Top performing athletes know that nutrition is king when it comes to gaining an edge over their competitors. However, no matter what your goal is—carving out your six-pack, increasing your stamina—the gateway to success lies on your plate.
The wrong ones set you back. When it comes to chowing down, these are the foods a serious athlete won’t touch.
Athletes see each meal as an opportunity to refuel: How much protein can I fit into this meal? How can I add more good fats? It’s what drives performance. Nutritionally void foods like artificial sweeteners have no place in their diet. Not only do they offer no health benefits, but consuming artificially sweetened foods like a can of diet soda per day could significantly increase your risk for health problems and weight gain, according to a Purdue University study. Artificial sweeteners trick the body into thinking you're consuming real food, and because they’re over 100 times sweeter than the real thing, your body starts producing insulin (the fat storage hormone). You’re better off consuming the real stuff in moderation.
Canned soup might be convenient, but most of the time it's no healthier for you than other highly processed snacks. The long shelf life should tip you off. “Some soups are so processed and high in sodium that it trumps any health benefits. I would opt for low-sodium or homemade instead,” says Jim White, R.D. The body needs sodium to function properly, but too much can lead to high blood pressure.
Rice cakes have long held a “healthy” reputation, but the staple diet snack is practically empty—nutritionally speaking. Yes, they do boast a low calorie count, but athletes need calories to keep their energy levels up. Not to mention these crunchy little snacks will send your blood sugar soaring. Rice cakes can have a glycemic index as high as 91, not far off from pure glucose, which has an index of 100. For better carbs, grab an English muffin or some fruit instead, suggests White.
Artificial sugar is a definite no, but chowing down on too much of the real thing is just as bad. While active guys can afford to take in more calories than the average man, it doesn’t mean they’re scarfing down sugary foods on the reg. No athlete gets to the top of his game, and stays there, by starting his day off with a big bowl of oat cereal and marshmallows. Too much sugar also causes a spike in insulin, priming your body to store more fat.
“White pastas, rice, and breads are OK, [but not ideal] because they're stripped of their nutrients and fiber,” says Jim White. Refined white flour is made from stripping the fiber, wheat germ, and essential B vitamins from the wheat kernel—what’s left is a highly processed food product. When consumed, it raises insulin levels and contributes to dips in energy and weight gain. Stick to whole-grain products. Those made of white flour are not going to give you lasting energy.
Whether from the concession stand or popped in the microwave, this movie staple has no place in a fit man's diet. Saturated with unhealthy fats, unearthly levels of sodium, and in some cases, laced with chemicals, popcorn does not fuel an athlete's body for a strenuous training session, nor does it encourage recovery after a long workout. Microwave popcorn bags are also lined with something called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical which is also found in Teflon pots and pans—yikes. There is a flip side, however. If you air pop the corn or pop it on the stove with a small amount of coconut oil, it turns into somewhat of a superfood, boasting high levels of antioxidants and a hearty dose of satiating fiber.
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Before you roll your eyes, listen up. Granola might seem healthy, with fibrous oats as the base, but it’s not exactly all it’s cracked up to be. Most versions of the cereal come stacked with high amounts of sugar, unnecessary fat, and an excess amount of calories. Does anyone ever stop at the ¼ cup serving? While highly active guys need the calories and fiber, the downsides of granola outweigh the benefits. A bowl of oats with a scoop of nut butter is a much better alternative.
Maintaining a superior level of fitness comes down to consuming everything in moderation—especially alcohol. What serious athlete do you know shotguns beers or throws back shots on a regular basis? Alcohol inhibits your physical fitness in a number of ways. Too much booze slows muscle recovery, impairs motor skills, and decreases strength and sprint performance. It’s also a diuretic, so it dehydrates you. Research published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal also found alcohol depresses the immune system and slows the body’s ability to heal, which could increase your risk of illness and injury.
An athlete needs his protein. “Protein is important for repairing and strengthening muscle tissue. I would advise to add protein to every meal to maintain adequacy, balance, and variety, while also helping lower blood sugar levels and increasing satiety,” says White. Oatmeal may be the breakfast of champions—but not without a side of egg whites or a scoop of nut butter.
Unless you're doing a really long, rigorous workout, chugging a sports drinks isn't necessary. Electrolyte-enhanced beverages usually contain up to up to 34 grams of sugar, so an athlete is better off drinking water and refueling with other foods and beverages. (Coconut water and tart cherry juice have been hailed as miracle workout elixirs.) Research backs it up, too. A study published in the journal Obesity found that people who consume one or more sports drinks every day gained more weight over a three-year span than those who don’t.
