“I can eat whatever I want because I burned so many calories during my workout!”

I have never heard or said this myself….wrong!

I am sure you have heard a teammate, friend, or family member, say a version of this quote, and maybe you said it a few times yourself after a wicked hard workout, but the truth is, you can’t eat whatever you want. Yes, athletes need more calories than the average individual to support their daily energy expenditure from exercise, but those extra calories should still come from healthy foods 80-90% of the time. If you want to see improvements in your physical performance and body composition, there are restrictions on what an athlete can eat during certain times of training.

Amateur marathon runners are one population that I often see gain weight due to over consuming calories to prepare for long runs or celebrating after long runs (aka 2-3 day feast), especially calories from saturated fat (i.e. burgers & french fries, big bag of potato chips, ice cream sundaes, chocolate chip cookies, or fried anything). Yes, you will be hungry after a 2-3 hour training run, but you can still consume the calories you need with healthier nutrient dense foods. After a hard workout, your body deserves to recover and be pampered with quality fuel, not rewarded with high saturated fat foods or excessive amounts of alcohol.

What you eat before, during, after exercise is a BIG part of your training



Therefore, athletes need to understand general nutrition guidelines before modifying their dietary intake to support their training and sport-specific nutrient demands.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is published jointly by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) every 5 years to provide a key resource to policy makers and health professionals to develop and implement healthy eating patterns in our country. The guidelines are supported by evidence-based food and beverage research for American ages 2 and old to promote overall health and prevent chronic disease throughout the lifecycle.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes 5 main guidelines: 

  1. Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
  2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.
  3. Limit calories from added sugar and saturated fat, and reduce sodium intake.
  4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
  5. Support healthy eating patterns for all.

The goal of a healthy eating pattern is to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, provide all essential nutrients (avoid deficiencies and excesses), and reduce the risk of developing chronic disease.

Strong evidence has shown a healthy eating patterns reduces risk of cardiovascular disease and moderate evidence has shown a healthy eating pattern reduces risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers (colorectal and postmenopausal breast cancers), overweight, and obesity. Also, neurocognitive and congential anomalies may be linked to eating patterns.

A healthy eating pattern includes: VARIETY!

  • A variety of vegetables. ALL colors, shapes, and textures.
  • A variety of fruit, especially whole fruit, not just 100% fruit juice.
  • A variety of grains. Aim for at least 50% of your grains to be whole grain (whole wheat, oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa, farro, millet, etc.)
  • A variety of fat-free or low-fat dairy, including a mixture from cheese, yogurt, milk, and fortified soy products.
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats & poultry, eggs, beans, nuts/seeds, and soy products.
  • A variety of oils, including olive oil, canola oil, fatty fish oil, and nut/seed oils. (Note: unsaturated fats are liquid oils at room temperature).
  • Daily beverage options: water, seltzer, milk, and 100% fruit juice.

A healthy eating pattern limits:

  • Consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fat
    • Foods high in saturated fat are meats not labeled as lean, whole milk, butter, coconut oil, and palm oil. (Note: saturated fats are solid at room temperature)
  • Consume NO trans fat (aka partially hydrogenated oils, as written on the food label in the ingredient list)
  • Consume less than 10% of calories from added sugars.
    • Does not include the naturally occurring sugars in plain milk/yogurt and fruit.
  • Consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. (Note: 1 tsp of salt contains 2,400 mg of sodium) *
  • If alcohol is consumed, women should drink no more than 1 drink per day, men should drink no more than 2 drinks per day. (Note: 1 drink = 5 fl oz wine, 12 fl oz beer, or 1.5 fl oz liquor)

*Sodium intake may be higher than 2,300 mg of sodium per day for athletes who exercise longer than 1 hour, exercise in hot & humid environments, and/or have a high sweat rate.

Nutrients should always come from foods first before the use of supplements. Discuss with your physician and registered dietitian to determine of a supplement is needed.

Athletes will have to adjust the guidelines to fit their training demands in terms of the amount of macronutrient (carbohydrates, fat, protein) and micronutrient (specific vitamins and minerals), but the concepts of eating a VARIETY of foods, NOT ELIMINATING food groups, opting for healthy fats vs. saturated and trans fats are all important for athletes to follow on a day to day basis. Adjustments will vary from athlete to athlete and can be determined with the help of a registered dietitian.

Fruit and vegetables should not be considered optional at meals. Their portion on the plate may vary in size depending on the intensity of training (which will be covered in the next post “MyPlate for Athletes“), but they should still be present at every meal for those disease fighting vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, and extra water to continue hydrating!

In terms of preventing the development of chronic diseases (i.e. diabetes, heart disease, and cancer), you want to practice all the healthy behaviors that you can control. Obviously, athletes exercise and daily exercise is recommended for long-term health, but exercise alone does not cancel out disease. Nutrition is  another factor that you can control and make adjustments as you go through the phases of life, as an athlete and non-athlete.

The goal is to have everyone and everyplace on board with helping you make healthy choices through available, accessible, and affordable food and beverage options. Unfortunately, healthy options may not be currently present everywhere you go on a daily basis. In these cases, you need to plan ahead and be prepared with your own healthy food options. I will touch on meal planning and preparation many times in future posts to avoid situations where you are forced to opt for the unhealthy snack or meal.

One last thought…. you will not be eating the perfect diet overnight. It is important to start with small shifts in your diet in order for them to become a part of your daily lifestyle forever with minimal thinking (aka no stress, no long conversations between your mind’s devil & angel) and avoid feeling overwhelmed to eat healthy. These small shifts are small goals towards eating healthier nutrient dense foods!

Hopefully, I can help you eat healthier to prevent disease and be the athlete you want to be!

What is your goal this week towards eating healthier?!?! 

My goal is eating at least 3 different colors of fruit and vegetables per day!  I tend to get hooked on green vegetables. Time to branch out!


Thanks for reading  😎


Your Dietitian,

The Nutriciser!