Start Your Engines: The ABC's of Sports Nutrition

Eating a performance-enhancing diet isn't easy, and for many athletes and active people, nutrition is their missing link. If that's your case, here are a few ABC’s to get you started on the path to winning with good nutrition.

Always eat breakfast; it's the meal of champions! Within three hours of waking, fuel-up for a high-energy day. Not hungry in the morning? Trade evening snacks for a nice breakfast the next day.

Breakfast of champions? I vote for whole grain cereal + milk + fruit—an easy, wholesome, carb-protein combination.

Carbohydrates are essential to fuel-up and refuel your muscles. Do not “stay away from” pasta, potato, bread, bagels and other carbs that have wrongly been deemed “fattening.” Excess fat gets easily converted into body fat, but not carbs.

Dehydration needlessly slows you down, so plan to drink extra fluids before you exercise. The kidneys require about 45 to 90 minutes to process fluids. Allow time to tank up, eliminate the excess, and then drink again pre-workout.

Energy bars are more about convenience than necessity. Bananas, yogurt, fig cookies and granola bars offer convenient fuel at a fraction of the price. But if you prefer the convenience of bars, try Zing Bars (www.ZingBar.com). Yum!

Food is fuel--not the "fattening enemy" as some weight-conscious athletes believe. If you obsess about food and weight, find a local sports dietitian at www.SCANdpg.org.

Gatorade and other sports drinks are designed to be used by athletes during extended exercise, not as a lunch or snack beverage.

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar, as characterized by light-headedness, fatigue, and inability to concentrate) is preventable. To eliminate an afternoon energy lag/drop in blood sugar, enjoy a hearty snack between lunch and dinner.

Iron-rich foods, needed to prevent anemia, include beef and dark meat chicken (thigh, leg). If you eat neither of those, choose iron-fortified breakfast cereals (Raisin Bran, Wheaties). Read the cereal label, and note all natural brands (Kashi, granola) offer little iron.

Junk food can fit into your sports diet in small amounts. That is, you don't have to have a “perfect diet” to have a good diet. Target a diet that is 90 percent quality foods and, if desired, 10 percent foods with marginal nutritional value—sports drinks (refined sugar), birthday cake, chips, etc.

Keep track of calories if you want to lose weight. You'll reduce body fat only if you create a calorie deficit. A popular website for tracking food intake is www.fitday.com. Adding on exercise can help with fat loss IF the exercise contributes to a calorie deficit. (But the more you exercise, the more you might eat…)

Lifting weights is the key to building muscles. For energy to lift weights, you need extra carbohydrates. To support muscular growth, eat adequate (but not excessive) protein. Each muscle-building meal should be mostly carbs, with a side of protein, as opposed to mostly protein with minimal carbs.

Muscles store carbs as glycogen; glycogen depletion is associated with fatigue. Along with each one ounce of glycogen, muscles store about three ounces of water. Expect to gain 2 to four pounds of (water) weight when you carb-load.

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