Nutrition tips for peak athletic performance

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published September 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

For peak athletic performance, a person’s diet must match their body’s demand for energy. Energy levels for athletes are greater than for those who are less active and may exceed 2,400-3,000 calories/day in men and 2,200-2,700 calories/day in women. 

For people involved in high-intensity exercise, carbohydrates are usually the main source of energy. Healthy carb choices include vegetables, fruits, whole-grain cereals, pasta, and bread. Fats are needed for energy and for maintaining healthy hormone levels, with healthy options including avocados, nuts, nut butters, and coconut oils, while intake of vegetable oils should be limited. Dietary protein is important for muscle repair and growth, with good sources including meats, dairy, eggs, and legumes.

These five dietary tips will help attain peak athletic performance:

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables

Athletes need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily in a variety of colors. One serving of fruits and vegetables is about the size of a baseball (approximately 1 cup). 

On the whole, vegetables are low in fat and calories (though added sauces/seasonings can contribute fat, calories, and cholesterol, per the USDA.) Vegetables are also rich sources of nutrients, including potassium, folate, vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber:

  • Potassium-rich diets help keep blood pressure within normal levels, with vegetable sources including tomato products, beet greens, lima beans, soybeans, kidney beans, lentils, spinach, sweet potatoes, and white potatoes.

  • Folate helps with the formation of red blood cells.

  • Vitamin A contributes to eye/skin health and helps fight infection. 

  • Vitamin C assists with wound healing, iron absorption, and oral health.

  • Fiber from vegetables boosts satiety, drops blood cholesterol levels, and lowers the risk of heart disease. Fiber also helps regulate bowel movements and mitigates constipation and diverticulosis. 

Especially for high-energy athletic types, here’s what the USDA has to say about fruit: “People who eat more fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet are likely to have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases, such as heart disease, including heart attack and stroke and certain types of cancers...Fruits provide nutrients vital for health and maintenance of your body, such as fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and folate.”

Avoid processed foods

Although limited amounts of processed foods make life enjoyable, for the most part, whole foods are preferable.

In an NIH study published in Cell Metabolism, researchers examined whether ultra-processed foods affected energy intake in 20 adults with stable weight. The participants were admitted to the NIH Clinical Center and received either a diet of ultra-processed or unprocessed foods for 2 weeks followed by a 2-week crossover. The meals were matched for calories, macronutrients, energy density sodium sugar, and fiber. The participants were permitted to eat as much as they wanted while adhering to either diet.

The researchers found that on the ultra-processed diet, participants ate on average 508 calories more, with increases in carbohydrate and fat intake but not protein intake. Furthermore, those on the ultra-processed diet gained an average of 0.9 kg compared with a loss of 0.9 kg in those on the unprocessed diet. The authors suggested that limiting the intake of ultra-processed foods may prevent and treat obesity.

“A healthy eating plan is made up of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts,” per the NIH. “A healthy diet limits saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. It also emphasizes eating minimally processed foods.”

They continued, “Previous studies have suggested a link between diets high in ‘ultra-processed’ foods and health problems. Ultra-processed foods have ingredients common in industrial food manufacturing, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers. They are often cheaper and more convenient than making a meal from whole foods. But they’re usually high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat.”

Increased protein intake

For some time, exercise and nutrition experts believed that exercise exerts little effect on protein or amino acid needs. Nevertheless, strength athletes continued to consume high-protein diets. More recent research has indicated that this approach is supported by increased protein and amino acid demand in high-performance athletes.

According to the results of a review article published in Sports Medicine, “For endurance athletes, regular exercise may increase protein need by 50 to 100%. For strength athletes, the data are less clear; however, protein intakes in excess of sedentary needs may enhance muscle development.”

They concluded, “Assuming total energy intake is sufficient to cover the high expenditures caused by daily training, a diet containing 12 to 15% of its energy from protein should be adequate for both types of athletes.”

Healthy sources of protein include fish, chicken, eggs, peanut butter, nuts, and legumes.

Stay hydrated

Even a 2% drop in hydration levels can diminish athletic performance. Healthy hydration options include water, milk, 100% fruit juice, and sports drinks.

“Realize that sport drinks and 100 percent fruit juice tend to be higher in overall sugar content and, in the case of fruit juice, lack many of the health benefits present in its whole food counterpart,” advised UW Health. “Also, be sure not to confuse sports drinks such as Gatorade with ‘energy’ drinks such as Red Bull and similar beverages.”

Sports drinks are best reserved for special events, such as competition, in order to rapidly replace electrolytes.

General recommendations for staying hydrated while exercising include drinking 2 cups of fluid before training and 4-6 ounces of additional fluid every 15 minutes of exercise. 

To assess pre- and post-exercise fluid losses, weight should be measured before and after a workout. Every pound of weight loss should be compensated with 16 ounces of fluid. 

Opt for whole grains

Whole-grain carbohydrates—including whole-wheat bread/pasta and fiber-rich cereals—are excellent stores of energy. Intake of refined grains and sugars, including white bread and cereal, should be limited. Eating whole grains can decrease the risk of heart disease while improving weight management and digestion.

“Grains are important sources of many nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium),” according to the USDA.

  • Fiber from whole grains may lower cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of metabolic disease. Fiber from whole grains also helps regulate the bowels and increases feelings of fullness.

  • B vitamins help with metabolism by releasing energy from protein, carbs, and fat. B vitamins are also essential for nervous system function and forming red blood cells. 

  • Iron helps transport oxygen in the blood. Non-heme sources of iron, such as grains, should be paired with vitamin C-rich foods to maximize absorption. 

  • Magnesium found in whole grains helps build bones and releases energy used by muscles. Selenium wards off oxidation and is integral to a healthy immune system. 

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