When it comes to food choices, do you ever think about how many you make each day? Surprisingly, the average person makes about 220 food decisions each day! That’s a lot of decisions, and these food decisions are driven both by what your body is telling you internally as well as in response to external factors in your environment. Ultimately, these choices can influence how you look, feel, and perform. Some choices are good, but others can be detrimental.
Scientists who study food choice have found that some of these influencing factors include taste, convenience, cost, and cultural beliefs (1-3). In addition to these, a person’s knowledge about food and nutrition can also influence what they choose to eat.
So what about athletes trying to make the right food choices for training in their chosen sport? Coaches, peers, and culture within the sport can have the greatest additional influence. But so can concerns about weight and body image for performance and aesthetic reasons.
That’s where the danger lies. Athletes might adopt certain diets or make food choices that may not be optimal. If you’re an athlete, here are a few steps on how to avoid making poor food choices so you can be better equipped to choose the right food every time:
1. Don’t let teammates and peers be your nutritionist.
Factors important in food choice may differ based on the athlete’s training and priorities, as sport participation can range from recreational to the elite. However, an athlete should look to sports nutritionists, registered dietitians, or reputable publications for nutritional advice, not fads or hearsay.
2. Don’t let hunger guide you.
Hunger, appetite, and cravings are among the major influence of food choices for athletes. If hunger is left for too long it may override preference, price, and even health. Exercise is a powerful driver of appetite and is one of the main driving forces for athletes (4). An athlete must make sure they are fueling frequently throughout the day.
3. Get adequate protein, fat, and carbohydrates to fuel exercise.
You shouldn’t forgo any of these macronutrients in hopes of enhancing performance or improving body image or appearance. Fat, carbohydrates, and protein all help regulate eating behavior and energy balance (5). For instance, runners often have a preference for carbohydrate-rich foods as they use large amounts of fuel (6). Furthermore, power athletes who have a low protein intake may have an increased preference for protein-rich foods to restore balance without increasing energy intake (7). Athletes need to fuel their bodies with all three macronutrients multiples times a day based on their training schedule.
4. Close nutritional gaps with supplements.
Health means different things for different people. For the athlete, it may include feeling well for their sport or maintaining a lean, athletic appearance. For others, it might entail avoiding unhealthy habits. Athletes generally pay closer attention to the fuel that powers their performance. However, meeting the nutritional targets for key nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids can be difficult. Using a supplemental form can offer support without the added caloric intake.
5. Be careful in social situations.
As an athlete, it’s important to live a life of balance between the gym and time with family and friends. However, social time should not be a time to let nutrition go. Be smart and reasonable with your intake at social events so it doesn’t hinder your progress.
While food choices may differ on an individual basis, athletes need to make sure theirs are based on health, performance, and well-being. With so many choices being made throughout the day when it comes to eating, athletes should view it as ample opportunity to properly fuel their body to be able to perform at their highest level.
- Wansink B & Sobal, J. Mindless eating: the 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environ Behav. 2007; 39(1): 106 – 23.
- Smart LR & Bisogni CA. Personal food systems of male college hockey players. Appetite. 2001 Aug; 37(1):57-70.
- Jastran MM, Bisogni CA, Sobal J, Blake C & Devine CM. Eating routines. Embedded, value based, modifiable, and reflective. Appetite. 2009 Feb; 52(1):127-36.
- Long D, Perry C, Unruh SA, Lewis N & Stanek-Krogstrand K. Personal food systems of male collegiate football players: a grounded theory investigation. J Athl Train. 2011 Nov-Dec;46(6):688-95.
- Mayer, J. Glucostatic mechanism of regulation of food intake. Obes Res. 1996 Sep; 4(5):493-6.
- Simpson SJ & Raubenheimer D. Obesity: the protein leverage hypothesis. Obes Rev. 2005 May; 6(2):133-42.
- Griffioen-Roose S, Mars M, Siebelink E, Finlayson G, Tomé D & de Graaf C. Protein status elicits compensatory changes in food intake and food preferences. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Jan; 95(1):32-8.