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Nutrition for Athletes – Building your ideal body

Sports woman with healthy food on the kitchen

Understanding the basic concepts of how nutrition works is an inseparable part of achieving any fitness goal whatsoever. There is no athlete out there who isn’t somewhat educated on what food he is putting into his body or at least not a successful one. Bodybuilding consists of nutrition and dieting equally as much as it consists of putting in effort in the gym. Hence, let us move forward and see what the key to unlocking the full potential of our body is.

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The process of lifting weights or exercising our body requires energy. We have energy reserves in our bodies by default, but we use that energy to survive and accomplish day-to-day activities thus it quickly disappears. Because of that, it is necessary to replenish our bodies with proper food which gets transformed into energy through metabolism. As the intensity of work grows higher so does the need for replenishment. In other words, more work requires more energy ergo more food.

Making sure you intake the optimal energy source is important for several reasons. Simply put – some foods are better in making strong bodies than others. The muscle tissue which is broken down during strenuous exercise needs to be repaired. Proper food choices allow exactly that to take place. Otherwise, the body takes more time to recover than it should.

Besides, strength levels usually stay the same or move up for a small degree if on a poor diet. That is avoidable if proper nutrition alongside supplementation is implemented into your daily routine. In the end just to mention perhaps the most obvious reason – overall health. Eating proper food will keep your body healthy.

Collagen Protein Supplement Powder and Vegetables
Supplements are important if you wish to achieve your fitness goals.

Nutrition in a nutshell

Before you go to the gym and start lifting heavy weights some theory should be taken into consideration first. Speaking in quite general terms food is comprised of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are the following: protein, lipids (commonly known as fats), and carbohydrates (often referred to as sugars), while on the other side, we have micronutrients which are vitamins and minerals. 

Finding an adequate proportion of both the above mentioned will bring you closer to building muscle or burning fat, depending on what you are trying to achieve. Roughly put, if you want to build muscle you need a caloric surplus consisting of a high carb and protein diet or a high fat and protein diet.

In both cases, the amount of protein should be higher than usual (dietary reference intake is somewhere about 0.8 grams of protein per day – 56g for an average adult) since protein is required to repair all of the damage done to muscle tissue. The numbers which you are supposed to be looking at to repair the broken tissue and also increase muscle mass should be somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound every day (according to ACSM[1]) depending on the metric system.[1] 

Various raw meat, sources of animal protein
Various raw meat, sources of animal protein.

Carbs and fats are there to provide additional calories since carbs and especially fats have more calories per gram in comparison to protein. Also, they provide for the rest of the bodily needs which we cannot be found in protein-based foods. However, we must not neglect the micronutrients! They are vital for our skin, nerves, health and much more. Consuming enough fruits, sodium, vegetables, etc. will suffice in maintaining our quintessential body functions up and running. 

What to put on your plate?

Having said briefly what the point of your nutritional plan should be let us now see what exactly should you prioritize when it comes to your eating habits. We can make a list of foods which you should eat regularly and a list of foods which you should discard or at least try and bring down to a minimum. The list is arbitrary and incomplete, but it will show the core sources of macronutrients you ought to consider in your diet. Naturally, some of the foods might fit in more than one category. 

Let us start with protein-based foods. We say based since there is no food with only protein or only carbohydrates inside of it. Almost all of the food which can be found in nature has a mixture of all three with a negligible number of exceptions. 

