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Healthy Meals for Athletes

author image Janet Renee, MS, RD
Janet Renee is a clinical dietitian with a special interest in weight management, sports dietetics, medical nutrition therapy and diet trends. She earned her Master of Science in nutrition from the University of Chicago and has contributed to health and wellness magazines, including Prevention, Self, Shape and Cooking Light.
Healthy Meals for Athletes
All-bran cereal, low-fat milk and orange juice. Photo Credit: tacar/iStock/Getty Images

The meals athletes choose to eat influence how they perform in their chosen sports. It's crucial to pay close attention to nutrition when you want to perform your best. The types of meals you should eat depend on timing and performance goals. For example, the type of meal you eat to perform your best before an event is not the same as what you need to eat to recover after an event.

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Pre-event Meals

Complex carbohydrates take priority when it comes to planning pre-event meals, so stick to nutritious starchy foods. Starches break down more easily than protein and fat, so compose pre-event meals with this in mind. Examples of such meals include pasta with tomato sauce and a cup of beans; oatmeal with banana and two slices of whole-grain bread; low-fat lasagna with green peas; all-bran cereal with low-fat milk and 8 ounces of orange juice; or 4 ounces of salmon with 1 cup of brown rice and a small sweet potato.

Post-event Meals

It's beneficial to eat a small meal within 30 minutes of completing the event. Plan a meal with a mixed composition of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats to help you recover. Examples of post-event meals include skinless chicken breast with broccoli and 1 cup of black beans, or whole-wheat pasta with extra-lean ground beef. If your event is in the morning, have 1 cup of low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit and two slices of whole-grain toast as your post-event meal.

Snack Facts

Snacking is an important source of nutrients for an athlete. Choose nutrient-dense snacks to keep your body fueled throughout the day. Peanut butter with banana and whole-grain crackers makes a good, protein-rich snack. You can also have low-fat yogurt with granola and a handful of cashews. Dry cereal makes an excellent snack. Choose nonsugary, whole-grain cereals. Tuna and whole-wheat crackers are another snack option. Try reduced-fat cheese sticks with your favorite fruit or cottage cheese with mixed nuts.

Training Meals

Your training diet is what you eat regularly during the training season outside of pre- and post-event meals. Choose nutrient-dense foods to plan meals that are rich in protein to fuel muscle repair and growth; the foods should also be rich in complex carbohydrates to provide the energy needed to power through your training workouts. Complex carbs come from foods such as whole-wheat pasta, beans and other legumes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal and other whole grains. Choose lean proteins such as skinless chicken breast, extra-lean ground beef, egg whites, salmon and other fish. Aim to include vegetables with each meal.

Staying Hydrated

Proper hydration is a crucial aspect of athletic performance. Remaining hydrated helps replace fluid loss from sweat and prevents dehydration, which can cause fatigue and impact performance. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Sports beverages can help replace electrolytes lost during rigorous exercise. Drink 16 to 20 ounces of water or a sports drink at least four hours before training and another 8 to 12 ounces of water 10 to 15 minutes prior to exercise, recommends the American College of sports Medicine.

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