{span style=”font-size: 12px ”}Every athlete is looking for a competitive advantage. Some will seek it by putting in extra reps at the gym while others will put more time into studying game film. The continuous search for the competitive edge can become a game unto itself in hopes of finding an advantage that the competition hasn’t considered.{/span}

But there’s one place where many athletes don’t think of looking — and that’s on their plate.

When athletes view food as fuel and avoid eating on auto-pilot, they can convert the act of eating into a significant advantage. But it requires intentionality and a change in mindset, and that’s something Americans in general aren’t good at when it comes to food.

Last year the diet control and weight loss market grew to more than $72 billion in the United States alone, which is proof positive that we struggle with how to eat. If it is a struggle for us as adults, those bad or misinformed habits can trickle down and impact youth athletes who have different bodies and needs as they seek to compete.

How to think about nutrition

The World Health Organization defines nutrition as “the intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs. Good nutrition — an adequate, well balanced diet combined with regular physical activity — is a cornerstone of good health.” What’s clear is that good nutrition fulfills what the body needs, not just what we want or like to eat. Put another way, nutrition is a mindset. While eating should be an enjoyable act, when athletes think about what the body needs to perform versus what they crave, emotional decision-making becomes easier to tame.

The goal here isn’t to dictate what to eat, but rather to guide athletes on the basics of how to think about the foods they consume and how those foods and their nutrients affect performance. One of the tenets our sports medicine physicians, dietitians and nutritionists live by is this — you can’t out-train a bad diet, so make your training count with smart food choices. Instead of thinking just about the food you enjoy, think about how the food you consume can help you perform at your peak.


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has mapped the calorie needs for every age range for males and females, and their lifestyle — sedentary, moderately active, or active. As a baseline, active high school-aged football players need between 3,000 and 3,200 calories per day, and possible more depending on their activity level and how many calories they burn. Where those calories come from matters as they provide the necessary energy to perform athletically.


Older adults see carbs in a negative light and as a source of weight gain. For athletes, carbo-loading is a necessity. Carbs are stored in the body to help with endurance, high-intensity performance and to delay fatigue. Easy sources of carbs include whole grain breads and cereals, pastas, baked potatoes, raisins, nuts and bananas. Complex carbohydrates are better as they are nutrient dense and provide longer-lasting benefits to athletes than simple carbohydrates, which break down quicker with fewer nutrient benefits.

Lean protein

Regardless if an athlete prefers a plant-based diet or chooses meat, protein is accessible either way and provides valuable benefits. Like carbohydrates, protein helps athletes build and maintain endurance but also is rich in amino acids that help to build and repair muscle and tissue. Protein sources range from fish, lean meats, eggs, select nuts, low-fat dairy, beans and lentils.


Calcium is known for building strong bones and can help protect against stress fractures. Athletes can get the benefits of calcium through dairy products including low-fat milk, cheeses and yogurt. Some non-dairy sources of protein include soybean, leafy greens, almonds and sunflower seeds.

Fruits and vegetables

Straight from the ground, these all-natural foods provide a cross-section of vitamins, minerals, some protein, and simple sugars while also helping regulate and hydrate the body. Starchy vegetables such as squash, and non-starchy broccoli and leafy greens, are also healthy complex carbohydrates. Living in southeastern Ohio, we have a great abundance of fruits and vegetables locally available at moderate prices nearly year round through farmers markets and farm stands.

Healthy fats

Healthy fats promote long-lasting energy and are found naturally in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, natural peanut butter, some nuts and leafy greens such as spinach, kale and Brussels sprouts. Foods high in saturated and trans fats should be avoided.

Recovery foods

The nutrition needed for recovery right after an event also is important. A combination of fluids, carbohydrates and protein are beneficial to the recovery process within 30 minutes of exercise. Chocolate milk, yogurt and granola, peanut butter and bananas are all strong recovery options.

Nutrition and hydration (see last week’s article) are an energizing and enduring one-two punch that can give an athlete a competitive advantage outside of learned skills or effort in the weight room. But the winning takeaway is that when athletes think about nutrition now for in-season performance, they’re also building informed food-choice habits that can lead to healthier lifestyles.

Questions or concerns about this topic or any other sports medicine issue? We want to hear from you. Contact Dr. Frederick Soliman, DO, a primary care sports medicine physician at OhioHealth Physician Group Heritage College and team physician for the Ohio University Athletics Department at Frederick.Soliman@OhioHealth.com.

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