by Tiffany Gagnon
Top performing athletes know that nutrition is king when it comes to gaining an edge over their competitors. However, no matter what your goal is—carving out your six-pack, increasing your stamina—the gateway to success lies on your plate.
An athlete’s diet is more than just calories in and calories out—it’s fuel. The right foods increase your energy, promote muscle growth, and aid in muscle repair. The wrong ones set you back. When it comes to chowing down, there are certain eats a serious athlete just won’t touch.
1. Diet Soda:
Athletes see each meal as an opportunity to refuel—How much protein can I fit into this meal? How can I add more good fats? —because it’s what drives their performance. Nutritionally void foods like artificial sweeteners have no place in their diet. Not only do they offer no health benefits, but consuming artificially sweetened foods like a can of diet soda per day could significantly increase your risk for health problems and weight gain, says a study out of Purdue University. Artificial sweeteners trick the body into thinking it’s consuming real food, and because they’re over a hundred times sweeter than the real thing, your body starts producing insulin (the fat storage hormone). You’re better off consuming the real stuff in moderation.
2. Canned Soup:
Canned soup might be convenient, but most of the time they’re no healthier for you than other highly processed snacks–their long shelf life should tip you off. “Some soups are so processed and high in sodium that it trumps over the health benefits. I would opt for low-sodium or homemade instead,” says Jim White, RD. The body needs sodium to function properly, but too much can lead to high blood pressure.
3. Rice Cakes:
Rice cakes have long held a “healthy” reputation, but the staple diet snack is practically empty—nutritionally speaking. Yes, they do boast a low calorie count, but athletes need calories to keep their energy levels up. Not to mention these crunchy little snacks will send your blood sugar soaring. Rice cakes can have a glycemic index as high as 91, not far off from pure glucose, which has an index of 100. For better carbs, grab an English muffin or some fruit instead, suggests White.
4. Sugary Cereal:
Artificial sugar is a definite no, but chowing down on too much of the real thing is just as bad. While active guys can afford to take in more calories than the average man, it doesn’t mean they’re scarfing down sugary foods on the daily. No athlete gets to the top of his game, and stays there, by starting his day off with a big bowl of oat cereal and marshmallows. Too much sugar also causes a spike in insulin, priming your body to store more fat.
5. White Bread:
Says Jim White, “White pastas, rice, and breads are OK, [but not ideal] because they are stripped of their nutrients and fiber.” Refined white flour is made from stripping the fiber, wheat germ, and essential B vitamins from the wheat kernel—what’s left is a highly processed food product, and when consumed, raises insulin levels and contributes to dips in energy and weight gain. Stick to whole-grain products; those made of white flour are not going to give you lasting energy.
6. Microwave Popcorn:
Whether from the concession stand or popped in the microwave, this movie staple has got no place in a fit man’s diet. Saturated with unhealthy fats, unearthly levels of sodium, and in some cases, laced with chemicals, popcorn does not fuel an athlete’s body for a strenuous training session, nor does it encourage recovery after a long workout. Microwave popcorn bags are also lined with something called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical which is also found in Teflon pots and pans—yikes. There is a flip side, however. If you air pop the corn or pop it on the stove with a small amount of coconut oil, it turns into somewhat of a superfood, boasting high levels of antioxidants and a hearty dose of satiating fiber.
Before you roll your eyes, listen up. Granola might seem healthy, with fibrous oats as the base, but it’s not exactly all it’s cracked up to be. Most versions of the cereal come stacked with high amounts of sugar, unnecessary fat, and an excess amount of calories. Does anyone ever stop at the ¼ cup serving? While highly active guys need the calories and fiber, the downsides of granola outweigh the benefits. A bowl of oats with a giant scoop of nut butter is a much better alternative.
Maintaining a superior level of fitness comes down to consuming everything in moderation—especially alcohol. What serious athlete do you know shotguns beers or throws back shots on a regular basis? Alcohol inhibits your physical fitness in a number of ways. Too much booze slows muscle recovery, impairs motor skills, and decreases strength and sprint performance. It’s also a diuretic, so it dehydrates you. Research published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal also found alcohol depresses the immune system and slows the body’s ability to heal, which could increase your risk of illness and injury.
9. A meal without protein:
An athlete needs his protein. “Protein is important for repairing and strengthening muscle tissue. I would advise to add protein to every meal to maintain adequacy, balance, and variety, while also helping lower blood sugar levels and increasing satiety,” says White. Oatmeal may be the breakfast of champions—but not without a side of egg whites or a big scoop of nut butter.
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