Whether your goal is to get lean, build muscle, or increase endurance, eating right is 80 percent of the battle.
Sure, that other 20 percent, exercise, is certainly an important piece of the puzzle, but an athlete relies upon food and drink as both fuel and building materials for a fit, strong body.
We are literally what we eat. The amino acids in various protein sources are the building blocks of muscle. Carbs replenish necessary muscle glycogen and also aid in muscle recovery and growth. Essential fatty acids give us energy for future use. Various other nutrients fortify the body and keep it healthy so we can perform at our best.
Get this part down pat, and the rest of your nutritional roadmap is just a matter of tweaking your menu to keep it fresh.
The Absolute Best Foods for Athletes
These are some of the best foods that can be mixed and matched to suit your own athletic performance goals.
1. Vegetables: They’re a great source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and are one of the healthiest forms of carbs. Several phytonutrients in vegetables fight cancer and disease, and can also help stabilize blood sugar.
Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, watercress, and cabbage) and allium family vegetables (like onions, garlic, and scallions) are some particularly nutritious selections.
2. Bananas: One large banana provides roughly 31 grams of carbs and is rich in potassium, an essential electrolyte. Both of these reasons make bananas a great pre- or post-workout snack.
3. Berries: Berries like raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are rich in both carbs and antioxidants.
4. Legumes: These high-satiety foods are an excellent source of carbs. Some healthy options include garbanzo beans, black beans, lentils, and peanuts.
5. Whole Grains: Whole grains like barley, oats, bulgur, wheat berries, and black rice contain soluble fiber that regulates blood cholesterol levels. Whole grains are good sources of resistant starch, which means they take longer to be broken down by the body. So, in other words, they have staying power.
6. Quinoa: Gluten-free and high fiber, quinoa also helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Related: Quinoa Nutrition Facts
7. Winter Squash: Winter squash like butternut squash, acorn squash, pumpkin, and spaghetti squash are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and of course, carbs.
8. Sweet Potatoes: Carb-rich sweet potatoes are a high-satiety food and are also a rich source of the antioxidant beta-carotene and potassium, an electrolyte essential to athletic performance and recovery.
9. Dairy Products: Certain dairy products like milk and yogurt are rich sources of carbohydrates. Due to their high Glycemic Index, it’s best to save these foods for post-exercise consumption.
10. Tomatoes: Particularly in a concentrated form like tomato sauce, tomatoes are a good source of carbs. Plus they’re packed with antioxidants (like lycopene) that can lower the risk of certain diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and prostate cancer in men.
11. Seeds And Nuts: In whole form or as a spread, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein. Stick to raw or dry-roasted seeds and nuts rather than the kind that are treated or cooked in oil. Some kinds like walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds are also omega-3–rich as well.
Related: 5 Reasons to Eat Pumpkin Seeds
12. Lean Poultry: Skinless turkey and chicken breast are some of the healthiest, high-protein selections. Poultry contains the highest amount of valine, one of the three BCAAs essential to muscle building.
13. Wild-Caught Fish: Not all fish are created equal, nutritionally speaking. Tuna and salmon are among the leanest, highest-protein selections at 35 to 39 grams and 23 grams, respectively, per cup. In particular, albacore and wild salmon are some of the best choices.
Avoid farmed Atlantic salmon, which contains contaminants and also a lower amount of omega-3s and other nutrients. Other good wild-caught fish include haddock, halibut, sole, cod, tilapia, trout, catfish, sardines, and anchovies. Fresh is preferable, but frozen is the next best choice.
14. Lean Shellfish: Shrimp, scallops, and mussels are among the healthiest choices.
15. Whey Protein Isolate Powder: Some mixtures are 90 percent protein, but concentration can vary by brand, so be sure to read the labels.
16. Lean Red Meat: Best choices include buffalo meat and grass-fed beef cuts like eye of the round roast, top round roast, lean ground beef, and top sirloin steak, sirloin tip side steak, and top round steak.
17. Lean Dairy: Some of the best high-protein dairy selections include hard cheeses, particularly Parmesan, Romano, and Asiago, which are not only high in protein but also low in fat. Of all of the hard cheeses, shredded Parmesan is the highest in protein (38.5 grams of protein per cup), closely followed by Pecorino Romano and Asiago, both at 32 grams of protein per cup.
Other great options include cottage cheese, ricotta, mozzarella, skim milk, and Greek yogurt. Many dairy products contain omega-3s as well as leucine and isoleucine, two key BCAAs that help build muscle.
Dairy also contains casein and whey, which is a very powerful combination: The former slows down protein breakdown in the body while the latter accelerates protein synthesis, two essential activities for building and maintaining muscle.
18. Soy: This high-protein food is available in multiple forms, including edamame, tofu, soy nuts, and miso paste. Protein content can vary depending upon form and variety. Typically, when it comes to tofu, the firmer the tofu, the higher the protein content.
19. Legumes: Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peanuts are some of the healthiest selections.
Related: 8 Things Healthy People Do
Corey Irwin is a healthy gourmet chef, recipe developer, endurance athlete, running and wellness coach, and author of The Athlete’s Cookbook (Ulysses Press, January 2014). She actively promotes total-body fitness, balanced nutrition, and long-range, preventative health via her websites CookingwithCorey.info and SeeCoreyrun.com.
Featured image by SweetOnVeg
Originally published 2/2014 and updated 11/2014.