Eating for an Athlete - What and How Much?

Over the past few weeks I have talked about how to gain weight or how to lose weight as an athlete. I have not, however, talked specifics about what an athlete should be eating in general. So I would like to take a moment to outline what an athlete should be eating to get the most out of performance, no matter what their goal.

Now I won’t go into hard specifics in regards to nutrition. Number 1: absolutes are few and far between, ESPECIALLY with nutrition. Number 2: everyone is difference, both in how the body responds and personal preference.

So, if you’re an athlete, and you want to do well in “X” sport. If that is an important goal to you, nutrition should be important. As the old cliché goes, you don’t put cheap gas in a $100,000 performance car. If you want to perform well, you need the proper fuel.

What should that fuel look like you may ask? I’m going to break it down in terms of one meal and what that meal should look like. Obviously, things such as goals, gender, body size etc. will determine definite amounts of everything.

The first thing every meal should consist of is protein. Protein is the one thing that should almost always stay within a certain ballpark for an athlete regardless of goal. You can tweak carbohydrates and fat, but protein should always be a thing in the diet. A hard training athlete is going to need to build back the muscle that has broken down, and that is what protein is used for by the body.

Protein may not be the first thing considered when meal planning - normally it’s the carbohydrate (cereal, pancakes, pasta, casserole). But protein is the most important macronutrient (between protein, carbohydrates, and fat) for the athlete to get. So it should be highly prioritized.

Every meal should contain protein (yes, breakfast too). I could say specifics and say 25-30 grams of protein per meal, but that can get confusing if you have no idea how much protein is in your ground beef. An easier goal could be the amount of protein equivalent to the size of a closed fist. Again, this should be in every meal.

What do I mean when I say protein? Lean meats (if not lean, you must consider that meat in the “fat” category as well), cottage cheese, greek yogurt, and eggs (though eggs should also be considered in the “fat” category).

The next thing to consider as an athlete is carbohydrate. Carbs provide the quick energy an athlete’s body uses in training, and is also crucial for recovery. While most people think of bread, pasta, and cereal when they think of carbohydrates, potatoes, sweet potatoes and most fruits can be put in this category nicely as they are almost completely composed of carbohydrate, along with a bunch of vitamins and minerals.

While I won’t give exact numbers on the amount of carbohydrates at every meal, as everyone is different in what their bodies need (and there is a TON of debate out there), I will say the more whole grain, the less processed, and the fewer ingredients the better. Whole grain bread, cereals, pasta along with potatoes, sweet potatoes, and fruit are awesome carb sources. Try to stay away from sugar-filled and processed carbohydrates as much as you can.

I will also say that although there has been push lately to go low- or no-carb (ketogenic), the more explosive and fast-paced an athlete’s sport is, the more dependent that athlete’s body will be on carbohydrate. At the very least performance and recovery will be better in such an athlete.

The final thing to consider is fat. Fat is important and something an athlete should be getting enough of. The problem with fat is that it is easy to go overboard with it, as 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories (protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories).

A tablespoon or two of oil (think olive oil) or nut butter, a ¼ cup of nuts, a few eggs, or fatty fish (eggs and fish are protein!) are all great options. Like I mentioned, if you do choose fattier cuts of meat (bacon or prime rib), you must consider them when considering fat for the meal.

The other thing that doesn’t fit super well into any of those categories is non-starchy vegetables. This would include the brightly colored vegetables. Corn and potatoes would not be included here. Brightly colored vegetables should be included as often as possible, and in every meal if possible (spinach and bell pepper omelets anyone?).

So, there you have it – a brief (cough) outline of what a typical meal may look like for an athlete. You can use this outline to shape a day’s worth of meals, and place the appropriate food at each meal. Again, it’s not perfect, as everyone is different in goals, responses, and preferences. But it does give you a starting point.

You can never know where to go if you don’t know where you are.

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