Athletes have a lot to worry about. First and foremost there is their sport or task. You need to train, practice your sport, engage in recovery practices, and deal with a host of other issues. Diet is obviously a big piece of the puzzle but after every other debt is paid how much time and effort do you have left to put into this.
The goal of this article is to give you some simple strategies that will help you have a diet that will support your athletic endeavors without bogging you down or making you feel like your diet is a full time job and taking away from your real goal: To be good at your sport. Most people I’ve seen who are super strict with their diet have no energy left for training or performance and don’t have the energy or will power left to train hard in the gym. Maybe too much focus isn’t a good thing. There is also a certain type of person who can focus too much on diet because they think it will get them out of genuine hard work. This person thinks having a perfect diet can make up for a lack of hard work. You cannot out eat a shitty work ethic. You just can’t. Not for performance anyway. So have a balance.
Everyone is looking for some kind of secret when it comes to nutrition and performance. There is always a new superfood that people are trying to take advantage of. There is always some new diet that people preach about or are religiously devoted to. The reality is that there is no secret, no magic pill, no special supplement. The best way to govern your eating is to make informed, well thought through decisions that relate to your individual needs and goals.
Diet and nutrition need to be as individualized as training. Each one of us has a different genetic signature, different athletic goals, had a different upbringing, and has a different training history. To think we can all just eat the same because a book or television show tells us to is absurd.
We all want to make things so complicated but we often lack the resources or will power to follow through on them. Often times the simplest solution is the best solution. There’s nothing overly complicated here. Just real, simple, sound advice to help you.
Here are some simple rules and guidelines to help you create the a good diet that will help support your athletic endeavors:
1) Eat to support your goal
Your daily caloric intake should be adjusted to suit your goals. This should be a relatively simple rule to follow. If you want to gain weight then eat more food. If you want to lose weight then eat less food. It’s not rocket science. In reality people tend to overcomplicate this. They want to know exactly how many calories to eat in order to attain a goal.
Each one of us is different, has different genetics, and a different history when it comes to training and nutrition. Some of us have slower metabolisms and some have faster. Some of us have different training volumes and need more or less food. Rather than letting a book or website tell you how much you should eat why don’t you do some research? Track your calories for two weeks. Don’t eat any differently than how you are eating now. Just record what you put in your mouth and when. After two weeks look at your logs and note what your daily caloric average is.
From there make some changes but don’t do anything too extreme. Intensity is the inverse of duration. Do too much too soon and you will set yourself up for failure because your behavior won’t last. Start slow. If your goal is to lose weight then cut calories by 100-200 calories per day. Do that for a few weeks and see what happens. Conversely if your goal is to gain weight add 100-200 calories and note what happens over the course of two weeks.
If you aren’t losing enough weight cut another 100-200 calories. If you aren’t gaining enough weight then add 100-200 more per day. Follow this pattern until you find your optimal intake. It may take you a few months to figure out exactly how many calories you need to ingest but I’d rather invest the time and do things the right way to suit my individual needs then take the easy way out and set myself up for failure.
2) Eat Real food
Food today isn’t real food. It is genetically modified, filled with preservatives and chemicals, covered in pesticides, and injected with hormones. The bread you eat today isn’t the same as the bread people ate 200 years ago. The milk you drink isn’t the same either.
If there was only one rule I could tell people to follow it would be to simply eat real food. Look at ingredients and make better choices.
Ask yourself one simple question: why would you go and put junk fuel into your brand new sports car? Keep your engine clean so you can perform well, especially when it counts.
I would strongly advise you to read labels, stay away from chemicals and buy organic when you can.
Here are a few simple rules to follow to help guide you to make better choices; The closer to nature your food is the better. The less hands that touch your food the better. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients don’t put it in your mouth. If you can kill it or pluck it from the ground then it is fair game and if it was made in a lab it is off limits. If it wasn’t food 100 years ago it isn’t food today. If you can actually visualize the ingredients it is okay to eat it but if not then it doesn’t go in your mouth (i.e. I know what a tomato or garlic looks like but have no clue what a soy lecithin looks like).
