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7 Ways to Boost Athletic Performance with Your Diet

Teen playing soccer

May 09, 2017

Some of us are serious athletes, some of us like to go for a nice run on the weekend, and some of us just play a game of pickup basketball once in a while. But everyone who takes part in athletic activity has a common enemy: inflammation. Inflammation is part of your body's response to injury or infection. In the short term, it’s a good thing. But when inflammation becomes chronic, it's a problem.

Inflammation is the common thread of all chronic disease. And for athletes, inflammation gets in the way of performance and recovery. When your joints or muscles are constantly inflamed, you won't perform your best. And it will hurt.

A huge way you can fight chronic inflammation is through the food you eat. Some foods promote inflammation, but others are anti-inflammatory. For tips on eating to reduce inflammation and boost athletic performance, we turned a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist. Here's the best advice.

(Before we begin, here's a little secret: These tips are good for anyone who wants to prevent or heal from chronic disease, not just for athletes.)

Eat real, whole foods

If you only have enough space in your brain to remember 1 tip, make it this: You’ll perform best if your body is powered by whole foods. That means food that’s not processed, packaged or handed to you through a drive-through window. It means food that doesn’t need a label or a list of ingredients, because you know exactly what it is: an apple, a carrot or an egg.

Real, whole foods have the essential nutrients your body needs for energy, performance, and recovery. They don’t contain the nasty, inflammatory additives you’ll find in food that was created in a lab somewhere.

Don't fear fat

For a generation, we were told that fat was our enemy. But now we know that's not true. A healthy diet should include plenty of fat – as long as it's healthy fat. This is especially true for athletes, because fat – not carbohydrates – is the best fuel for sustained energy.

Cook your food with coconut oil, top your sweet potato with some grass-fed butter, or munch on some raw nuts on the side. Other healthy fats: olives and extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nut butters and eggs (eat the yolk!). Some inflammatory fats to avoid: margarine or vegetable oil, store-bought mayonnaise, regular peanut butter (instead, go for natural peanut butters that contain only peanuts and salt), and any fats in packaged or fast food.

Fill your plate with protein and complex carbohydrates

Proteins supply essential amino acids our bodies can't make, and they help keep you feeling full for longer. At each meal, fill about ⅓ of your plate with protein. Some healthy proteins: poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, lean red meat, or beans and soy products. (Organic, free-range, or grass-fed versions are even better.)

The remaining ⅔ of your plate should be filled with complex carbohydrates: vegetables and whole grains. These provide energy, fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. They're not empty, like refined carbs (sugar and white flour). Fill ⅓ of the plate with low-starch veggies (broccoli, cucumber, greens and lettuce), and the remaining ⅓ with starchy veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash) or whole grains (quinoa, wild or brown rice, oats).

Drink your water

Everyone should drink at least ½ fluid ounce of water for every pound of body weight, per day. Athletes should drink a lot more. If you get dehydrated, it can result in fatigue, headaches, or muscle cramps – none of which will help you perform your best.

By the way, stop chugging sugary sports drinks. These actually contribute to dehydration. For a beneficial sports drink with electrolytes, try some coconut water.

Make fruit your dessert

Fruit gives you something sweet to munch on, and it’s also packed with nutrients. Eat a fist-sized serving at the end of your meal to help you stay fuller longer. (Starting your meal with a bite of protein will also help with this.)

Your parents were right: Chew your food

Each meal should take you 20-60 minutes to eat. Chew thoroughly, take your time and enjoy your food. This will help with digestion, and your body will absorb more nutrients.

Give your food some time to digest before you eat again

Especially if you want to control your weight and get leaner, it's a good idea to space your meals at least 5 hours apart. This will help your body burn stored fat. Avoid snacks if you can help it, too. If this sounds impossible to you, try eating more protein and healthy fats, and less empty carbs. You'll be surprised how long you'll stay full.

For the same reasons, try not to eat right before bed. Give your body a few hours to digest dinner before you go to sleep.

If you follow these guidelines, you won't just improve your athletic performance, energy and recovery, you'll also keep yourself from feeling hungry all the time, lower your risk of chronic disease, and just spend more time feeling your best.

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