Sports Nutrition: Why You Should Be Eating Like An Athlete

Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

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Training like an athlete is one thing, but what about nutrition? Is there some sort of secret to athlete's diets that helps them maintain their incredible physiques? Or are they able to just eat whatever they want because they burn so many calories? 

Nutrition is important for all bodies, regardless of whether or not you are a professional athlete. Your diet is not only the fuel that gets you through your day or sporting event, it's also the source of all nutrients that determines your overall health and wellbeing for years to come. In the fitness world, what you eat has an immediate and direct impact on your success and day to day training, making it a top priority for athletes. But eating for performance is not as drastically different from eating for health as one might assume. Read more below to learn how you can eat like a professional athlete to get results and perform better in your daily life. 

Why is Nutrition Important for Athletes?

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One of the most common responses I get when telling others that I've worked with professional athletes and special ops military on their nutrition, is something along the lines of, Well those people are in amazing shape, so I'm sure they eat really well! 

But the truth is, even the fittest men and women on earth don't have perfect diets. None of us do. We all have the same struggles with cravings, misinformation in the media, and lack of evidenced backed products from food and sports nutrition manufacturers. It's why sports nutritionists still have a jobs, and are becoming indispensable in the fitness world. When your performance and your body is also your livelihood, what you eat can't be left up to assumptions. 

The Athlete Diet

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Just as there are hundreds of different types of sports and fitness, there are many types of athlete diets. Some sports require weight maintenance or focus heavily on physique, some require supporting extreme strength and endurance, and then there's everything in between. But the basics still apply across all sports, and athlete diets aren't much different than what I'd recommend for the every day person. Getting proper nutrition, athlete or not, requires the following: 

  1. Get your calorie needs on point
  2. Eat the right foods to fuel your needs

Calories supply the energy and fuel you need. Think of it as putting gas in your tank. Choosing the right type of gas, and the highest quality fuel could help you go further and faster. And choosing the wrong type, might cause you to break down. In the same sense, not getting enough fuel in sports results in the expected outcome - running out of gas. 

Outside of the fitness world, calories work the same way. Eating the right amount of calories will help you manage your weight, support good health and provide the energy you need to function and the get through the day. 

In addition to adequate calories, eating the right foods for fitness means getting the right amount of each macro - fat, protein, and carbs, at the right time, and choosing nutrient dense foods full of vitamins and minerals that support training, recovery and overall health. Again, pretty close to what healthy eating looks like for the every day person.

Macronutrients for Performance

macros for performance athlete

Each macronutrient plays a different role in performance and getting the balance right is important for success. Each macro provides calories for energy, and they are each utilized by the body in unique ways. 

Carbs

Carbs are the body's quickest and easiest source of fuel - making it the preferred source for most bodily functions and types of exercise. Carbs are especially important for high endurance training and explosive strength - needing to be quick on your feet and pushing heavy objects requires carbs. They are also what your body uses when it's fight or flight mode kicks in!

When you eat carbs they are used for immediate energy, or stored in your muscles for quick fuel and in your liver as a reserve source of energy. And when you get too many calories, excess carbs are stored as fat.

Fat

Fat is your source of long lasting energy. Calories from fat can be used for immediate energy or when calories are in excess, fat is stored as fatty tissue. 

At rest, the body prefers to use fat for energy. This is partially because your body gets twice as many calories from fat - whether you eat it or burn it - which means you get twice the energy for the same amount of work. And remember you're resting, so your body doesn't need quick energy. It can take its time to break down fat -  a much slower process than carbs. But once intensity picks back up, your body switches to more carbs to keep up.

Your body also has an almost unlimited capacity to store fat for reserved energy compared to carbs and protein. Because your body always prioritizes survival mode over anything else, it wants to preserve your carb stores when you don't need them. This way, if danger arises and you need a quick getaway or brute strength, your carb stores have you covered. It also prefers fat over protein because protein is needed to build and maintain all of your cells and tissues. 

Protein

Protein is not a preferred energy source and is not stored in the body as protein. It is broken down into amino acids and used to build, maintain, and repair just about every part of your body. And just like fat and carbs, when calories are in excess, protein can be stored as fat.

Bottom line: for optimum energy and body composition, get calories correct first and then tailor your macros to your individual fitness needs. 

Learning how to track your intake, can help you maintain your calories and get better nutrition. Think about how you perform each day and what balance of macros makes the most sense for you. If you work a desk job and don't get much exercise, you probably don't need as many carbs as someone training hard multiple days a week. And your macro needs may look different from one day to the next. 

Learn more about how to count your macros here.

How to Eat Like an Athlete

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The second you start thinking more about food as a resource to thrive, you begin to tap into your body's true needs. This includes paying attention to how what you are eating is making you feel, systematizing your diet by planning ahead and tracking your intake, and making thoughtful meal decisions designed to improve your life and wellbeing, not just to quench your appetite or cravings. 

Athletes have regimented training schedules designed to maximize their potential, to get stronger, better and faster. And when they eat like they train, they see incredible results. This is possible for the every day person as well. No matter how hard you are training, or not training, putting some structure and thought behind your diet can catapult you to better results that stick. And make the process easier and more enjoyable as you go.

Food is Fuel

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Food is life. It's delicious because we have to eat to keep on living. So why not live well and choose foods that help you balance your energy levels, mood and overall health? Once you start giving your body the nutrition it needs, you'll be amazed how great you feel. Not to mention, losing weight becomes a heck of a lot easier. 

Once you have an idea of how many calories you need each day and what macros to strive for, track your intake! This will not only ensure you are getting the right fuel every day, but will also hold you accountable and teach you things about your diet you didn't realize. Research even suggests that those who track their food intake lose significantly more weight than those who don't. 

Need help creating a calorie and macro plan that works for your lifestyle? Sign up here to schedule a free call with an expert nutritionist.

Create Your Fitness Meal Plan

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You really are what you eat, so be a stickler for quality. Stack your plate with more nutrient dense foods and push out some of the other options that maybe aren't serving your health goals. And this doesn't mean eating perfectly, it means eating better most of the time and leaving a little room for splurges. It is eating better, consistently, over longer periods of time that will take you further than any quick results diet ever could. 

Learn what to look for when it comes to healthy eating and what foods can help you lose the most weight or help you maintain your weight without going hungry. From there you can create your own systematized meal prep routine. Or if you're looking for an easy solution that doesn't involve cooking, you can eat like an athlete with macro aligned meals on Trifecta. 

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