By Lindsay Ford, MS, RD.
PSE Fuel Head Coach
I was once extremely confused and it landed me into full-blown disordered eating. This was over twelve years ago and I was getting ready to play collegiate soccer. At the time, I wanted to start eating better for my sport. I didn’t seek advice and I didn’t seek nutritional support. When I thought I was doing numerous things right, I was actually significantly under-eating day after day.
Today, many athletes and active individuals have a similar story. Under-eating, poor recovery and restrictive eating behaviors are all things I hear from numerous PSE clients and athletes alike.
Lets dive into this a little more. Lets explore the main things that need to happen in order to perform your best while honoring your health and longevity.
There are five main things that need to be considered when eating for both health and enhanced performance.
1) Adequate Energy Intake – Yes, calories do matter.
2) Proper Balance of Macronutrients – In the form of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each person and athlete is a little different here.
3) Eating Enough Micronutrients – In the form of vitamins and minerals is critical for overall health and recovery.
4) Paying Attention to Meal Timing – This is critical and important. Structure is helpful for most and I encourage everyone to eat at specific times.
5) Supplementation – Intake should only be considered if the first four things are not appreciated or practiced. Some people can integrate supplements, but most people shouldn’t need to take a supplement if a balanced nutrition plan is executed.
Lets dive into each of these in more detail.
Adequate Energy Intake
This is key. If you aren’t consuming enough energy in the form of calories then you are at risk of under recovery, sneaky fatigue and a lack of optimal energy. Optimal energy being the important adjective here. Sure, one can survive off 2,000 calories per day, but what if that person could thrive off 2,500 calories per day?
If someone wants debate me on body weight/calories/weight control then let me say this…weight is only the symptom. What you weigh on the scale is only the bi-product of your behaviors.
What you consume factors into this, but if you are striving for health and performance then eating enough daily and weekly calories is important. Consuming 1,500-2,000 calories per day for most active females is NOT enough. Consuming 2,000-2,500 calories per day for most active males is NOT enough.
When I was in my deep dark hole of doing what I thought was “right”, I was consuming 1,200-1,600 calories/day. That intake was 50% less than what I needed at the time. You think that played a role in my performance? 100%. You think that caused havoc on my mental health? 100%. Eat enough. Support your training. Support your life.
Proper Balance of Macronutrients
If you are eating enough energy in the form of calories then the next step is figuring out your macronutrient intake. Your macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein and fat. If you are participating in a specific sport then you may benefit from a tailored percentage breakdown, but most could practice the following breakdown and do well:
- 35-50% of energy from carbohydrate
- 30-40% of energy from fat
- 20-25% of energy from protein
The percentages above are very big picture, but most could start there and tailor as needed.
For example, someone may be consuming over 50% of their energy from carbohydrates, but they may feel better and perform better if it was closer to 40% and the other 10% translates over into fat. The wake up call I had was that fat was critical in my diet. I was consuming less than 20% of my energy from fat. It freaked me out, for no good reason other than I thought it was going to make me fat. Not great. Fat is essential for brain health, hormonal regulation, satiety and nutrient absorption. Additionally, fat just makes everything else better.
Consume Enough Micronutrients
What are your micronutrients?
Vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals that come from your protein, fat and carbohydrate whole food sources. Examples include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, B vitamins and more. I consider your micronutrients the things that make your body tick.
Your vitamins and minerals make functions in your body work significantly better.
- Without adequate iron we may develop anaemia.
- Without enough sodium, magnesium and potassium we are at risk for dehydration and cramping.
- If our levels of vitamin D are low then we are at greater risk for getting sick and depression.
The list goes on.
Here is the deal… consuming micronutrients is BEST in the whole food form. This means consuming your energy and macronutrients from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, variety of animal proteins, eggs, avocados, plan oils and more.
Avoid jumping on any supplemental band-wagon and consume more whole foods. Some foods and beverages that have been linked to enhanced performance and optimal health are… beets, nitrate rich foods (e.g., dark leafy greens), bananas, eggs, honey, sweet potato, avocado, dark chocolate, coffee, green tea, salmon/omega-3 rich foods and nuts.
Paying Attention to Meal Timing
Knowing when you are going to eat is extremely helpful in order for you to get in the foods you need to consume to support your health and recovery.
I recommend most people start with eating three meals per day. Any snacking should be intentional and with a purpose. Write out when you are going to eat your first, second and third meal.
Based on experience, nothing good happens after 10 pm. I would avoid going longer than 5-6 hours without eating and I would give yourself ranges in which you feel it would be best for you to eat.
For example, breakfast could happen between 7:00 am and 8:00 am Monday through Saturday. Sleep in on Sunday and eat breakfast at 9:30am to 10:00 am.
Side note on fasting and IF… any athlete that is striving for enhanced performance should not be fasting or skipping meals. Just stop. If you’re testing intermittent fasting then just own the fact you are doing it for some reason other than improving your performance. If you have any history of disordered eating or eating disorders then you shouldn’t fast either. I don’t think I need to explain that one. It should be common sense at this point.
Most people, if consuming adequate energy, macro and micro-nutrients should not have to take a supplement. A supplement could be of value if someone has the following:
- Underlying health condition that requires supplementation/specific nutrient.
- Someone’s lifestyle that misses out on specific nutrients (e.g., vegan).
- Extremely busy lifestyle that would be supported by a supplement (e.g., high quality whey protein powder in a smoothie).
- Athlete that struggles consuming enough energy through food alone.
- Race-day or training day supplement that allows for optimal performance (e.g., energy bites or food product consumed during a marathon).
I do think it is important to note that dietary supplements are not regulated well nor are they as powerful as real food. A few supplements that have historically been researched well: creatine monohydrate, whey protein isolate, chocolate milk, beetroot, tart cherry juice and electrolyte supplements to support hydration during and after high temperatures or long events.
To conclude, I would take a personal inventory of the above points and figure out where you may need some improvement.
Start with the simple things and build from there.
Remember, enhancing your performance also means honoring your overall health. If you don’t have your health in mind then you may be missing the boat. Keep on keeping on.