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Balanced Diet for an Athlete

author image Kristen McCarty
Kristen McCarty started writing wellness articles for students and faculty in 2007. She has worked as a certified athletic trainer and health educator at the collegiate and secondary school levels. She now writes for LIVESTRONG.COM. She holds a Bachelor of Science in sports medicine concentrating in athletic training from Mercyhurst College and a Masters of Arts in applied physiology from Teachers College-Columbia University.
Balanced Diet for an Athlete
Carbohydrates are important for sports performance. Photo Credit snem/iStock/Getty Images

A balanced diet provides the nutrients necessary for optimal health. Athletes need to ingest not only the appropriate amount of calories but also the correct type. Balanced diets include a wide variety of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Athletes and those that are very physically active must take in a higher amount of calories than what is suggested as the standard caloric intake.


Male and female athletes require an increased caloric intake to meet the energy needs of daily activity and daily exercise. USDA calorie guidelines recommend active female ages 26 to 50 to consume 2,200 to 2,400 daily calories and active males to consume 2,800 to 3,000 daily calories. Extra calories should be balanced by adding foods from carbohydrate, fat and protein sources.


Carbohydrates are essential for athletic performance. The body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in the liver and the muscles. The body converts stored glycogen to energy during exercise. According to the Dietary Reference Intake, a recommended 50 to 55 percent of daily calories should come from carbohydrate sources. Athletes should intake both simple and complex carbs. Carbohydrates can be found in breads, pastas, fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk products. According to the USDA, suggested servings include six to 11 servings of grain, three to five servings of vegetables, two to four servings of fruit and two to three servings of dairy.


The Dietary Reference Intake established by USDA recommends eating a diet including 10 to 35 percent protein. Merck suggests that adults should eat .8 g per kilogram of weight. Some athletes need more protein to meet exercise recovery needs. Protein is needed for muscle tissue repair, building of muscle mass, creating hormones and amino acids and immune function. Protein is also used as an energy source when carbohydrates are not available. Protein can be obtained from eating meats, fish, tofu, low fat cheese, low fat milk, nuts, beans and legumes. The food guide pyramid suggests two to three servings of meat and beans each day.


Fats provide the body with daily energy. Fats are the most efficient form of energy used by the body during low intensity activities. Fats are also used in hormone production. One gram of fat supplies the body with nine calories, which is twice as much as 1 g of carbohydrate or protein. Athletes should plan for diets with no more than 30 percent total fat and 10 percent or less saturated fat. Athletes should choose foods with omega-3 fatty acids and oleic acid. A diet too high in fat will store it as energy in adipose tissue. To prevent excess storage of fat, avoid saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.

Vitamins and Minerals

A diet meeting the food guide pyramid recommendations for appropriate age and activity levels should provide athletes the necessary daily intake of vitamins and minerals. Female athletes at risk for anemia may need to increase iron intake by adding extra green leafy vegetables, red meats or iron supplements.


One of the most important nutrients is water. Water is often overlooked but needs to be an integral part of an athlete's diet. Fluids replace the water lost by sweating during exercise. Eight or more glasses of water a day may be necessary for adequate hydration.

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