Healthy Eating for Athletes – The Benefits and Food Suggestions

Healthy Eating for Athletes – The Benefits and Food Suggestions

General Category

For young athletes across the country looking to evolve and go from being an amateur to a professional, it is extremely important that they take care of their body and prepare for their sporting event by consuming a diet that is suitable, healthy and beneficial.

There is a clear link between good health and good nutrition and whether you’re a competing athlete, a weekend sports player or just a dedicated regular exerciser, the foundation to improved performance is a nutritionally adequate diet.


The Basic Training Diet:

Better Health outline that an athlete’s diet should include a wide variety of foods like wholegrain breads and cereals, vegetables (particularly leafy green varieties), fruit, lean meat and low-fat dairy products to enhance long term nutrition habits and behaviours. It should provide enough energy and nutrients to meet the demands of training and exercise, provide adequate fluids to ensure maximum hydration before, during and after exercise and enable the athlete to achieve optimal body weight and body fat levels for performance.

An athlete’s diet should be similar to that recommended for the general public, with energy intake divided into:

  • More than 55 per cent from carbohydrates
  • About 12 to 15 per cent from protein
  • Less than 30 per cent from fat

Athletes who exercise strenuously for more than 60 to 90 minutes every day may need to increase the amount of energy they get from carbohydrates to between 65 and 70 per cent.



During digestion, all carbohydrates are broken down into sugar (glucose), which is the body’s primary energy source. According to Better Health, glucose can be converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle tissue. It can then be used as a key energy source during exercise to fuel exercising muscle tissue and other body systems. Athletes can increase their stores of glycogen by regularly eating high-carbohydrate foods.

Foods rich in unrefined carbohydrates, like wholegrain breads and cereals, should form the basis of the athlete’s diet. More refined carbohydrate foods (such as white bread, jams and lollies) are useful to boost the total intake of carbohydrate, particularly for very active people.


Pre-Event Meal:

The pre-event meal is an important part of the athlete’s pre-exercise preparation. A high-carbohydrate meal three to four hours before exercise is thought to have a positive effect on performance. A small snack one to two hours before exercise may also benefit performance.

Examples of appropriate pre-exercise meals and snacks include cereal and low-fat milk, toast/muffins/crumpets, fruit salad and yoghurt, pasta with tomato-based sauce, a low-fat breakfast or muesli bar, or low-fat creamed rice.


Eating during Exercise:

During exercise lasting more than 60 minutes, an intake of carbohydrate is required to top up blood glucose levels and delay fatigue. Current recommendations suggest 30-60 g of carbohydrate is sufficient, and can be in the form of lollies, sports gels, low-fat muesli and sports bars or sandwiches with white bread.

It is also important to consume regular fluid during prolonged exercise to avoid dehydration. Sports drinks, diluted fruit juice and water are suitable choices. For people exercising for more than four hours, up to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour is recommended.


Eating after Exercise:

Rapid replacement of glycogen is important following exercise. Carbohydrate foods and fluids should be consumed after exercise, particularly in the first one to two hours after exercise.

Suitable choices to start refuelling include sports drinks, juices, cereal and low-fat milk, low-fat flavoured milk, sandwiches, pasta, muffin/crumpets, fruit and yoghurt.



It is extremely important that individuals drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise. Fluid intake is particularly important for events lasting more than 60 minutes, of high intensity or in warm conditions.

Dehydration is a serious issue, and occurs when the body loses more fluid than it takes in. It can impair athletic performance and can even result in death.

Water is a suitable drink, but sports drinks may be required, especially in endurance events or warm climates.


The Benefits:

Nationwide Children’s suggest implementing a healthy food plan and diet provides a number of benefits for the human body. These include;

  • Strengthening of the immune system
  • Muscle healing and recovery
  • Increased focus and attention span
  • Injury prevention
  • Decreased muscle tiredness and soreness
  • Improved energy levels

It is important to remember that no matter what type of athlete or exerciser you are, good nutrition can enhance performance and provide many health benefits for your body!