What Do Athletes Eat?
Part of the inspiration for starting this blog is from a frequently asked question:
“As an athlete, do you have to stick to a strict diet?”
My answer is generally along the lines of,
“No, I don’t stick to a strict diet as I like to enjoy my food. However, I have a good background knowledge of what is healthy and try to stick to this as much as possible.”
It helps that I have a big interest in food. I love trying new things, discovering new tastes and experimenting. I both enjoy cooking myself and eating out at restaurants. When cooking, I like to take inspiration from recipes I find online, but am not very good at sticking to them. It is one of the few situations in my life where I do not stick to the rule book. I will often find myself using a little more of this, less of that and adding a few extra ingredients as well.
Here is a little insight in to some of the basic rules I try to stick to in order to ensure my diet is nutritious, healthy and varied.
1. Aim for a minimum of 8 portions of fruit and vegetables per day
The government for a long time now has recommended we aim to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg per day. However, there is increasing scientific evidence to suggest that this is not actually enough for us to reach our recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals. We should actually be aiming for between 8 and 10 portions. Vitamins and minerals contained in fruit and veg help to keep our immune system strong, keeping us fit and healthy. As an athlete this is a priority due to the amount of stress we put our bodies under. When training our immune system gets depleted and so we need to keep it well stocked in order to avoid getting ill. An easy option is to take a multi-vitamin tablet, as this contains all the vitamins and minerals we need. However I am a big believer in getting as much of my nutrition as possible from natural sources. It helps that I enjoy eating a good variety of fruit and veg. In fact there are very few I can safely say I don’t like.
2. Avoid having the same carbohydrate twice in one day
This is to prevent me having bread twice in one day. I love bread, especially when it is warm. However bread tends to have a higher GI (glycemic index) than other carbohydrate sources, which means it releases its energy very quickly in to the blood stream. This results in a blood sugar spike rather than a gradual release of energy, which sustains the body for longer. When I eat bread I try to ensure that it is wholemeal or multi grain, basically the browner the better. White bread contains less fibre, has a higher GI, is more processed, thus less nutritious. Other sources of carbohydrate I use include rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, oats and sweet potato. Mixing it up like this ensures I get a good balance of nutrients and don’t get bored of eating the same thing all the time.
3. Weigh out portion sizes when possible
It is very easy to get carried away if you are hungry when cooking and make too much. Weighing prevents this from happening, ensuring you get the right amount of calories, rather than too much or too little. This can lead to gaining or losing weight. As an athlete I want to maintain a healthy weight, so controlling my calorie intake helps me with this.
4. Avoid having the same protein source for your evening meal 2 days in a row
Like varying my carbohydrates, varying my protein helps provide a variety of nutrients in my diet. White meat (chicken or turkey) contains a high amount of protein and is very lean. Red meat, (beef) although higher in fat is very iron rich, a mineral we need to stay healthy, as it helps in the production of red blood cells. Fish (Salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna) is very high in essential fatty acids (omega-3), a vital nutrient for good health. As an athlete I am constantly pushing my body to the limit, causing muscle cells to be damaged. Omega-3 is good for repairing this damage, as well as helping maintain a healthy heart and respiratory system. Therefore by changing it up throughout the week, I ensure I get a good balance of all these beneficial nutrients.
5. There must be one treat day a week
We are not robots, we are human. There are foods like chocolate and cake, which we really enjoy eating, but that we know are not the most nutritious for us. However if we deny these completely from our diet we will only crave them more. This is not mentally healthy, one day we will crack and binge on the food that we have been denying ourselves, resulting in feelings of guilt and frustration. In order to stay mentally healthy, as well as physically, there needs to be an acceptance that sometimes we are going to eat food that is bad for us, but we are going to enjoy it. So long as it is only occasional then there isn’t a problem. It is what we eat on a regular basis that makes us healthy, not what we eat as a treat.
In order to help me stick to these rules I will spend a good couple of hours doing my online food shop, researching recipe ideas and deciding what I will cook for each meal for the next week. This ensures I can buy all the necessary ingredients I need in one go. I can be confident that when I am tired after a hard training session, everything I need to cook a nutritious meal will be ready and waiting with minimal stress and thinking required.
I am a big believer in planning. Some might say obsessively so, but I do love to come up with, and stick to, a good plan. It allows me to feel like I am in control. So although I don’t stick to a strict diet, I do like to control it, while providing as much variety as possible.
Do you have guidelines you try to stick to when planning meals? Or are you far more impulsive? What works for one doesn’t work for everyone, so feel free to share what works for you.
Thank you for reading and speak soon.