The problem with most bars—be it snack, protein, or energy—is all the added sugars and fats. Obviously protein bars are calorie-dense to help you gain muscle, but if you’re chowing down on ‘em after a light workout, or eating them even if you haven’t worked out, it can easily pack on the pounds. Likewise, nutrition and snack bars tend to be sugar bombs with add-ins like nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate. You want to opt for bars with minimal, pronounceable ingredients.
Flavored yogurt cups are portable and tasty, but they host an avalanche of sugar—especially ones with fruit at the bottom or granola add-ins. This will prevent you from achieving a lean, shredded physique and spike your blood sugar, upping your odds of binging on food and experiencing an energy crash. Greek yogurt is a far better breakfast for serious fitness and health enthusiasts because it’s protein-packed and, if you go with plain, relatively low in sugar.
Carbs aren’t the enemy all the time, but you really want to stock up on the best sources like quinoa, black rice, even whole-wheat pasta, because white pasta is stripped of its fiber and bran. You want unrefined foods, because more of its nutrients are preserved. And for an athlete, you want calories from foods that deliver the biggest nutritional bang for their buck.
Fruit juice is deceiving. It’s got fruit, and you know that has essential vitamins and minerals, but it also has a boatload of sugar. What’s more, it lacks the component in fruit—the skin and fibrous flesh—that holds majority of its nutrition. And since you’re not chewing, the sugar (most of which is fructose) is sent to the liver very quickly—which can be lodged and stored there as fat. Unsweetend cherry or grape juice, can help you recover after a difficult workout by keeping your blood flowing properly, boosting your cardiovascular health, and filling your body with antioxidants. But they're still high in sugar, so be mindful.
You wouldn’t douse important vegetables with cream, fat, and sugar, but that’s what you’re doing when you use most salad dressings. Instead of sabotaging your health with processed oils, chemicals, and preservatives opt for olive oil- or vinegar-based dressings, which you can add your own spices to for one-of-a-kind flavor. And if you crave creaminess in a dressing, use avocado or tahini as your base.
Though convenient, flavored instant oatmeal doesn’t do your morning or health any justice. Instant oats are steamed, flattened, pre-cooked, cut into tiny pieces, and dehydrated, whereas whole, rolled oats are just steamed and flattened, and nutritionally speaking they’re similar in calories, protein, carbs, and sugar—it’s the flavored packets that really get you. They’re hiding a lot of salt and sugar, so opt for plain instant oatmeal and flavor it with cinnamon and fruits like cherries, strawberries, or blueberries, or prepare steel-cut oats the night before with chia seeds, almond milk, fruit, and store in the fridge overnight.
If you’re making lunch from home, kudos to you, you’re saving money and calories. But not if you’re go-to is a hoagie crammed with provolone, pepper jack, ham, salami, turkey, and any other number of add-ons like bacon and condiments. Packaged deli meats are hiding tons of added salt and nitrates, which are used to preserve their freshness and color. Aside from calories, you’re upping your odds for heart disease and cancer. A smarter choice: Buy rotisserie chicken, or cook up chicken and turkey breasts that have lean protein.
You'll run into a lot of problems with snacks hailed as "healthy"—they're not really healthy. Trail mix may be an easy snack to keep in your car, at the office, or with you on hikes, but that fiber-filled snack you think you're having is really just a giant tub of candy. Do coconut shavings, M&Ms, candied fruit, and yogurt- or chocolate-covered nuts seem like fuel fit for an athlete? Sorry, but neither do we. Skip the store-bought stuff and make your own muscle-building mix with seeds, nuts, and some raisins.
Pretzels seem wholesome. But they lack healthy fiber and fat so you can plow through half a bag and still be hungry after. Just 10 hard, twisty pretzels have 250 calories and lots of salt. Forgo the empty calories and snack on wholesome, nutrient-dense fruits and veggies instead.
Frozen yogurts are a healthier alternative to ice cream. Most are fat free, but high in sugar, so always in moderation. While most frozen yogurt is nonfat or very low in fat the calories still add up. Most nonfat "original" or "plain" (typically the lowest-calorie flavor at most frozen yogurt shops) is about 30-35 calories per ounce with about 20g of sugar—meaning that a large 16-ounce cup weighs in at 380 calories and 76g of sugar before adding any toppings.