What’s the best diet for an athlete?

Published by Ańna on

Diet, the word gets thrown around a lot, but what exactly is a diet? There are actually two definitions:

  1. the kind of food that a person habitually eats
  2. a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons

When I refer to choosing a diet I’m talking about the first definition – everyone has a diet, it’s what we eat.  As a Registered Dietitian I’m against being on a diet. They don’t work and can mess you up physically and worse — mentally. For every restriction there’s a greater binge and it often spirals into the troublesome territory of yo-yo dieting. Now, as an athlete you may need to change your body composition to be as competitive as possible, but there’s a difference between dieting and performance weight management which I’ll cover in a future post.

What is the best diet for athletes?

How to find the best diet for an athlete:

1. Is my diet balanced?

A quality diet should allow a variety of food from the different food groups: at least 2.5 cups of vegetables, sufficient quality protein sources, etc. Many diets are unnecessarily restrictive (hello grapefruit diet!) because by eliminating an entire food group or overemphasizing one food/group, we naturally eat fewer calories but also miss out on key nutrients. Moreover, make sure you’re getting a variety of foods within each food group. We typically get stuck in a rut and eat the same things over and over, but we need a variety because different foods have different nutrients in them. There’s no such thing as the perfect food so varying your diet is important to avoid developing deficiencies and toxicities.

2. Do you have to buy products?

If you have to buy certain products for the diet, it’s a scam. For example, drinking X shake for breakfast, eating X bar for lunch, etc. Eat real, whole, unprocessed foods 80% of the time. Similarly, if the diet’s named after a person or has one or two spokespeople it’s likely not a healthy, sustainable diet but rather someone’s spin on nutrition to sell a book, program or products.

3. Can you maintain this diet forever?

Ask yourself if you can sustain eating this way for the rest of your life. If you can’t eat this way forever (I’m looking at you juice cleanses), don’t do it all.

4. What are your preferences?

It’s important you enjoy the way you eat. Life’s too short to feel miserable and dread meals. Find a way to incorporate your favorite foods so you feel satisfied and not deprived. If steak is your favorite food, vowing to never eat it again isn’t realistic or psychologically healthy. The stress from deprivation will be worse for your health than occasionally having a small amount of your favorite food once in a while.

5. Is it evidence-based?

There are a lot of diets out there, some of which have substantial scientific evidence supporting the health benefits. The #1 ranked overall healthy diet for 2020 is the Mediterranean diet. There’s lots of research supporting its health benefits of it. One of my favorite resources to see if the latest diet book is valid is Red Pen Reviews. They do a great job of analyzing a diet’s claims to see if there’s evidence to support them.

The Big Takeaway for the best diet for an athlete:

Food is a tool and opportunity to help you achieve your goals, not something to restrict and fight against. When it comes to healthy eating, aim for progress, not perfection. If you have mostly whole, unprocessed foods 80% of the time, it’s okay to have a birthday cake once in a while. You should never feel like you’re on a diet, you should feel like you’re living your life and this is just how you eat. If you feel like you’re white-knuckling your diet, something is wrong. Finally, it’s okay not to identify with a certain diet. You don’t need to label yourself as vegan, paleo, keto, or whatever the latest fad diet is, balance is key.

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