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Eating Healthy as an Athlete

Sports nutrition guidelines aren’t necessarily geared to be healthy. And healthy eating guidelines aren’t designed to facilitate optimal sporting performance. This begs the question: can we meet sports nutrition guidelines while eating healthily?


Introduction

There is tension between sports nutrition guidelines and healthy eating guidelines. For example, athletes are often recommended to consume sugary sports drinks like Lucozade Sport before and after training, as well as low-fibre, quickly digested carbohydrate sources like white bread or Coco Pops. On the other hand, sports drinks are not recommended for the general population because of their high sugar content and, more often than not, it is recommended to eat whole grain breads and cereals (e.g., porridge) instead of their refined counterparts because whole grain consumption is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, as well as a lower risk of death from any cause (1).


This tension begs the question of whether sports nutrition needs should take precedence over healthy eating principles for athletes. Because athletes are people first, and they should ideally want to eat in a manner that also promotes long-term health, I believe that the focus should be on healthy eating principles where possible. In fact, I think that athletes can meet most of their sports nutrition goals while also adhering to healthy eating principles. Let me tell you how.


Football player drinking a sports drink.

Person First, Athlete Second

Before I get into things, it’s worth spending a moment to think about your identity. In my personal experience, athletes tend to think of themselves as an athlete first, before anything else. While this is not always detrimental, it’s worth thinking of yourself as a person first, and athlete second, when it comes to nutrition. In this way, you will aim to meet your sports nutrition goals in a manner that also looks after your personal health. To illustrate the importance of this, take a look at the graph below (Figure 1).


Graph of a football player's lifespan.

Figure 1. Lifespan of a fictional footballer who plays for 20 years (i.e., from 18 years old until 38 years old). In this scenario, his/her playing career is only ~30% of his/her entire lifespan, representing a relatively small chunk of life. Note: most players will have much shorter careers than this, and thus will spend less than ~30% of their life as a 'footballer' (or 'athlete').


In this graph, we can see that this fictional footballer, who has a long 20-year career, is still only a ‘footballer’ for about 30% of their lifespan. Therefore, they spend more time not being a footballer (or athlete) than being one. What does this tell us? It illustrates the importance of thinking of yourself as a person first, which lends itself to eating in a manner that promotes long-term health, as opposed to strictly focusing on meeting sports nutrition guidelines without consideration for the healthfulness of your diet.


Eating Healthy as an Athlete

Outside of the immediate pre- or post-exercise period, where certain sports nutrition practices should be prioritised, the rest of an athlete’s daily eating pattern should be focused on aligning healthy dietary practices with sports nutrition recommendations (Figure 2). For example, if you have to eat 300 grams of carbohydrates per day, the focus should be on getting most of these carbohydrates through healthy foods like whole grains, beans and lentils, and fruits. However, in the pre-exercise meal and immediately post-match, foods like sports drinks, refined cereals (e.g., Coco Pops), and energy bars are often more appropriate to eat as they’re more easily digested, and are easier to eat when you’re not particularly hungry but you need to fuel up.


A venn diagram showing how to eat healthy foods while meeting sports nutrition recommendations.

Figure 2. Generally speaking, sports nutrition recommendations can be met through healthy food options (i.e., those in the middle). However, pre- and post-exercise, it is often more practical and appropriate to consume sports drinks and other refined, sugary foods as they are easier to digest and can be taken up by the muscles faster than fibre-rich foods. In addition, they are more palatable to eat when you’re not particularly hungry. On a similar note, it would be inappropriate to eat a big bowl of porridge or beans 30–60 minutes before a match, or to munch on nuts or broccoli straight after.


This approach to eating recognises the importance of eating a healthy diet to prevent poor health down the line, while also acknowledging the importance of sports nutrition-specific dietary approaches where appropriate (i.e., pre- and post-exercise). There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, athletes burning insane amounts of energy (calories) will need to eat some ‘junk’ foods to simply eat enough total calories to sustain their weight and performance levels.


The obvious example here would be the Tour de France, where athletes have been reported to burn approximately 6,000 calories per day (with one person burning nearly 8,000 calories per day!) (2). Here, the focus is on eating enough, first and foremost. But for most athletes, including footballers, it’s important to not sacrifice the healthfulness of your diet to meet sports nutrition guidelines, especially when this is not required.


Summary

I believe that it is possible to eat healthily while meeting sports nutrition recommendations. In practice, this means trying to meet your carbohydrate, protein, and fat needs with healthy sources (Table 1) where you can, while understanding that pre- and post-exercise, you may require more refined, sugary carbohydrates to appropriately fuel your body. For guidance on carbohydrate and protein requirements, check out our older blogs on these topics.


Table 1. Some examples of healthy food sources of macronutrients

Carbohydrates

Protein

Fat

Fruits (e.g., apples, bananas)

Plant protein sources (e.g., tofu, beans/lentils, Quorn)

Nuts and seeds (e.g., walnuts, almonds, chia)

Whole grains (e.g., porridge)

Fish (particularly oily fish)

Vegetable oils (e.g., olive oil)

Legumes (e.g., beans/lentils)

Lean meats (e.g., poultry)

Oily fish (e.g., salmon)


If you are interested in levelling up your football skills through supplemental football training, contact us at [email protected] to book in with our coaches for a session. And remember to sign up to our spam-free mailing list to be notified when a new blog article drops.


Thanks for reading! Enjoy the long weekend, and we will see you here again soon.


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Twitter/X: @PatrickElliott0


References

(1) Hu H, Zhao Y, Feng Y, Yang X, Li Y, Wu Y, Yuan L, Zhang J, Li T, Huang H, Li X, Zhang M, Sun L, Hu D. Consumption of whole grains and refined grains and associated risk of cardiovascular disease events and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2023;117(1):149–59. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002916522105186


(2) Saris WH, van Erp-Baart MA, Brouns F, Westerterp KR, ten Hoor F. Study on food intake and energy expenditure during extreme sustained exercise: the Tour de France. Int J Sports Med. 1989;10 Suppl 1:S26–S31. Available at: https://www.thieme-connect.com/products/ejournals/abstract/10.1055/s-2007-1024951

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