Nutrition and Athletic Performance

A.D.A.M., Inc.


The relationship between food consumption and athletic performance.


Perhaps only an elite athlete would value the subtle improvements in performance that dietary changes can provide. There is a large body of evidence showing a relationship between food consumption and athletic performance. A poor diet will almost certainly have a negative effect on the performance of even the most casual athlete. A good diet providing adequate calories, vitamins, minerals, and protein will help provide the energy required to finish a race or simply enjoy a recreational sport or activity.


The diet recommended for an athlete differs little in composition from the diet suggested for any healthy individual. The Food Guide Pyramid is an excellent guide, however, the amount of each food group needed will depend on the type of sport, the amount of training and the time in relation to activity or exercise. Calorie needs vary with the size, age, sex and physical activity performed by the individual so the number of servings a person requires will vary.


Complex carbohydrates are a diet staple. They are found in foods such as pasta, bagels, whole grain breads and rice. They provide energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are low in fat. Carbohydrate loading (a concerted diet/training regimen) will increase the body's energy stores of carbohydrate (called glycogen). It has been shown to improve performance in endurance-type activities lasting more than 1 hour. The classical method of carbohydrate loading has been abandoned and replaced by a modified method which is safer and equally effective at increasing muscle glycogen. The most important factor influencing glycogen stores is to consume 50 to 60% of the calories from carbohydrates on a daily basis.

Simple sugars such as soft drinks, jams and jellies, and candy provide few nutrients but a lot of calories. They may actually decrease performance when consumed directly before an athletic event as they may cause hypoglycemia.


Protein's most important functions in the body are to support growth and to repair body tissues. Many people feel athletes need a high protein diet to support muscle growth despite the fact that researchers have repeatedly proven this false. It is also a myth that a high protein diet will promote muscle growth. Only strength training and exercise will promote changes in muscle. Athletes, even body builders, require only small increases over normal needs in order to support muscle growth. Athletes easily meet this increased need by simply consuming more total calories (eating more food). Americans already eat more protein than they need, almost two-fold, so protein needs for muscle development are being met before strength training begins. Excess protein is used as energy and can be stored as body fat. Amino acid supplements and excessively high intakes of protein are not recommended. They can increase calcium loss, and put an added burden on the kidneys which are required to filter the excess nitrogen protein provides.


Water is the most important, yet over-looked, nutrient by athletes. Water and fluids are essential to maintaining good hydration and body temperature. Sweat losses to keep the body cool can exceed several liters in a 1-hour period. Adolescents and adults should replace any lost body weight lost during a exercise with equal amounts of fluids. A good indication that you have fully rehydrated is to check to see if your urine is clear. Cool water is the best choice.

Some suggestions for maintaining adequate hydration are:

  • Drink plenty of water, juice and milk.
  • Avoid caffeine containing beverages. Caffeine is a diuretic and promotes fluid loss.
  • Drink plenty of fluid before, during, and after exercise.
  • Offer children water frequently during sports activities; they do not respond to thirst as readily as adults.


Changing body weight to improve performance must be done safely and effectively or it may do more harm than good. Maintaining an unrealistically low body weight, rapid weight loss, and unnaturally suppressing weight gain can have negative health effects so it is important to set realistic body weight goals.

Young athletes attempting to lose weight will benefit from a consultation with a Registered Dietitian; eating disorders and poor dietary habits may result from experimentation with diets. The Food Guide Pyramid is an excellent resource to ensure adequate food intake to meet vitamin and mineral needs while safely achieving body composition goals.

Make sure that you speak with a health care professional to discuss a diet appropriate for your sport, age, gender and amount of training.

Return to Fitness Home Page

FREE Monthly Newsletters

We publish four FREE monthly email newsletters: Click Here to Subscribe to One or More Newsletters

  • Inspired Lifestyles News - Inspiring, motivating and empowering quotes, stories and articles
  • Healthy Lifestyles News - Articles, resources and products for living a healthier, more vibrant life
  • Inspired Biz News - Articles and resources for a more spiritual, whole-living work environment
  • News & Sale Announcements - Sales events, new products and specials