Choosing More Whole Foods

It’s no surprise that athletes, especially professional athletes, expend a great deal of energy during their days, often practicing every day, more than once per day. To fuel this high level of activity, athletes have much higher caloric needs, which equates to a proportional increase in the amount of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats athletes need to consume at each meal, usually meaning portions at meals and more snacks throughout the day. Bigger athletes, such as football players, need even more calories – with reports of NFL lineman eating up to 10,000 calories a day.

Eating a balanced diet year-round,  containing a mix of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats is what keeps the best athletes healthy, continuing to train hard and perform to the best of their abilities.

In fact, by emphasizing a balanced plate containing plenty of antioxidant and phytochemical-rich vegetables and fruits, an athlete can help fight off inflammation, promote recovery and enhance performance, plus whole grains and starches to fuel our muscles and protein to encourage muscle repair and growth. Real food diets are embraced by the best athletes, who often find that better nutrition through choosing whole foods and balanced meals, leads to better performance over time.

One example of an athlete who has taken a 100% plant-based whole foods stance to his diet is Chicago Bears defensive lineman David Carter. A recent article written for USA Today reports on how he eats ~10,000 calories on a 100% plant-based (vegan) diet, meeting his high energy needs through 5 meals and several snacks throughout the day, heavily relying on whole grains, vegetables, legumes (beans) and fruit to be able to meet his nutrition goals and compete at the NFL level.

While adopting a plant-based diet may work for some athletes, others may not want to or see the benefits in giving up animal products. Every athlete is different and working with a registered dietitian can help you meet your needs based on your own goals, but for most people, adding more whole foods versus relying on processed or pre-packaged foods will have performance and health benefits.

There are many benefits to adopting a more whole foods, plant-based diet, but you don’t need to go full-on vegan or vegetarian to reap the benefits of eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Adding in lean meats, poultry, low-fat dairy and fish to a diet high in plant-foods is a great option for most people, especially athletes. Even Houstan Texans defensive end JJ Watt has reported eating more “whole foods” to properly fuel his body, claiming he’s “not a supplement guy”. If athletes start to fuel their body with more real foods, they’ll soon realize they don’t need extra supplements to optimize their performance.

What does eating more “whole foods” mean?

Eating more whole foods means including more foods found in their natural state in your diet, instead of eating pre-made or pre-packaged foods, fast food, boxed foods with confusing ingredient labels, etc.

Some good examples of real food snacks are:

peanut butter + whole grain bread

string cheese (look for part-skim mozzarella)

chocolate milk

peanut/almond butter on a banana or crackers

Greek yogurt with granola

hummus and pretzels

hard boiled eggs


trail mix (buy some or make your own  – see below “recipe!”)

Formula for trail mix:

3 cups nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, cashews, pistachios)

1 cup seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dried soy nuts)

1 cup cereal or granola (Kashi, Total or honey granola)

1 cup dried fruit (raisins, dried cranberries/craisins)

Optional mix-ins: mini chocolate chips, coconut flakes, banana chips, oyster or Goldfish crackers, M&M’s, popcorn

Quick tip: Portion the trail mix into snack-size bags to prevent over indulging. All those nuts are full of healthy fats and nutrients, but these snack mixes can also pack a calorie punch.

Source: Greatist

Check out their site for more awesome snack mix ideas! 

Choosing more whole foods doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are some tips for eating more whole foods:

  • Think about adding more foods instead of eliminating food groups entirely. For example, think about ways to add a vegetable or fruit to every meal instead of thinking about eliminating “junk food” from your diet. If you make a conscious effort to “eat a handful of nuts as a snack” to get those healthy fats in your diet, your daily vending machine snack will naturally be eliminated.
  • Cook more of your own food and bring your lunch. If you’re eating out a lot, you’re most likely not getting the most nutritious food OR the most bang for your buck. You’ll realize how much food you get for your money when you start to pack your lunch or make  dinner at home most days instead of going out for fast food. Invest in a quality, insulated lunch box to bring lunch and snacks to work or school. Making extra dinner the night before is a great way to have a healthy meal to bring for lunch the next day.
  • …speaking of leftovers…Do a little “food prep” on Sunday. If you wash, peel and cut up vegetables and fruit before the work or school week starts, you’re more likely to pack a healthy snack. If you cook chicken breasts, assemble some salads, cook grains, and make extra of a new recipe, you’ll have healthy options to choose from throughout the week.
  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. This motto doesn’t always apply, as there are plenty of healthy, whole-food choices in the center aisles (whole grains such as oatmeal, rice, dried and canned beans, etc.) BUT, this is a great idea in terms of choosing the fresher, whole foods such as vegetables and fruit, meat and dairy and frozen fruits and vegetables, which are usually found on the perimeter of the store.
  • Have a plan when you shop! Think of all the foods you’ll eat over the next week and make a list. When you go shopping without a list, sometimes those boxes Mac and Cheese makes it’s way into your cart simply because it was 10-for-$10. Making a list might require you to think about what meals you want to make for the week ahead. If you notice a lot of the foods you’re eating throughout the week are coming from packages (snack bars, microwave meals), think of a substitution for some of those items.
  • Reduce your consumption of sweetened beverages. I know, I know, you hear this ALL the time, but it’s true! If you’re spending money on soda, sports drinks, etc., that’s a lot of money you could be spending on produce and other whole foods, where you’ll be getting more nutrients for the same calories (or less!)
  • Choose 100% whole grains – look at the nutrition facts label of your bread. The first ingredient shouldn’t be enriched bread flour. 100% whole grain bread will usually label itself as such on the front of the bread, and the first ingredient on the ingredients list should be wheat flour or whole wheat flour. Other whole grains include: brown rice (vs. white rice), oatmeal, whole grain cereal and granola, etc.

Oatmeal with berries or granola with yogurt are great breakfast options.

A big thing to remember is: Don’t stress about eating 100% whole foods or healthy food, all the time. The point of choosing healthy foods is to fuel your body to feel better, work harder and be healthier. If you’re always worried about choosing the right foods, you’re giving yourself a lot of unnecessary stress, which can be just as hard on your body as unhealthy food options. Make an effort to choose healthy options most of the time, and make those packaged favorites or less healthy foods “sometimes” foods. Contact a Registered Dietitian near you to talk more about how to choose healthy foods to meet your own goals, fuel your activities and to enhance sports performance.

Any tips for adopting a whole foods diet?

Any favorite websites or cookbooks for whole food recipes?

Feel free to comment with any “ASK THE DIETITIAN” questions!