The Athlete Diet Explained
Many professional and elite level athletes regularly meet with a sports nutritionist to determine which athlete diet is right for them and their exercise level, but weekend warriors and age groupers do not always have access to that luxury.
Endurance athletes routinely put their bodies through strenuous workouts day in and day out, so it should be no surprise that fueling is one of the most important considerations.
While no one will dispute that eating healthy and being mindful of the foods you use to fuel your body are important, it can be difficult to determine which diet is best for you when so many different nutrition plans are available. Listed below is a breakdown of the most common diets endurance athletes follow as well as their benefits and limitations.
High Carb, Low Fat
Perhaps the most common diet among runners, cyclists, and swimmers is one which involves primarily carbohydrates and limited fat.
Physiologically, the recruitment of energy from carbohydrate sources in the muscle is less energy intensive on the body than when fat is turned into fuel. Therefore, keeping glycogen stores high within the body is preferred for these athletes in order to always have a well-stocked reserve to avoid “bonking” or “hitting the wall” during long training sessions or races.
Athletes following the high carb, low fat athlete diet typically strive to get 55 – 70% of their daily calories from carbohydrates, 15 – 20% from lean proteins, and 20 – 35% from healthy fats, such as olive oil or fish.
The advantages of this diet are that few foods are off limits and athletes who follow this plan rarely experience poor workouts due to improper fueling.
For athletes who have sensitive stomachs or suffer from celiac disease, high carb diets can be tricky and expensive. Additionally, athletes often feel bloated during periods of carbo loading because for every gram of carbohydrate consumed, the body also absorbs 3 grams of water.
Eat plenty of these: whole grains, oats, spelt, rye, lentils, kamut, quinoa, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, parsnips, low-fat dairy, fruit, energy bars, sports drinks, honey, maple syrup
Limit these: refined carbs (unless the day before an event and too much fiber is an issue), fatty meats
High Fat, Low Carb
Recently, some exercise scientists have theorized that a high fat athletes diet may be better for endurance athletes, in order to teach their bodies to efficiently burn fat for fuel.
The science is based on the fact that the body can only store approximately 2,500 calories of carbohydrates, which typically can last only 2.5 hours if not taking carbohydrates during the workout or race, such as from gels or energy bars.
However, the body can store an almost limitless supply of fat. If the body can be taught to efficiently tap into the fat source, scientists hypothesize that athletes will never bonk. Numerous ultra-endurance athletes such as Ironman triathletes and ultra-marathoners have switched to the high fat diet with success.
Athletes also report that this athletes diet can help achieve a leaner physique, since body fat is the main source of fuel. Typically, athletes following this diet strive to get 85% of their calories from fat and the rest from protein.
Athletes who have followed this diet with success have reported improved endurance as well as weight loss.
Many sports nutritionists have warned against following this diet plan because it is not considered sustainable. The human body has evolved over millions of years to use carbohydrates as a fuel source.
Athletes who have followed this diet report feeling extreme fatigue for the first 2 – 6 weeks of this diet plan until the body adapts to fat burning. Many athletes also report having extreme cravings for forbidden foods, such as fruit. Additionally, entire food groups are off limits which may make the body more susceptible to injury.
Eat plenty of these: bacon, dairy, lamb, fish, nuts, oils, avocados
Avoid these: grains, cereal, fruit, root vegetables, sugar, alcohol
Paleo for Athletes
An increasingly popular athlete diet is the Paleo Diet, in which proponents theorize that humans should eat the way our early ancestors did, before the domestication of certain animals and crops, such as dairy cows and grains.
Genetically, no changes to the human genome have occurred since the Stone Age, which drives the belief that our bodies should still be fueled in the ways of our ancestors in order to avoid chronic illness and obesity.
The Paleo for Athletes diet differs from that of the typical Paleo diet by allowing simple carbohydrates and sports nutrition such as gels, bars, gummies, etc. to be consumed immediately before, during, or immediately after exercise. However, outside of exercise, food should be limited to meat, fish, certain fruits, and vegetables.
Paleo dieters tend to have a higher protein intake which could improve the body’s ability to recover from strenuous exercise. This type of athlete diet has also been suggested to have certain anti-aging properties since it lowers the body’s acidity and also is more nutrient dense.
Since grains are discouraged from the Paleo diet many athletes may feel fatigued due to limited carbohydrate resources. The Paleo diet limits all processed foods outside of exercise which may be limiting to athletes who do not have a lot of time to devote to cooking. Many athletes also find the Paleo diet to be expensive.
Eat plenty of these: grass-fed meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, oils (walnut, olive, flax, avocado, coconut)
Limit these: grains, legumes, peanuts, dairy, refined sugar, potato, processed food, salt, vegetable oils
Another athlete diet that has recently become popular is the Mediterranean Diet. In the 1960s, researchers took note that people living near the Mediterranean Sea (i.e. Italy and Greece) were consistently healthier than their American counterparts.
Numerous studies showed their risk for diabetes and heart disease was significantly lower, yet their diets were still relatively high in fat. However, researchers also noted that the major difference was the types of fat that those from the Mediterranean region consumed.
