I can hear it now…”My diet doesn’t suck! I eat healthy! I have oatmeal with flax for breakfast, I have a turkey sandwich with whole wheat bread at lunch, I have a protein shake after my workout, and I eat chicken breast, rice and broccoli for dinner!”
Nope, your diet sucks.
As a sports nutritionist and certified eating psychology coach, I have the pleasure of working with a wide range of athletes to help them develop a nutrition plan that not only serves their sport, but also leaves them feeling satisfied at the end of the day. Not only should your diet be pleasurable, it should also be nutritionally dense, and well balanced to provide your body with the sustenance it needs. And I’m sorry to say, but following the USDA My Plate guidelines is not going provide you with that.
There are a lot of false notions in the athletic community.
“We should follow a largely vegan agenda, with Meatless Mondays and more tofu and more smoothies. Plus, we can’t forget to eat our whole grains!”
However, you as an athlete do not need to cut down on the amount of red meat you’re eating or try to add more beans to your diet for fiber. Instead, you need more of the following:
Protein, high quality fat, and micronutrients.
Just so we are all on the same page, nutrition is often simplified into three basic macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat; and micronutrients, which are our vitamins and minerals that we still need a lot of, just not quite as much as our macros. Which of these macronutrients do you think is the easiest to get a hold of? You guessed it, carbohydrates.
Now why am I saying you need more protein and fat, and less carbohydrates? I thought athletes needed a lot of carbohydrates…
Yes, athletes like you do need carbohydrates (unless your a ketogenic beast, and we will save that for another time). However, you are likely WAY overestimating the amount of carbohydrates you need to fuel a 60-minute per day workout routine.
In human metabolism, carbohydrates are the body’s “preferred” fuel source because they are easy to burn. Eat a banana and your body has an easy to digest, quick burning source of calories that you can cook through in no time! The problem here is that if you are always eating free and easy carbohydrates, you burn through those calories pretty dang fast, and you find yourself always going back to the gas station to refuel. If you have trouble with blood sugar regulation, and find yourself “bonking” during long training sessions, then I’m speaking your language.
You want carbohydrates for quick, explosive, gotta-get-there-quick movements and efforts. Unless you are hustling often, you do not need a lot of carbohydrates to fuel a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
In contrast your body’s other fuel source, fat, takes much longer to digest and metabolize. The benefit to this is that if you incorporate more high-quality fat in with your meals, you will feel fuller for longer, have more sustained energy levels, and not experience “bonking” because your body doesn’t run out of fuel. Isn’t that neat?
FYI – you do NOT want your body to breakdown protein for fuel. There is a little process called gluconeogenesis, where your body turns proteins into sugar. This is NOT ideal, it means you’re converting your body’s protein (a.k.a. muscle) into sugar to use for energy. We don’t want to lose any of our hard earned muscle now do we?
Okay, so we need carbohydrates (just not so damn many), we need more good fats for sustained energy and hunger regulation, and we need proteins for building muscles. What does that look like when we’re putting together a diet that doesn’t suck?
For the geeky, here is a macronutrient breakdown that will get you started.
If you know your total calories for the day, you can break your calories down into 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat.
This is ONLY a starting place, and by no means an end-all-be-all. I’ve seen nutrition plans of all types work for people across the board. However, starting off with a relatively balanced nutrition plan for a while and then tweaking from there is always a good place to start.
Let’s say you are a 6’0” guy at 200 lbs eating 3000 calories per day. If you were eating a relatively balanced diet, you might be having 1200 calories from carbohydrates, 800 calories per day from protein, and 800 calories from fat. This would mean you would have 300 grams of carbohydrates per day, 200 grams of protein, and 89 grams of fat.
Not only is this going to be plenty of carbohydrates to fuel your training sessions, it’s going to give you one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, which will allow you to sustain (or possibly gain) some new lean muscle mass, and enough good fat to feel satiated (aka full) for hours on end. Doesn’t that sound great?!
Okay, what does this look like in real life? Below is a list of recommended foods to eat daily for healthy, balanced nutrition plan:
- Green beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Summer squash
- Winter squash
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild caught salmon
- Pasture raised pork
- Full-fat grass-fed cottage cheese
- Full-fat grass-fed greek yogurt
- Whey protein isolate
High Quality Fats
- Grass-fed butter
- Pasture raised heavy cream
- Olive oil
- Bacon grease
- Duck fat
- Coconut oil
- Coconut milk (full-fat from a can)
- Coconut flakes
- Brazil nuts
- Cocoa nibs
- Aged, raw milk cheese
- Sour cream
There might be a lot of foods on this list that you are currently NOT eating. However, most of these foods are not only whole foods (a.k.a. unprocessed and therefore in their most nutritious state) they are delicious! By following a whole foods nutrition plan, you are going to have a hard time overeating, you will be getting a ton of carbohydrates, vitamin, minerals and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, all of our protein sources will be highly biologically available, and your fats will be anti-inflammatory, heart healthy bundles of energy.
Now, to really wrap it all up with a nice bow, what does this look like on a given day?
Three eggs cooked in grass-fed butter with potatoes, green peppers, and onions.
Side of pasture-raised pork sausage.
Grass-fed beef burger patties with bacon, avocado, big ass salad with olive oil based dressing, yams.
Homemade jerky with banana and almond butter (can be eaten pre or post workout depending on hunger levels).
Elk stew with tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, broth and a dollop of sour cream.
Ta-da! A diet that doesn’t suck!
This nutrition plan is once again only a starting point. If you are looking to improve your health, improve your appetite regulation, have more sustained energy levels, and shed any excess weight that might be slowing you down, this will do it. Your macronutrients will vary up or down depending on activity level, goals, training intensity, etc. If you followed a nutrition plan like this in the front country, you’ll be able to head out into the mountains or woods feeling strong, fit, healthy, and simply ratchet up the number of calories you’re eating, while maintaining a sense of balance in your caloric planning.
Questions? I’m sure you have them! Please feel free to send them my way. I do this for a living, and your questions will help determine what our next article topic should be.
Heather Kelly is an evolutionary sports nutritionist and certified psychology of eating coach. After discovering, implementing and rigorously testing a Paleo oriented diet, she began coaching athletes in the CrossFit community on health-promoting nutrition plans. In the past four years, she has worked with athletes from around the world, helping them to not only learn what to eat, but also how to eat in such a way that leaves them feeling healthy, strong, and satisfied.