Athletes and active individuals need to follow a balanced lifestyle which includes a balanced nutrition plan, healthier meal options and eating the required snacks before or after training or competition. They usually choose convenient meals based on their taste, their beliefs and of course their nutritional knowledge (1). Especially competitive athletes very often search for food options which they can make quickly at home or which they can buy from a shop while being away. These options ideally need to be healthy-complete meals (aka which contain lean protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats). Athletes or active individuals may have reduced performance, energy levels and increased tiredness by following an incomplete diet pattern which lacks nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals (2). It's important for everyone but especially active individuals to focus on the Healthy Eating Plate and include all the macro and micronutrients into their diets as well as to know how to recover and re-hydrate during the day and especially post-exercise (2).
Here are the top 5 foods we recommend for athletic performance:
Oats are a great source of fibre, b-glucans, functional protein and phytochemicals. They also contain a good amount of the B complex vitamins and are a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, iron and zinc (3). All these nutrients are required for the body’s immunity. Another benefit is that the consumption of oats have cholesterol lowering effects (3).
Usually, athletes consume oats for breakfast in the form of porridge or overnight oats or they add them in bars, yogurt, homemade biscuits or smoothies. Oats contain 12 g of protein per 100 g of product and adding them in your diet or consuming them as breakfast will give you the required energy to start your day, will make you feel full for longer will help you choose more balanced meals during the day.
If you are an athlete or an active individual use oats to make a variety of recipes such as healthier cake options, muffins, protein bars, smoothies, pancakes or mix them with your yogurt.
2. Protein Bars
Protein is required to help athletes repair their muscle fibres after exercising, and protein aids quicker recovery helping the athlete minimise future injuries.
Protein can help athletes feel fuller for longer, and can help build up their muscular mass (4, 5). Protein bars are an easy 'on the go' option and they are usually used as a post-exercise meal or as a midday or afternoon snack. It is essential though for the athletes to have a complete meal high in protein post-exercise (4, 5) and if possible, to take protein from wholefoods as they provide additional health benefits (4). Thus, athletes can either buy the ready-made bars or make their own homemade bars by combining foods such as oats, quinoa puff, nut butters, seeds, nuts, milk or non-dairy milk.
3. Milk and smoothies
Milk is also a drink which is very often consumed by athletes after training as it is considered an effective food to improve muscle protein synthesis (6, 7). It contains vitamins and minerals, has a good amino acid profile (6) and it’s a very easy option to be consumed post-exercise. Athletes tend to use both low fat and chocolate milk as a rehydration drink.
On the other side, smoothies, which usually contain milk, are also a great option which will help the athletes to keep well hydrated during the day and re-hydrate after a training or a competition. Moreover, they are usually a complete meal as they contain fruits (carbohydrate, fibre and sugar source) and nuts, nut butters and seeds (protein and Omega 3 fatty acids source). Of course, there are also smoothie options with yogurt instead of milk and vegan options with non-dairy and nut-based milk. Vegan athletes should aim to top up their smoothies with extra protein from wholefoods e.g. extra nuts, seeds, nut butters, oats or soya milk.
Bananas are another wholefood very commonly used by the athletic community as they are rich in carbohydrates and also considered cost-effective (8). One medium banana contains just 90 kcal and 20 g of carbohydrates and it’s high in potassium, manganese, thiamin, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. Bananas are considered a great and quick snack for before during and after exercise, as they help increase muscle glycogen production and decrease inflammation (8). Moreover, bananas due to their high potassium content are considered a good option for those who suffer from muscles cramps (9). Research has shown that women who consumed less potassium had more muscle cramps and soreness in comparison to those who didn’t (9). Of course, further research is still required.
Quinoa is a whole-grain which has become very popular over the last few years. It is used by athletes, especially vegan ones, because of its high protein and fibre content. More specifically, it contains 7 g of protein and 2.4 g of fibre per 100 g of cooked product while at the same time it is low in fat. It also comes with lots of vitamins and minerals and contains all the 9 essential amino acids (10) which are required to make a complete protein. Quinoa is also a good source of niacin, folates, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper and manganese. It is considered a grain or otherwise known as pseudo-cereal with higher nutritional value in comparison with the rest of the grains (10). It definitely deserves a part on your plate, especially if you are vegan, vegetarian or have a gluten sensitivity.
As you can see there are many more foods to eat for athletic performance than your typical pasta, potatoes, rice and chicken which athletes have before, during and after exercise. Try to focus on consuming more wholefoods and add to your lifestyle easy and quick snacks which can be cooked on a weekly basis. Sometimes if we try one new recipe or snacks once a week, our diets become more varied and we can start to see even more health benefits.
This article is written by Anna-Maria our sports nutritionist. If you are an athlete and are in need of nutrition advice please contact us to book Anna-Maria.
1. Birkenhead, K. L. and Slater, G. (2015). A review of factors influencing athletes’ food choices. Sports Medicine, 45 (11), 2-18.
2. Beck, K. L., Thomson, J. S., Swift, R. J., and R von Hurst, P. (2015). Role of nutrition in performance enhancement and postexercise recovery.
3. Rasane, P., Jha, A., Sabikhi, L., Kumar, A. and Unnikrishnan, V. S. (2015). Nutritional advantages of oats and opportunities for its processing as value added foods – a review. J Food Sci Technol, 52 (2), 662-675.
4. Van Vliet, S., Beals, J. W., Martinez, I. G., Skinner, S. K., and Burd, N. A., (2018). Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults through Whole Food Consumption. Nutrients, 10 (2), 1-14.
5. Van Loon, L. J C. (2013). Role of dietary protein in post-exercise muscle reconditioning. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser, 75, 73-83.
6. Roy, B. D. (2008). Milk: the new sports drink? A Review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 5, 1-6.
7. Shirreffs, S. M., Watson, P. and Maughan, R. J. (2007). Milk as an effective post-exercise rehydration drink. Br J Nutr, 98 (1), 173-180.
8. Nieman, D. C., Gillit, N. D., Henson, D. A., Sha, W., Shanely, R. A., Knab, A. M., Cialdella-Kam, L. and Jin, F. (2012). Bananas as an Energy Source during Exercise: A metabolomics Approach. PLoS One, 7 (5), 1-7.
9. Weiker, M. K., Nielsen, B., Waclawik, A. J., Staples, A. C., Hansen, K. E. (2017). Muscle cramps do not improve with correction of vitamin D insufficiency. WMJ, 116 (5), 200-204.
10. Angeli, V., Silva, P. M., Massuela, D. C., Khan, M. W., Hamar, A., Khajehei, F., Graeff-Horringer, S., and Piatti, C. (2020). Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.): An overview of the potentials of the ‘’Golden Grain’’ and Socio-Economic and Environmental Aspects of its cultivation and Marketization. Foods, 9 (2), 1-31.