Cleaning up the Athlete’s Diet


“I’ve got to clean up my diet!” The Anonymous Runner

*     *     *     *     *

Like The Anonymous Runner says, due to life events sometimes athletes drift away from eating and hydrating for peak performance. Or what sports nutritionists refer to as a lowering of “diet quality”.

When cleaning up the athlete’s diet and raising “diet quality”, it’s important to emphasize these food categories:

This category includes all fruits, canned and frozen fruits, and 100% fruit juices (juices in moderation). Common sense serving sizes include one medium size piece of whole fruit (e.g., a banana), a big handful of berries and a medium glass of 100% fruit juice. Fruits are considered high quality because they are rich in essential vitamins & minerals and a source of antioxidants. Fruits contain fiber and water which keep you feeling full for relatively few calories.

The vegetable category includes all, fresh vegetables eaten cooked or raw, canned and frozen vegetables, and puréed or liquified vegetables used in soups, sauces, and such. Common sense serving sizes are a fist size portion of solid veggies, a half cup of tomato sauce, and a medium size bowl of vegetable soup or salad. Vegetables are considered high quality because, like fruit, they are rich in essential vitamins & minerals, and a source of antioxidants. Vegetables also contain fiber and water which keep you feeling full for relatively few calories.

Lean Proteins
The lean protein category are all types of fish, meats that are 10% fat or less, and nuts and seeds. A common sense serving of meat or fish is the size of your open hand, and for nuts a palm full. While more than 10% fat, eggs are an exception to this rule and the first two eggs of any given day should be counted as lean protein.

I’m not sure if The Anonymous Runner is a vegetarian or vegan athlete. If so, making sure the diet contains complete sources of protein is important. Combining incomplete proteins into a complete protein (like combining rice and beans) is discussed in this post HERE.

Whole Grains
The whole grain category includes brown rice and breakfast cereals, breads, and pasta made with 100% whole grains. Common sense servings are a fist size portion of brown rice, a medium size bowl of cereal or pasta, and two slices of bread. Compared to refined grain options of these foods, whole grains are a better source of vitamins & minerals and have more fiber keeping you feeling full for a longer period of time.

Low-fat Dairy 
Low-fat dairy category includes foods made with low-fat or skim milk. Common sense servings include a glass of milk or the amount of milk you normally used in a bowl of breakfast cereal, two slices of deli cheese, and a single-serving tub of yogurt. While dairy foods made with whole milk contain all the nutrients of  low-fat dairy, it also contains more fat, hence more calories. Substituting whole milk dairy foods with low-fat alternatives is a convenient way to trim excess fat and calories from the athlete’s diet.

As with lean proteins, I’m not sure if The Anonymous Runner is a vegetarian or vegan athlete, or perhaps lactose-intolerant. If so, making sure the diet contains the nutrients that low-fat dairy provides is important - especially calcium and vitamin D.

Essential Fats
Essential fats must be ingested from the diet, the body cannot make these fats. Of importance, some essential fats are classified as omega-6 fatty acids and others as omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in commonly eaten foods but omega-3 fatty acids are not. Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in the formation of healthy cell membranes, nerve cell function, and the end and the formation of anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. Good food sources of omega-3 fats are certain types of fatty fish (like salmon and sardines), flaxseeds, walnuts, and olive oil.

*     *     *     *     *

At the same time, to clean up the diet these categories need to be limited:

Refined Sugar 
This category includes all foods and beverages containing large amounts of refined sugars, including soft drinks, candy, pastries, and other desserts. Common sense servings include one small cookie, 12 ounces of soft drink, one label-defined serving of candy or chocolate, one regular slice of pie or cake, and one scoop of ice cream. Roughly 17% of calories from the average North American diet comes from refined sugars and is the main source of excess calories with low nutritional return.

Fried Foods
This category includes all deep fried foods, including potato chips, fried meats, and donuts. It does not include pan fried foods such as a stir fry and fried eggs. Common sense servings of fried foods include one small bag of potato chips, one fried hamburger patty, three or four buffalo wings, one small bag of chips, one small order of French fries, and one donut. Deep frying adds both fat and calories to base foods being fried. For example, a medium size baked potato contains roughly 145 calories, whereas a medium serving of French fries contains 387 calories.

*     *     *     *     *

Strategy to Clean Up The Anonymous Runner’s Diet
The Anonymous Runner informed me that, while it wasn’t easy, the categories above led to cleaning up the diet. First of all, The Anonymous Runner counted how many common sense servings were being consumed each day - on average 25 servings. Next, The Anonymous Runner noticed that of the 25 servings, 12 fell into the food categories to be emphasized - fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and essential fats. With this information, The Anonymous Runner set a goal of having at least 20 out of 25 servings falling into these food categories each day - which turned out to be realistic and achievable.

Thanks for reading. Send me a note if you have any questions.

Check out the sports nutrition section of the EOOC TABLE OF CONTENTS for more. Readers may be interested in Sports Nutrition Basics - a post on macronutrients and running. And this post on applying sports nutrition thinking when making a meal-size salad: Creating a Delicious Sports Salad .



Experiment of One Coaching covers topics ranging from running, strength training, health & wellness, sports nutrition to travel. I usually post once or twice a month.


A reader on Facebook commented.... Eat a metric (or imperial) shit ton of veggies. Generally avoid grey and beige food. Avoid food that your grandmother wouldn’t have recognized (or that is in a plastic wrapper). Pass by aisles in grocery with cookies and chips. Target good protein but don’t be afraid of good fats. Limit or cease alcohol consumption. Shift sweet tooth to dark chocolate. Don’t bother to count or measure anything unless this is your profession. You cannot train your way out of a bad diet. Sound about right?