Eating “healthy” could harm your performance
Proper refueling when you train isn’t just about eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, and it’s hard to get enough calories when you’re avoiding the often demonized calorie-dense foods. As we fortunately suffer an earthquake cultural change far from traditional diets and restrictive diet, more subtle dietary rules like “do not eat processed foods” or “limit carbs” persist among health-conscious people. These principles may seem trivial, but the problem with food rules is that they almost always decrease your calorie intake, and many active people have internalized ideas that make it difficult to consume enough energy throughout the day. Limiting carbohydrates may mean replacing bread with vegetables, and avoiding processed foods may cause you to forgo on-the-go snacks or tasty desserts.
Kelly Jones, a Philadelphia-based certified sports dietitian who has consulted for USA Swimming and the Philadelphia Phillies, sees him often. “The majority of clients who come to our practice, as well as the athletes whose teams I consult, are running out of fuel in one way or another,” she says. Jones explains that they’re not eating enough overall, not getting enough carbs, or not eating the right nutrients at the right time. Below, two sports nutrition experts share the fueling mistakes they often see athletes make, and how to avoid them.
Vegetables are not always better
Fruits and vegetables are essential to an overall healthy diet and athletes, like everyone else, should aim for five servings a day. But it’s possible to overdo it, especially if you subscribe to eat clean, or the idea that whole foods are always better. “Athletes can eat lots of high-volume ‘healthy’ foods like squash, salads, and vegetables, which makes them feel full even if they haven’t met their calorie needs,” says Anne Guzman, sports nutritionist and researcher at Brock University in Ontario. Vegetables high in fiber and water fill you up, but they’re relatively low in calories and macronutrients, which means they don’t provide much energy. Take a look at your meals: Are you mixing an adequate portion of fats, carbs, and protein with your vegetables? A kale salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and sprouts is a great start, but try adding calorie-dense toppings like nuts, cheese, chicken, avocado and olive oil. olive and eat a slice of bread next to it.
Don’t trust your instincts
Even the no-diet approach, which prioritizes hunger and fullness cues to tell you when and how much to eat, may not work for athletes without some modification. “Those who eat based on stomach hunger can end up with very little energy intake compared to what they burn,” Jones says.
This may be because, contrary to popular belief, exercise can actually decrease appetite. “Several factors can affect appetite after exercise, including but not limited to hormones and blood redistribution during exercise,” Guzman says. A 2020 review published in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism describes that the buildup of lactate in your blood during intense exercise is associated with lower levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you hungry. And one 2016 review in the review Appetite explains that many other things can contribute to decreased appetite post-workout, including the effect exercise has on the levels of insulin, glucose, and fat molecules in your bloodstream.
How much food you need depends on how long and hard you workout and your basal metabolic rate (BMR). The best way to determine your energy needs is to work with a dietitian or estimate them using a calorie calculator that takes your activity level into account.
Stop cutting carbs
Carbohydrates are the basis of a healthy diet. The United States Department of Agriculture Dietary guidelines recommend that carbs make up 45-65% of your total daily calories. But they are even more important for athletes.
“Carbohydrates are the most efficient and preferred source of energy for muscle exercise,” Jones says. It’s important to eat them throughout the day, not just during or around workouts, as carbohydrates are stored as glycogen to be used during exercise. When you run out of stored glycogen and there isn’t enough glucose in your bloodstream, your body will start to burn fat – which is okay but not optimal for high intensity workouts – and may also start to burn fat. break down muscle into protein.
“To ensure the body doesn’t use up muscle protein, which can interfere with recovery and adaptation to workouts, it’s important to eat enough carbohydrates throughout the day,” says Jones. Before training, you should eat a meal or snack high in carbohydrates, and if your training is moderate or high intensity and lasts more than an hour, eat at least 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour (one banana, two slices of bread or three or four energetic chews) will improve performance and prevent muscle breakdown.
Don’t be afraid of processed foods
Even if you’re not dieting or trying to lose weight, you can still try to limit your intake of processed foods. This can be a good thing, up to a point, because whole foods generally contain more nutrients. But it is not necessary to completely eliminate processed foods. For one, processed carbs are easier to digest because they lack fiber, which means they’re generally a better choice before and during a workout. The carbs from a sports gel will enter your bloodstream and give you energy quickly, while the carbs from an apple will take longer to absorb. The high fiber content of apples can also upset your stomach, especially because exercise diverts blood from your gastrointestinal tract and slows digestion.
Processed protein sources, such as powders and bars, may also be helpful. “The recommended protein intake for female and male strength and endurance athletes is 1.2 to two grams per kilogram of body weight per day, ideally with meals spread throughout the day,” says Guzman, citing a paper 2016 published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For a 150-pound woman, that’s between 82 and 136 grams of protein per day, which can be hard to get from whole-food sources like nuts, cheese, or yogurt.
“Ideally, protein will be broken down into moderate doses four to five times a day, rather than just having high doses post-workout and at dinner,” Jones adds.
Conclusion: break the rules
Strict food rules are rarely sustainable, and even loose food rules like cutting back on processed foods or prioritizing vegetables can have unintended consequences when you’re an active person. “A healthy diet for an athlete is so different from a healthy diet for a non-athlete. Many athletes don’t realize how high their energy needs are,” Jones says.
If you want more advice, check out athlete’s plate, a tool that helps people visualize how much food to eat based on workout intensity. Ideally, this tool will help you give your body what it really needs to function and recover properly, instead of living by vague healthy eating maxims and arbitrary rules.