood vessels to both dilate and constrict.
Proper levels of nitric oxide keep the blood vessels expanded enough to promote healthy blood flow. This, in turn, promotes better athletic performance, particularly for endurance-oriented activities. While research suggests that the athletic benefits of epicatechin (and nitric oxide) can be modest, this can definitely provide an edge for the toughest competitions.
Beet juice also contains betaine (also known as trimethylglycine). Essential for processing the amino acid homocysteine, betaine is believed to improve power. Its impact has proven favorable during tests involving a bench press throw and vertical jump power.
13. Dark Chocolate
Chocolate is the ultimate indulgence, but you might not need to limit it as much as you suspect. Dark chocolate can be as healthy as it is delicious—provided you select the right types—and, as always, enjoy in moderation.
Research suggests that dark chocolate can deliver far-reaching improvements to cardiovascular health for the general population, so it’s worth enjoying even when you’re not preparing for a big race or game.
If better athletic performance is the immediate goal, you’ll also discover significant benefits from eating a square or two per day. After all, dark chocolate is high in epicatechin — the nitric oxide-increasing flavonol we discussed previously.
In a noteworthy study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, amateur cyclists were encouraged to replace their typical snacks with modest amounts of dark chocolate. As a result, these athletes used less oxygen while exerting themselves. They were even able to cover more distance during two-minute time trials.
14. Pumpkin Seeds
On the hunt for a simple yet tasty snack that contains several important minerals and vitamins? Give pumpkin seeds a try. Enjoyed over salads, in seed butters, or by the handful, pumpkin seeds provide a wide array of benefits.
A single serving contains over half the recommended daily value of magnesium. This mineral is often lacking in athletes — and low levels can have a devastating impact on energy.
In addition to providing more magnesium than most snacks, pumpkin seeds are loaded with an amino acid known as leucine. While primarily known for its role in regulating blood glucose in diabetics (and its impact on childhood growth and development), leucine ups the ante for human growth hormone (HGH) production. Key for metabolism and muscle mass, HGH is thought to make athletes stronger and better able to recover.
15. Lean Beef
Many of the foods you already eat on a daily basis could be tweaked just slightly to provide an even greater dietary boost. Such is the case with beef; go leaner, and you’ll see numerous benefits above and beyond the ground beef you probably already consume on a regular basis.
Wonderfully versatile, lean beef offers one of the easiest and most appetizing solutions for adding extra protein and iron into your diet. Since athletes need far more iron than the general population, easy-to-eat sources such as lean beef are incredibly important.
Lean beef is also a notable source of vitamin B-12. One of the lesser-known vitamins, B-12 is a common supplement among elite athletes. Deficiency leads to fatigue, while healthy levels promote impressive stamina. B-12 deficiencies become more common with age, so it’s extra important for mature athletes to consume enough of this essential vitamin.
16. Sweet Potatoes
One of the best sources of carbohydrates for endurance athletes, sweet potatoes are packed with several important types of vitamins, not to mention fiber for improved digestion. Many runners swear by these delicious orange tubers, which they often enjoy in place of pasta during health-oriented carbo-loads.
Sweet potatoes’ athletic benefits derive, in large part, from their low glycemic index. As a result, energy is released more slowly and over a longer period of time. This means that, while sweet potatoes won’t provide much of an immediate boost, their benefits will be obvious during long games or other extended athletic events.
Also notable: high levels of manganese, a mineral that works closely with iron. If proper levels are maintained, manganese can help to prevent anemia. Manganese supplementation is often recommended for athletes who are prone to inflammation or muscular strains.
Avocados are more than just a Millennial craze; they’re an excellent source of healthy fats — and, of course, they’re delicious. While their high caloric content may deter some people, this is actually beneficial for some athletes.
Many of the best-known benefits of avocados can be credited to their high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, which counteract inflammation. This can translate to reduced strain on vulnerable joints, not to mention less muscle soreness after a strenuous workout. Omega-3s are also believed to improve neuromuscular function — the connection required for athletic greatness.
Avocados are a surprisingly effective source of potassium. They can easily replace your typical post-workout banana. This helps with muscle recovery and can also lead to higher energy levels.
18. Peanut Butter
If you just can’t eat enough to keep your highly active body properly fueled, peanut butter might be a key part of the solution. This high-calorie food provides plenty of fat and fiber in each serving. It’s a top choice among student-athletes, who appreciate that it’s one of the most affordable and shelf-stable foods available.
Even athletes with lower caloric needs can benefit from eating peanut butter, provided they enjoy this treat in moderation. High quantities of dietary oxidant vitamin E can be found in peanut butter. This protects the cells from the damage wrought by free radicals, which are a byproduct of exercise.
Be careful about where and when you consume peanut butter. Nut allergies are common — and limited exposure can trigger severe reactions. When in doubt, enjoy peanut butter at home, where it can be quickly and easily integrated into a variety of satisfying meals and snacks.
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 the risk of injury. Some foods that can cause issues for athletes include:
- Sugar and high fructose corn syrup (breakfast cereals, ice cream, applesauce, etc.)
- 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 are quicker to digest so that you feel hungry shortly after eating them
- High-sodium foods (canned soups, frozen dinners, etc.)
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.
If you’re interested in a career in sports nutrition, earn your Sports Nutrition Micro-Certificate or your Master of Science in Nutrition from JWU. For more information, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].