5 Keys to Building the Ideal Athlete Meal Plan
It is important for athletes to have a sports nutrition meal plan in place to support both health and performance goals. Knowing what foods to eat and when, can help ensure athletes are fueled to train and perform at their best. Below are 5 key ideas for building an ideal athlete meal plan to support performance.
Key #1: Carbohydrates – The Foundation of an Athlete’s Meal Plan
Carbohydrate-rich choices should be the foundation of your athlete meal plan. Carbohydrates provide the energy the body needs to perform at its best. You can get carbohydrates in your diet from a variety of food groups, including:
- Starchy vegetables
Carbohydrate Needs of Athletes
Similar to gas in a tank to fuel a car, carbohydrates provide the body with the energy needed to perform at its best. The carbohydrate needs of athletes vary based upon the intensity and duration of activity the athlete is engaged in. Athletes participating in low-intensity or skill-based activities need less carbohydrates than athletes engaged in high-intensity, long duration exercise sessions1.
Likewise, when creating your athlete meal plan, you will need more carbohydrates on days you will be exercising more intensely or for a longer duration than on low-intensity workout days or off-days. Fluctuating the amount of carbohydrates consumed based on activity can help athletes tailor their daily meal plan to meet their performance needs.
Key #2: Include Lean Protein
Including lean protein is the second key to building an ideal athlete meal plan. To get the most benefit from protein intake, athletes are encouraged to consume protein throughout the day with meals and snacks2. Therefore, when you build your athlete meal plan you want to ensure each meal includes a source of lean protein.
Protein recommendations for athletes are based upon body weight. Athletes are encouraged to consume ~0.25-0.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight with meals and snacks spaced evenly throughout the day. For most athletes this calculates to be approximately 25-30 grams of protein with each meal.
Sources of lean protein to include on your athlete meal plan include:
- Chicken, turkey, seafood, pork, lean cuts of red meat
- Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products
- Beans and legumes
- Soy and tofu
For reference when building your athlete meal plan, one ounce of lean meat provides approximately 7 grams of protein. A large egg contains about 6 grams of protein, with the majority of protein coming from the egg white. A cup of regular cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein, however, there are numerous high-protein milks available on the market. Greek yogurt is a protein-packed option containing ~21 grams of protein per cup depending on the brand.
Athletes following a vegetarian or vegan diet can still meet their protein needs through food sources, such as beans, legumes, soy, and tofu. However, careful planning of plant-based meals is important to ensure athletes consume adequate protein and essential nutrients in their overall sports nutrition meal plan.
Key #3: Balance Out Your Athlete Meal Plan with Healthy Fats
When putting together your athlete meal plan, balance out your carbohydrate and protein intake with healthy fat sources. Dietary fat plays many important roles in the body. Fat is necessary for the absorption, transportation, and storage of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K). Fat helps provide protection for our internal organs. Essential fatty acids are also necessary for optimal brain function.
Here are ideas for foods containing healthy, unsaturated fats to add to your athlete meal plan.
Cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines, is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids because the body cannot produce them. They have many important roles in the body, such as supporting optimal brain health, cardiovascular function, and working to help reduce inflammation. Aim to include several servings of fatty fish in your athlete meal plan throughout the week.
Avocados are a great way to add healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to your meal. The majority of fat found in avocados is monounsaturated fat, a type of unsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats are considered healthy fats, as they can help reduce LDL-cholesterol levels in the body. When eaten in moderation, monounsaturated fats are a healthy addition to your athlete meal plan.
Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts and nut butters contain monounsaturated fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them a nutritious addition to your meal. Different types of nuts provide different nutritional benefits, so try to include a variety in your overall sports nutrition meal plan.
Seeds are an excellent way to add fiber, unsaturated fat, protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to your athlete meal plan. Aim to include a variety of seeds, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds, in your sports nutrition meal plan. Consider topping your salads with seeds and adding them into your morning oatmeal, smoothies, and yogurt.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Similar to avocados and nuts, olive oils are rich in monounsaturated fats. Olive oil also contains polyphenols, which serve as antioxidants in the body. Olive oil can be used as a dressing on your salad, as a topping on avocado toast, used to sauté your vegetables, or to cook your morning eggs.
Key #4: Hydration: Critical Component of Your Athlete Meal Plan
Athletes should aim to make hydration a daily priority as it is important for both health and performance. Dehydration increases the risk of heat illness, especially when exercising in a hot and humid environment. In addition, even mild dehydration can negatively impact aerobic sports performance and cognitive function3.
Given this, athletes do not want to start a practice or competition in a dehydrated state. Consuming fluid with each meal is a good way to stay on top of your hydration goals.
In addition to water, consider enjoying milk or 100% fruit and vegetable juices with your meals. Drinking nutritious beverages is a simple way to add vitamins and minerals to your daily intake. To avoid filling up on the beverage, eat your meal first and then consume your beverage.
Key #5: Add Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Your Athlete Meal Plan
A well-planned sports nutrition meal plan will include foods that can help reduce inflammation in the body and enhance recovery. If you are looking to take full advantage of the power of food, try adding these anti-inflammatory foods to your athlete meal plan.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
As discussed above, fatty fish are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. The form of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Some plant foods also contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts. The form of omega-3 fatty acids found in plant foods is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Our bodies must convert ALA found in plant foods into the EPA and DHA forms in order for our bodies to utilize and benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties. It is important to note that our bodies are not efficient at this conversion process and not all ALA is converted to EPA and DHA.
Athletes can benefit from including both fatty fish and plant-based sources of omega-3 rich foods in their athlete meal plans. These foods provide many other nutritional benefits such as protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, in addition to the omega-3 fatty acids.
Berries & Cherries
Berries are an incredible super-food packed full of nutrients, including: Vitamins A and C, iron, fiber, anthocyanins, and polyphenols. Aim to incorporate a variety of berries in your sports nutrition meal plan, such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Try adding berries to your morning oatmeal, as a topping on salads, and in your fruit and Greek yogurt parfaits.
Tart cherries are a great source of antioxidants and phytochemicals, including: anthocyanins, flavonoids, and flavanols. In athletes, the consumption of tart cherry juice has been found to reduce muscle soreness and to improve strength recovery after exercise. Additionally, tart cherry juice can help decrease inflammation and oxidative stress4. Consider adding tart cherries and tart cherry juice to your athlete meal plan. Try enjoying a glass of tart cherry juice with your meal or blending it into a smoothie are great options.
Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, arugula, romaine lettuce, and Swiss chard, are excellent sources of many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They provide the body with Vitamins A, C, E, and K, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, as well as fiber. Leafy greens can easily be added to your athlete meal plan, as they are great for building nutritious salads, blending into a smoothie, or as a topping on sandwiches.
Herbs and Spices – Add Flavor and Nutrition to Your Athlete Meal Plan
Herbs and spices not only add flavor to your meals, but many also provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Spice up your food with garlic, ginger, turmeric, rosemary, and cinnamon. Experiment with using different spices when sauteing vegetables, marinating meat, when making smoothies, and preparing hot tea.
For a complete, downloadable list of anti-inflammatory foods, check-out the recent blog post, Ultimate Anti-Inflammatory Foods List PDF, from Angela Lago, Registered Dietitian.
Ready to Build Your Athlete Meal Plan
You are now set with the 5 key steps to building the ideal athlete meal plan to support performance. If you are looking for additional meal planning tips, check-out my recent blog: Meal Prep for Athletes – 5 Easy Steps to Success.
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About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.
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