The Importance of Nuts and Seeds in an Athlete's Diet

Flax Seeds: Commonly consumed for their ALA omega-3 fat benefits, need to be ground before being eaten. Otherwise, they pass through your intestines whole and undigested.

Chia Seeds: Also offer ALA omega-3 fats—but you don't need to grind them. Just sprinkle chia on yogurt and enjoy the crunch. When soaked in water for 10 minutes, chia seeds create a gel that can be used as a thickener for smoothies and as an alternative to eggs and oils in some recipes.

The slimy consistency of soaked chia seeds can be tough to enjoy for some athletes. If you fall into the "No, thank you" camp, worry not. You have many other options for enjoyably consuming similar nutrients in other seeds and nuts.

Sunflower Seeds: A mild, pleasing taste when added to salads, trail mix or cold cereals. For people with peanut allergies, sunflower butter is a popular alternative to peanut butter.

More: Calcium Sources Better Than Milk

Pumpkin Seeds: Also known as pepitas, are slower to eat when you buy them in the shell. This can save unwanted calories.

Hemp Seeds: Touted as containing all the essential amino acids. Hemp adds a protein-boost to vegan diets, but at a high price. Hemp seeds costs about $15 per pound, as compared to soy nuts, that also have all the amino acids, about $3.50/lb.

Sesame Seeds: A gentle flavor and make a nice addition to stir-fried tofu or chicken. Although sesame seeds are touted as being calcium-rich, their calcium is poorly absorbed.

Chopped Nuts: Such as walnuts or slivered almonds, add a protein boost—but not as much of a protein bonus as many athletes think. If you ate half a cup of walnuts (two man-sized handfuls), you'd get only eight grams of protein. For the same calories, you could add 1.5 cups of cottage cheese to your salad and get five times more protein (40 grams).

More: Protein: How Much You Need and Other Facts

Grains

Both whole and refined grain foods offer carbohydrates that easily fuel your muscles. Whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, corn (including popcorn), oats, barley, millet, and quinoa. Unrefined grains offer trace minerals, such as magnesium and copper, that refined grains don't offer because they are lost in processing.

However, most refined grains are enriched with B-vitamins and iron, two important nutrients for athletes. So, if you end up eating some white pasta or bread, there's no need to fret! Dietary guidelines allow for half of the grains you consume to be refined.

Quinoa is actually a seed, but we eat it as a grain, and it offers more protein than other grains. But take note: Quinoa is not a protein powerhouse, so eat it with tofu, beans or yogurt to reach the target of 20 to 30 grams protein per meal. Quinoa is also expensive: $6 per pound, as compared to brown rice at $1.50 per pound.

More: Are You Eating Enough Carbs?


Grain/Starch One Cup Cooked

Calories

(grams)

Protein

(grams)

Fiber

(grams)

Iron

(grams)

Pasta, white
2 oz dry
200 7 2 2
Pasta, whole wheat
2 oz dry
200 8 6 2
Rice, white
 1/3 cup raw
225 4 1 2
Rice, brown
1/3 cup raw
225 5 2 1
Couscous 1/3 cup raw
215 7 3 1
Quinoa 1/3 cup raw
200 8 5 3

More: 5 Whole-Grain Pastas to Keep You Fueled

The Bottom Line

When you resolve to "eat healthier," be sure to create a sustainable plan that will offer lifelong enjoyment. While you want to explore new foods, you don't have to routinely choke down seeds and whole grains that do not really please your taste buds.

By filling your meals with a variety of wholesome foods—including generous portions of colorful fruits and vegetables—you'll be able to consume abundant nutrients that invest in both good health and top performance. Plus, you'll also help save the planet by choosing more seeds and grains and fewer steaks and chops.

More: 4 Tips to Maintain a Proper Sports Diet

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