While Americans were eating plenty of red meat, dairy, and refined oils, people of Greece and Italy were consuming olive oil and fish with little red meat. Since cardiovascular health seemed to be the main advantage of this diet, athletes took notice. Many runners, cyclists, and swimmer now follow this meal plan with plenty of success.
The Mediterranean diet is less restrictive than most plans and allows for “cheating” in moderation. While other diets sometimes promote restriction and social isolation as signs of discipline, the Mediterranean diet promotes social eating, happiness, and a balanced lifestyle.
Few disadvantages exist for this plan, except that athletes must be vigilant to eat enough protein since it is a primarily plant-based diet.
Eat plenty of these: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, tubers, whole grains, fish, seafood, chicken, eggs, dairy, herbs, spices, olive oil, olives, avocados, avocado oil, red wine (in moderation)
Avoid these: added sugars, refined grains (white bread, refined wheat, etc.), trans fats, refined oils (soybean, canola, cottonseed oils), processed meats, processed foods, red meat
Blood Type Diet
The Blood Type diet tailors the foods you should eat directly to your blood chemistry. Research has indicated that people of different blood types may be more susceptible to certain diseases and handle stress in different ways.
Interestingly, blood type may be responsible for gut bacteria and digestion, which can explain why dieting is not a one size fits all endeavor. Athletes are especially drawn to the Blood Type athlete diet because of their natural propensity towards individualization.
For people who are highly in-tune with their bodies, knowing the ways in which your blood interacts with the foods you eat can be a huge boost towards training and recovery.
Advantages to this diet are not only physical, but mental as well. When an athlete believes that he or she is doing the most scientifically correct action for his or her body, performance is likely to receive a boost as well. This diet also eliminates any guesswork from deciding which is best for each individual.
Like all other diets listed, very little research has been done to prove the efficacy of the nutrition plan on health or performance. However, the Blood Type diet is least restrictive of all diets on this list.
Eat plenty of these: Any food that is not considered “bad” based on blood type can be consumed.
Avoid these: For instance, a person with type “B” blood should avoid corn, wheat, buckwheat, lentils, tomatoes, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
Similar to the Blood Type, the ancestral diet encourages a more individualized eating plan by eating based on the foods of your geographic ancestors. For instance, scientists have often wondered by people from Asia are able to consume soy in greater quantities without ill effects than people of North America.
Some researchers hypothesize that people of different regions have evolved over time to be able to process certain foods better than others. For athletes this can greatly help with maintaining a proper weight, improving recovery, and keeping the immune system healthy when appropriate foods for one’s lineage are consumed.
Like the Blood Type diet, Ancestral Eating calls for little restriction, but ultimate personalization.
There are few disadvantages to this athlete diet, but it can be difficult for people to follow if their lineage is unknown.
Eat plenty of these: The “best” foods to eat are entirely dependent on ancestral region, but, for instance, a person from Northern Europe should have the best tolerance for dairy, while a person from Asia will have the best tolerance for soy.
Avoid these: Similarly, geographic region matters here. If your ancestors are from Asia, South America, or North America, you will not handle dairy as well as someone from Northern Europe. Similarly, American Indians or First Nations Canadians will not tolerate corn or wheat well.
What about the athletes who say, “I’m an athlete, I burn lots of calories every day, so I’m not going to follow any athlete diet ?” In some ways, these athletes may be mentally and physically healthier than anyone else on the list.
As everyone knows, variety is the spice of life, and eating a healthy variety of food is very important. Athletes have diverse caloric, micro, and macro nutrient needs, and diets that are too restrictive can severely hinder an athlete’s performance.
Additionally, diets that are too restrictive can easily lead to eating disorders, especially among individuals that are likely already Type-A. Among the “no diet” dieters, a common tenet is moderation, which is a healthy approach to living and eating.
The advantages of not following a strict diet often include a happier outlook on food, as being too restrictive can lead to feelings of unhappiness or even depression. A non-dieter is also more likely to eat more balanced meals, which is important for receiving the full range of nutrients. Additionally, a non-dieter may be more likely to feel less anxiety about eating and be more properly fueled.
For the non-dieter, the disadvantages are similar to the advantages. For certain individuals, not having a set athlete diet plan may induce anxiety, as athletes may be overly concerned with what they should or should not eat.
A non-dieter may be less strict in their meal choices, leading to eating the same meals every day and lacking variety, or overeating. A non-dieter may also be less mindful in meal choices and neglect healthy options for processed or refined foods.
Eat plenty of these: lean proteins, wholesome carbohydrates, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables
Avoid these: Added sugars, processed foods, fatty cuts of meat, excessive alcohol, refined carbohydrates
Ultimately, no diet is “better” or “worse” than any other. However, there are certainly athlete diets that are more or less appropriate for each individual. A good way to determine which diet is best for you is to try each one for at least 4 weeks while keeping a daily log detailing sleep, workouts, fatigue, energy levels, and recovery, and choosing which made you feel best.
Let us know what athlete diet you prefer and why. Leave your comments below or join the discussion on Facebook.