Foods high in protein

  • Eggs – often referred to as a “superfood” because of its richness in nutrients. It has a high protein value with as much as 6 grams of protein per egg (approximately, depends on the egg size), healthy fats and low carb content. Also, they are cheap which always comes in handy.
  • Chicken – the cornerstone of your typical bodybuilder. Not without a reason. Chicken, especially the breast, has a high protein count per gram while being low in fat and carbs. Like eggs, chicken isn’t an expensive grocery to purchase and is relatively easy to prepare.
  • Dairy high in protein – Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, low-fat milk, protein powder made from whey, casein, and so forth. The quality of dairy protein is rated high if not highest amongst all protein sources. All of the choices from the list are amazing for building muscle. Taking a protein shake made from whey powder is always a good and practical post-workout drink with a high amount of protein (~25g per serving). Be careful when choosing certain dairy products such as cheese since they can often have a higher fat content than what you would like.
  • Beans – another great protein source, but a plant-based one which is great if you are following a vegetarian diet. Beans are easy to prepare and not too costly. They can be easily supplemented with a variety of meals which makes them even more practical.
  • Beef – red meat, in general, is high in protein, but certain parts can be fat-heavy so keep an eye out.
  • Fish – various types of fish and seafood can fit into the protein-based category of food. Salmon, tuna, halibut, octopus, tilapia…you name it. All of these listed are rich in protein and fatty acids such as omega 3’s. 
  • Quinoa – also a great vegetarian/vegan option for your plant-based diet. An amazing blend of 11 amino acids makes quinoa an incredible source of protein.
quinoa in bowls
Black, white and red quinoa

Other food essential for building muscle

  • Rice – an amazing source of complex carbohydrates that take a long time to digest and are thus much healthier. Choosing between brown and white rice can be person dependent, but generally speaking, brown rice is better because it is richer in nutrients (fiber, vitamins, and minerals).
  • Vegetables – impossible to name all of them, since practically all of them are good for your body if consumed in moderate quantities. However, some are preferable to others because of their effects and nutrients which our body can use when trying to increase muscle mass. The list goes as follows: spinach, edamame, asparagus, soybeans, green peas, brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.
  • Grains – wheat germ, oats, spelt, Ezekiel bread, teff…
  • Sweet potatoes – such a good source of carbohydrates that it deserves a category for itself. Potatoes are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and they contain beta-carotene (an important antioxidant). 
  • Nuts – pistachios, peanuts, almonds, lentils, chia seeds, walnuts, and so on.
  • Fruits – what was said for vegetables can somewhat be applied for fruits as well. The list of fruits healthy and useful for your body is inexhaustible on this particular occasion so we will name those which are recommended for athletes: oranges, bananas, apples, strawberries, grapes, pears, cantaloupe, watermelon, and blueberries.
  • Oils – an important part of cooking that can sometimes be left neglected. Not all oils are particularly good for your body if on a muscle-building diet. You should choose olive oil, flaxseed, or avocado oil over others.
Various dried fruits and nuts
Various dried fruits and nuts

What to avoid

Besides naming what you ought to implement into your diet it is important to shed some light on the food you ought to avoid. Following a diet of an athlete requires some dedication and sacrifice, but above all, it requires persistence and discipline. To cut the story short, let us show the meals you should skip and for what reasons you ought to do so.

  • Sugar – foods which contain simple carbohydrates should be avoided generally except for certain cases (right after a workout for example). All fruits are mostly composed of sugar (fructose) and a lot of other foods contain sugar as well. However, what we have in mind when we say sugar is avoiding any type of food with content largely based on simple sugar: sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks, snacks, etc.
  • Alcohol – beverage containing alcohol slows down the muscle growth process by a margin. Why? When alcohol is consumed your body focuses primarily on getting it out of the system instead of replenishing your body with much-needed nutrients if you are exercising regularly.[3] Thus, try avoiding alcoholic drinks as much as possible. 
  • Processed food – highly processed and deep-fried food is often soaked with excess fat which you do not need. There are numerous health risks such as heart disease and diabetes which are associated with food such as these so try to keep them off your plate.[2]
Hookah and limoncello alcohol
Smoking and drinking will inevitably deviate you from your goals. Avoid them as much as you can.

Final words

Keeping a bodybuilding diet might seem like a painstaking, strenuous effort prima facie. However, take into consideration that any new habit formation takes time. If you wish to build a strong and healthy body then certain steps need to be made. Certainly, creating an eating regimen is one of the unavoidable ones. To acquire a body of an athlete you need to train AND eat like an athlete. Keep that in mind.


[1] The American College of Sports Medicine

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