The same basic principles of healthy eating apply to athletes as well as sedentary people -- eat a varied diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, and limit processed foods, sugar, sodium, fat and cholesterol. Active people do have more complex nutritional needs, however, so if you exercise often, it's important to build an eating plan that accounts for them. That includes getting more calories, protein and water and timing your meals and snacks to fit in with your workouts.
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According to the Merck Manual Home Health Handbook, a well-balanced diet for active adults contains about 50 percent to 55 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent to 15 percent of calories from protein and less than 30 percent of calories from fats. For athletes, it’s relevant to know how quickly each type of nutrient can provide energy. In general, the body is able to digest carbohydrates most rapidly and get energy from them very quickly -- especially simple carbs like fruits and dairy products. Protein is next in line in terms of processing speed, and fats are slowest to digest.
Very active people need greater amounts of certain macronutrients than people who are sedentary. According to the University of North Carolina, athletes should be eating 0.5 to 1 gram of protein, 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates and 0.5 grams of fat per pound of body weight every day. For a 150-pound athlete, that means 75 to 150 grams of protein, 450 to 750 grams of carbohydrates and 75 grams of fat daily.
Prior to Workouts
According to the American Dietetic Association, a preworkout meal or snack should have three goals: to promote easy digestion, to provide extra energy and to encourage muscle growth and repair. That means choosing foods that are high in protein and carbohydrates but low in fat and fiber. Smart choices of things to eat several hours before your workout include a peanut butter sandwich, a fruit smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal.
Eating a high-protein meal or snack soon after a weight-bearing workout promotes lean muscle mass gain, strength gain and body fat loss, according to research published in 2012 in the “Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.” The American Dietetic Association also encourages active individuals to eat protein after exercising, preferably within 15 to 60 minutes of working out. Healthy choices include a container of nonfat Greek yogurt, a homemade sports drink or protein drink or a handful of unsalted nuts. Hydration during and after your workout is also important. Most active people can replenish fluid with water only, but if you’re exercising for more than an hour at a stretch, you can also replenish lost electrolytes with a sports drink.