The 9 Best Foods for Athletes

Supplement your training with these healthy eats that will help you build strength, sustain energy, and recover faster. Foods for Athletes.
The market is flooded with foods and supplements marketed toward fitness fanatics.

From energy gels to protein powders to meal-replacement bars, you can find something packaged and processed for every type of athlete, whether you’re an endurance runner or a power lifter.

Eating for athletic performance, however, shouldn’t just take place after the gym or right before a big event.
It’s something you should be conscious of at every meal and every snack, say sports nutritionists and your strategy should involve more whole foods and natural nutrition than the factory-manufactured kind.

Here, 9 of their favorite eats for athletes, and tips on how to make the most of their nutritional benefits.

Quinoa

Although it’s really a sprouted seed, quinoa is usually considered a whole grain—and a super one, at that.
It’s got nearly twice as much protein (8 grams per cup) as other grains, and it’s one of the only foods to contain all nine essential amino acids our bodies need to build lean muscle and recover from tough workouts.

Quinoa’s also a great source of fiber and carbohydrates, and it’s extremely versatile: You can eat it like a breakfast cereal with cinnamon and honey, or make it savory and serve it in place of rice or pasta.

Berries

Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E help protect against oxidative stress and free radicals that form in the body during strenuous physical activity—and berries are one of the best sources.
Eating lots of antioxidants also seem to help preserve muscle strength as you age.

Choose berries with the most intense colors:

• Blackberries
• Raspberries
• Blueberries

Because they have more of those phytochemicals and protective substances.
Toss them into a smoothie, add them to your morning cereal, or just eat them by the handful.
Aim to eat berries (and other fruits) from across the color spectrum, to ensure that you’re getting a wide variety of antioxidants and nutrients.

Salmon

Oily fish, like:

• Salmon
• Mackerel
• Trout

are good sources of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation that can hamper athletic performance and contribute to chronic conditions like heart disease.

Wild salmon generally contains fewer cancer-causing chemical contaminants than the farmed variety, but it can be expensive or hard to find at your grocery store.

If that’s the case, consider using canned wild salmon in chowders, salmon burgers, salads, or pastas.
Most experts agree that eating seafood twice a week (or about 8 ounces total) is a good amount to reap its anti-inflammatory benefits.

Beans and Legumes

For vegetarian athletes (or those who just want to go meatless once and a while), plant-based sources of protein are a must. Foods for Athletes.

These include:

• Soybeans (and tofu)
• Lentils
• Peas

All varieties of beans—black, pinto, white, kidney, you name it.
Most people don’t eat enough of these or they say they don’t like them, but really, you can do so much with them:
Add them into salads, make a three-bean chili, eat hummus.

You don’t have to just eat them straight out of a can every day.

Beans may not be the protein powerhouse that steak or poultry is:

A cup of black beans has about 114 calories and 7 grams of protein, versus 168 calories and 33 grams of protein for 4 ounces of skinless chicken breast. But unlike animal protein, beans have no saturated fat and are also a good source of fiber, which can help keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Pasta

Protein may be important for building muscle, but carbohydrates are still the single most important component of an athlete’s diet.

Our bodies burn carbs as fuel. We can also burn fat or protein, but we have to convert them into carbs first, which is more work for the body.


So what kind of carbs should you eat? Most of the time, whole-grain varieties are best.
They have more fiber and, usually, less added sugar than their refined white counterparts.

The night before a big competition, though, switch to the simple stuff, plain pasta with red sauce, for example. The Fiber takes a while to get through your system and it can contribute to gastrointestinal distress, so reducing it before a big athletic event can help things run more smoothly.

Bananas

At about 100 calories a piece, bananas are a great source of easy-to-digest sugar and natural electrolytes.
They may not be as convenient as bars or gels, but they’re a good option for people who are looking for a natural, less-processed alternative that basically does the same thing.

They’re also a favorite post-event recovery food, and for good reason:

One medium banana contains 422 mg of potassium, which your body needs to regulate fluids and prevent muscle cramps and spasms.
Because you sweat out potassium during physical activity, it’s important to replenish as soon as possible afterward.

Cruciferous Veggies

All vegetables are good vegetables when it comes to providing the vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal performance.

But some—including dark, leafy greens and members of the cruciferous family like:

• Broccoli
• Cauliflower
• Brussels sprouts
• Kale

have higher concentrations of antioxidants, fiber, and other important nutrients.
As with fruits, it’s important to eat a variety of different colors, but, as a general rule, darker is usually better.

Nuts and Nut Butter

Because they’re a natural combination of protein and healthy fats, nuts (and nut products) are a staple in many athletes’ diets.

They’re also easy to digest, and can help balance your blood sugar when paired with carbs.

If you were to eat a bagel all by itself, it would turn to sugar pretty quickly and you’d use up all of that energy right away, but if you put some peanut butter or almond butter on that bagel, the protein and fat can help sustain those carbs over a longer period of time, in a non-invasive way that doesn’t upset your stomach.

Chocolate Milk

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need massive amounts of protein after a workout.
What you really need for recovery is simple carbs with a little bit of protein, about a four or five to one ratio.

You could find that in some store-bought drinks, or you could mix up a glass of low-fat chocolate milk and get the same benefits.

Plus, the caffeine in chocolate dilates and relaxes blood vessels, helping oxygen-rich blood reach your muscles more quickly and easily.

Other favorite recovery drink? Tart cherry juice, which has been shown to help prevent inflammation and reduce muscle soreness.