Eating well for physical activity and sport can have many benefits including:
- Allowing you to perform well in your chosen sport or activity;
- Reducing the risk of injury and illness;
- Ensuring the best recovery after exercise or a training programme.
A healthy diet for sport and exercise should contain plenty of starchy foods, plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein foods and some dairy foods. It is also important to stay hydrated.
Foods for fuel and exercise
The main role of carbohydrates is to provide energy.
When they are digested, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose to provide readily available energy for the body to use quickly and effectively. Carbohydrates are the most important form of fuel for exercise and sports activities. By not having adequate carbohydrate in your diet for exercise, you may feel tired and lacking in energy and not be able to perform at your best. So, regular intake of carbohydrate-rich foods is important to keep stores topped up. The correct food choices can help ensure the body has enough energy for activity, as well as help aid recovery.
Starchy foods are an important source of carbohydrates in our diet. Wholegrain varieties also provide fibre, which is important for digestive health, and a range of vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron, calcium and folate.
Good sources of carbohydrates in the diet include:
- Breakfast cereals and porridge oats
- Pasta, noodles
- Potatoes (with skins) and other starchy vegetables (e.g. sweetcorn)
- Beans and pulses
Starchy foods should make up around a third of the food we eat. Fruit and milk contain carbohydrates in the form of sugars and can help to provide the body with a quick source of energy. They also contain many additional vitamins and minerals that help to keep us healthy. Starchy foods, especially high fibre varieties provide a slower release of energy and take longer to digest, so it’s a good idea to include some in every meal.
Estimated carbohydrate needs are outlined and depend on the intensity and duration of the exercise sessions:
Duration of sport of Exercise Sessions
Recommended intake (per kg body weight per day)*
3-5 hours per week
5-7 hours per week
1-2 hours per day
2 + hours per day
*These requirements are general and consideration of energy needs and type of exercise should be considered.
Try not to meet your requirements by packing your entire carbohydrate intake into one meal. Spread out your intake over breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks that fit around planned exercise.
Protein is also important for health and physical activity. The main role of protein in the body is for growth, repair and maintenance of body cells and tissues, such as muscle.
Different foods contain different amounts and different combinations of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Essential amino acids are those that the body cannot make itself and so are needed from the diet. The full range of essential amino acids needed by the body (high protein quality) is found in:
- Animal sources – meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt.
- Plant sources – soy, tofu, quinoa and mycoprotein e.g. Quorn™.
- As some high protein foods can also be high in saturated fat, it is important to choose lower fat options, such as lean meats or lower fat versions of dairy foods.
- Most vegans get enough protein from their diets, but it is important to consume a variety of plant proteins to ensure enough essential amino acids are included.
- The protein requirements of a normal adult are 0.75g per kilogram of body weight per day. For strength and endurance athletes, protein requirements are increased to around 1.2-1.7g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. If you are participating in regular sport and exercise like swimming/running or go to the gym on a regular basis, then your protein requirements may be slightly higher than the general sedentary population, in order to promote muscle tissue growth and repair. However, most people in the UK consume more than the recommended amount of protein, so increasing your protein intake is generally unnecessary.
- Consuming a healthy, varied diet containing nutrient dense foods will ensure you get enough protein without the use of protein supplements or special high-protein eating strategies, even if your needs are a little higher! But try and spread your protein intake throughout the day.
Fat is an essential nutrient for the body, but it is also a rich source of energy. Consuming too much fat can lead to excess energy intake which can lead to weight gain over time. It is important to follow current healthy eating guidelines, ensuring fat intakes are no more than 35% of total energy intake from food, with saturated fat intakes not exceeding 11% of total energy intake from food. Fats in foods typically contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but choosing foods which contain higher amounts of unsaturated fat, and less saturated fat, is preferable. Most of us eat too much saturated fat so to cut back on intakes, limit foods such as:
- Pastries, cakes, puddings
- Chocolate and biscuits
- Some savoury snacks
- Cream, coconut cream and ice-cream
- Hard cheeses including cheddar
- Butter, lard, ghee, suet, palm oil and coconut oil
- Processed meats like sausages, ham, burgers and fatty cuts of meat
- Fried foods including fried chips
Choose low fat options and foods containing unsaturated fat where possible. Replacing saturated fat with some monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat helps to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Good sources of these fats include vegetable oils such as olive, rapeseed and sunflower oils, avocados, nuts and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats provide us with essential fatty acids like omega 3 which are found in sunflower, flaxseed and linseed oil and walnuts, but it is the long chain omega 3 fatty acids which are associated with heart health and these are found in oily fish (e.g. mackerel, salmon and sardines).
How to stay well hydrated
Sufficient fluid intake is essential for exercise and optimum recovery. Exercising causes the body to get warmer, so the body tries to cool down by sweating. This causes the loss of water and salts through the skin.
The amount an individual sweats varies from person to person and depends on:
- Intensity and duration – longer and higher intensity exercise can cause greater sweat loss.
- Environmental temperature – in hot, humid conditions sweat loss can increase.
- Clothing – the more clothing that is worn, the quicker you are likely to heat up which may cause greater sweat loss.
- Genetics – some people are just more likely to sweat than others.
Generally, the more a person sweats, the more they will need to drink.
Small water losses are not harmful. However, dehydration (water loss in excess of 2-3% body mass) can cause tiredness and hinder performance by reducing strength and aerobic capacity (especially in longer duration exercise), as well as having a negative effect on any further exercise sessions. So, try and stay hydrated before, during and after exercise to prevent dehydration – water is generally best.