The Top Four Food Groups for Athletes

Daily training, adequate rest, muscle recovery, and a clear mind are all important for athletes to be at the top of their game. But a balanced diet packed with nutrients is just as critical to reaching peak performance.

These foods will help keep you energized, feeling full, and ready to perform.

What An Athlete Needs From Their Food

Athletes require a higher caloric intake than average people to retain high amounts of food energy.

During high-intensity activities, carbohydrates serve as the primary food energy. Dietary fat helps athletes absorb fat-soluble vitamins, as well as provides a backup source of energy and keeps healthy hormone levels, while dietary protein helps with muscle growth and repair.

The body’s most abundant source of energy is fat. When the body is at rest, fat is used as the main energy source. When an athlete begins engaging in high-intensity training, the body begins turning toward carbohydrates as the main energy source for the muscles and brain.

Let’s break down the most important food groups for athletes.

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Fruits and Vegetables

To keep a balanced diet, fruits and vegetables should be part of every meal and possibly every snack. The amount or serving size depends on the athlete’s goals or current training status. For athletes who are engaged in high-intensity training, a higher carbohydrate-focused plan with a moderate amount of fruits and vegetables is recommended. The reason for the smaller serving is to make room for higher-calorie foods to support training goals.

When an athlete is in their off-season, recovering from an injury, or engaged in very light training, the focus is switched over to a higher serving size of fruits and vegetables to decrease overall energy intake, reduce inflammation, and provide a higher fiber dose for satiety purposes.

Fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, fiber, water, and healthy carbohydrates, which help aid digestion and injury prevention and provide energy and hydration.

Dark, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale provide an excellent source of iron and calcium, while red peppers, tomatoes, and citrus fruits are packed with vitamin C.

Orange-colored fruits and vegetables help build your immune system – plus they have high levels of vitamins C, E, A, and potassium. An easy way to get your orange fruit intake is by drinking an 8-ounce glass of orange juice in the morning.

A quick way to measure a serving size of fruit is one fist, while a serving of vegetables is two fists.


Depending on your activity level, high-starch foods like grains should be consumed at every meal in one to two fist-sized quantities. Grains, especially whole grains which support higher vitamin, mineral, and fiber content, are especially important before exercising, training, or participating in an athletic event.

Whole grain pasta is a great energy source because it is packed with carbohydrates, but it also contains fiber, which can cause gastrointestinal issues if you eat too much. Other grains that are great options for a balanced diet include:

  • Oatmeal.
  • Whole grain bread or crackers.
  • High-fiber, non-sugary cereals.
  • Brown or wild rice.
  • Quinoa.


Eating complete protein sources is important for any athlete’s body to function at its best because they contain essential amino acids that your body is unable to produce. Amino acids are needed for many vital functions in the body, such as chemical reactions, muscle maintenance, and cell structure. A serving size of protein is about the size of your palm and should take up a quarter of your dinner plate.

You can receive complete protein from animal protein, such as poultry and fish, but also from plant-based proteins like nuts, beans, and soy. Other protein sources include lean red meats, eggs, and hummus.


Potassium, calcium, carbohydrates, and complete proteins all can be found in dairy products, which is why they are so important for bone strength, muscle recovery, and energy production. Athletes should consume 2 to 3 cups of low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives a day.

Cheese is packed with calcium, potassium, and protein, and is a quick and easy snack that can be eaten in blocks, sticks, or on top of many main and side dishes.

Yogurt is full of vitamins and minerals and can be incorporated into snacks and meals quite easily. Try Greek yogurt as an easy option for extra protein.

Low-fat milk and milk alternatives are great ways to get your daily requirement of dairy. Many athletes prefer chocolate milk after an intense workout because it can aid with muscle recovery. If you don’t love cow’s milk, you can find a plant-based alternative, such as soy or coconut milk, that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Make sure to shake the container before use so the minerals don’t get stuck at the bottom!