3) Eat a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats
You should have a good mix of fat, protein and carbs in your diet.
Protein is a building block. You need it for numerous bodily functions. Make sure you eat enough good quality protein. You can’t do without it.
Fat. Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. In fact the more fat you give your body the more efficient it becomes using it as a fuel source. Fat also helps make you feel full. Mono and poly unsaturated fats are necessary in many bodily processes.
Carbohydrates. You do not want to be on a no carbohydrate diet. You will be constantly flat and low on muscle glycogen. Make sure you eat enough carbohydrates. Choose from fruit and vegetable sources when you can and sources that are high in fiber. Potatoes and rice are also fine choices. That said as long as you don’t have a gluten issue don’t be scared of a piece of bread or a bowl of pasta. Remember you need to keep your glycogen stores at full capacity.
When it comes to assigning percentages for these macronutrients people often get into weighing, measuring, and calculating. While this can be valuable for some it ends up being a burden for others. Also until you have a handle on eating real food and your calories are on point you don’t have any business worrying about the difference between 25 and 30 grams and protein. Each meal just make sure that protein, fat, and carbohydrates are well represented from high quality sources. As a staring point I’d recommend about a third of your calories from each source.
A really simple rule of thumb (assuming you have had enough calories) is if you are hungry 2 hours after eating your meal was too high in carbohydrates. If you are hungry 3-4 hours after eating then your ratios were about right.
4) Eat frequently and often
This is a really simple rule to follow.
People often over eat at a single sitting. They go too long without eating and then when they do eat they make poor choices and over indulge. A good way to manage how you eat is to eat small meals throughout the day. This will boost your metabolism, remind your body that food is plentiful and will help you make better eating decisions when hungry. Many bad food decisions are made when you are starving.
Some people complain that it is difficult to have food around at all times but really how hard is it to throw a good meal replacement bar, a snack like an apple or almonds, or a little tupperware container in your purse, backpack or briefcase. It just takes a little bit of planning. If you find this to be too much work then perhaps you just aren’t as dedicated as you think you are.
5) Allow yourself the freedom to enjoy yourself and be flexible
In my opinion the more restrictive the diet, the harder someone eventually falls off the wagon. Weighing, measuring, only eating certain types of food that your dislike, or eliminating food you love will only lead to eventual failure. People will follow diets religiously for months and then when they do come off of them they have no self control left, they eat everything in sight, and they end up in worst shape than when they started.
I don’t think you need to completely restrict yourself to have a good diet. You should feel free to enjoy the odd drink, dessert, or other food that you enjoy. It all comes down to accountability and how bad you want to achieve your goals. I’m not giving you free license to just eat whatever you want here. Remember your talk should be consistent with your actions. All I am saying is that you should have the freedom once in a while to indulge or eat something that you enjoy. Who wants to be miserable?
Some will assign a day of the week where they have a cheat day, others will have a favorite cheat meal that they will eat when they have earned it and others will just indulge when an opportunity to eat really good food comes along. Just manage yourself. You know what the right thing to do is.
6) Individualize and listen to your body
Just like you shouldn’t follow someone else’s training program you shouldn’t just follow someone else’s diet. Each and every one of us has individual needs. Some of us can’t tolerate gluten. Others are fine with it. Some of us have an issue with dairy and for some of us it causes no issues at all. Some of us need to go to bed on an empty stomach and some of us sleep better on a full belly.
The big point here is do what works for you. Pay attention to your body. Note how it responds to certain food choices. Note how you feel. Pay attention. No book should tell you how you should feel and there will always be some pencil neck with a pocket protector and a calculator to tell you that you are doing things wrong or that they know a better way. The best judge of whether something works or not is you. Educate yourself, make your own decisions, and be your own person. Just make sure you have high standards, make your talk consistent with your actions, and make choices that actually influence your goal in a positive way.
That is it. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing complicated. Just straight forward real advice. So go train hard, eat, and enjoy.