Best Foods for Athletes to Eat

The best part about a nutritious diet is that it can be customized to your preferences and, fortunately, there are a ton of options available. Use these quick facts to help make decisions the next time you’re at the grocery store:

Fruits & veggies (carbohydrates)

  • Berries are rich in antioxidants and help preserve muscle strength.
  • Bananas are an excellent source of electrolytes, plus they’re high in potassium.
  • Cherries help in preventing muscle pain and reducing inflammation thanks to their high levels of antioxidants.
  • Hydrating foods are perfect options when you’ve lost fluids after a workout. Watermelon, celery, radishes, and bell peppers help you feel refreshed after exercising.
  • Cruciferous vegetables like
    broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and arugula pack a punch with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are crucial for staying fit.
  • Sweet potatoes help lower blood pressure and contain many vitamins and minerals, including potassium, iron, manganese, and copper.
  • Pasta is a great carbohydrate, and whole grain is an even better option than white pasta, especially when you’re lacking fiber in your diet.
  • Oatmeal is a delicious, high-fiber option that will keep you satisfied.
  • Cold cereals are the perfect dish for any meal or a snack because of their vitamin content, but make sure you choose a cereal with less than 8 grams of sugar, at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, and ideally a made of whole grain.
  • Orange juice is a great way to get calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and folic acid.


  • Beans are an easy food to incorporate into many dishes; plus, they are full of fiber, magnesium, protein, iron, and zinc. Beans and legumes, such as green peas and lentils, are the perfect plant-based proteins for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike because of their versatility and nutrients.
  • Salmon is an oily fish full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation from athletic activities.
  • Flaxseed oil contains omega-3s from a plant-based source called ALAs (Alpha-Linolenic Acids).
  • Olive oil has anti-inflammatory properties from monounsaturated fats.
  • Coconut oil can help with endurance thanks to the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
  • Milk is a great post-workout drink that helps with bone strength and muscle recovery.
  • Cheese is a great snack because of its calcium, potassium, and protein content.
  • Yogurt can help reach your calcium, vitamin D, protein, and potassium goals.
  • Nuts provide an excellent source of fiber, protein, healthy fats, magnesium, and vitamin E. They are an easy snack or topper for cereals, yogurts, and salads.
  • Seeds are also full of fiber, healthy fats, magnesium, and vitamin E. Plus, they are perfect when mixed with nuts and dried fruits to create a homemade trail mix.
  • Whey protein contains essential amino acids that are quickly absorbed by the body. It’s
    ideal to use whey protein for post-training, and to supplement the diet if the protein is lacking.

Unhealthy Eating Habits to Avoid

Since the diet is so important to an athlete’s body, poor eating habits can make it difficult to reach peak performance. Many people are deficient in important nutrients like potassium, fiber, vitamin D, and calcium. Make sure to avoid these unhealthy habits:

  • Skipping meals: Sometimes it can be hard to find time to grab breakfast before heading out the door, but skipping out on meals can impair athletic performance, especially if you aren’t reaching the recommended number of calories.
  • Snacking on nutrient-poor foods: Making snack decisions can be tough, especially when processed, sugary foods are easily accessible. Look for whole foods with healthier ingredients when choosing snacks. Do your best to plan your snacks ahead of the day or enhance your pantry with higher-quality options.
  • Using diets or weight-control methods: Beware of many fad diets and weight-control measures that can hinder your performance rather than help it. Ask yourself, “Do I see myself on this diet by this time next year?” If the answer is no, chances are it is not the right plan for you.
  • Timing and regularity of eating: Creating a healthy eating schedule will help meet your nutritional requirements without having to think too much about it. Plus, your body will get used to the schedule. A recommended eating schedule would be a 3- to 5-hour window between eating occurrences. This allows for proper digestion, blood sugar control, and a healthy
    level of satiety.
  • Unbalanced nutrients: Eating too much of one nutrient can impair performance. Carbs and protein especially are incredibly useful nutrients for ongoing muscle development and recovery and you must be eating enough of them daily.
  • Poor food choices: When creating a meal plan as an athlete, there’s one thing to keep in mind—your food choice does matter. Not every food you eat must be organic and healthy, but a well-balanced plate is crucial for building endurance and growing your muscles.

Why Healthy Eating is Important

Food choice matters, especially when you’re an athlete. Make sure your plate is full of a variety of healthy foods to reach your athletic best.

For more information on creating a healthy meal plan as an athlete, visit Sports Nutrition at UPMC Sports Medicine.

Looking for a personalized meal plan to help reach your peak performance? Call 724-720-3081 or email to schedule an appointment.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.