In a world where health trends come and go overnight, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. That’s especially the case when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t be eating. While we do our best to cut through the noise, providing only science-backed and athlete-tested recommendations, we still end up publishing a lot of stories on how to fuel. To simplify your healthy eating efforts, we’ve collected our 26 most critical tips, insights, and musings on how to feed your body what it needs to excel.
1. Stay Vertical When You Eat
Going horizontal leads to more than just an upset stomach. “Body position also matters: When you eat lying down, you slow down protein digestion and likely reduce the synthesis of new muscle protein.”
2. Training Isn’t a Weight-Loss Regimen
“For starters, you probably shouldn’t be trying to lose weight during training. If you have a few pounds to lose, do it ahead of time so you can fuel your body with enough calories to function and perform during intense training blocks.”
3. Skip the Supplements
“Unless you have a medical condition that prevents you from properly absorbing the nutrients from your foods or follow a diet that requires you to eliminate entire Food groups (like vegan or vegetarian), opt for whole, real foods rather than pills, capsules, or powders. You’ll avoid some of the pitfalls of popping supplements, and you’ll get what you need.”
4. Never Leave Your House Without Peanut Butter and a Banana
“I’m a big fan of the peanut butter and banana snack hack. The banana gives you some volume and fills you up, and the peanut butter’s fat and protein keep you that way. And once you lick the spoon, there’s no cleanup.”
5. Go Ahead, Cheat on Your Diet
Being perfect all the time is both boring and impractical. Give yourself a break with a structured divergence from your normal diet regimen. That doesn’t mean you should “open a family-size bag of chips and go to town,” but it does mean that you can “pour those chips in a reasonably sized bowl” and chow down until the bowl is empty.
6. Look to Plants for Protein
Plant power is a real thing. There’s plenty of protein found in non-animal sources so long as you’re mindful of your consumption throughout the day.
7. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
If one of your favorite foods has a little more sugar, salt, or fat than you’d like, who cares? “Loosen up and pay closer attention to the foods that you’re eating alongside those things. Take salad dressing, for example. Rather than focusing on the sugar in the dressing, look at the nutrients in the vegetables and leafy greens.”
8. Give Jackfruit a Shot
Not all meat substitutes are awful, namely jackfruit. “It tastes very much like a specific preparation of meat. It’s not so much toothsome as tender, and though it may taste like pulled pork, the nutrition content is about as un-pig-like as you can get. Jackfruit is fat-free and high in fiber and potassium.”
9. Deploy the Right Foods at the Right Time
“For athletes, food isn’t just fuel, it’s a tool—and picking the right one for the job can make the difference between a medal and a DNF. High-fiber, low-fat foods like brown rice and broccoli may be good for your health over the long term, but eat them at the wrong time—just before a race, for example—and you could find yourself in a world of gastric distress.”
10. Your Sandwich Sucks—Build a Better One
They don’t have to be total gut bombs that derail your performance pursuits. Use 100 percent whole-grain or whole-wheat bread to guarantee some fiber intake; focus your fillings on lean proteins (like chicken, tuna, or turkey), lots of veggies, and high-quality cheeses in moderation; and hold off on the high-cal, fatty spreads like mayo and Russian dressing, instead opting for alternatives like hummus, fig jams, or mustards.
11. Have Your Breakfast on Repeat
You’re going to make countless decisions over the course of a day. Make your life easier by eliminating one at your first meal and set the tone for the rest that follow. “If you eat a quality breakfast, you’re less likely to eat a lousy lunch as you’ve already made the effort to eat right. Why blow it? Try making your go-to meal something like eggs and salsa, a protein shake, or a Greek yogurt and a piece of fruit. You’ll reduce decision fatigue and set the stage for a healthier day of eating.”
12. Oatmeal Will Always Rule
“You’re most likely to see oatmeal served with a ton of fixin’s, but even a bowl of plain oats holds its own as a nutritional panacea. Oatmeal is a whole grain (unless you buy oat bran—just part of the seed—as opposed to rolled oats) filled with key vitamins and minerals, a low-glycemic carb that provides lasting energy for your workout and helps fuel recovery without causing a sugar crash, and high in fiber to aid your digestive and metabolic systems. But a bowl of oats is also a big blank canvas, ready to be combined with a truckload of other high-quality, nutritious ingredients that make it even better training food.”
13. Eat the Damn Yolks
“Unless you’re closely watching your cholesterol intake, you can stop listening to that egg-white-only stuff: Half the protein, plus antioxidants for eye and brain health and other crucial vitamins are found in the yolk. But the best part? Eggs pair well with other healthy ingredients to create a dish that’s loaded with performance benefits. Eggs are a staple in the athlete’s pantry.”
14. Try to Read Nutrition Labels
Not enough people do, which can lead to some perilous diet decisions while roaming the grocery store aisles. “While half of consumers say they use nutrition information when shopping, some research suggests the number may be much lower; a 2011 eye-tracking study by the University of Minnesota found that just 1 percent of subjects consistently read all the way through nutrition facts for items they were buying.”
15. Eat Everything
Elites rarely eliminate entire food groups, so why should you? “Aside from allergies or actual intolerances, the pros eat vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, healthy oils, meats and fish, whole grains, and dairy. Amateur athletes often cut something out in an attempt to lose weight or because they’ve been told to by marketers, but this almost always backfires. The two most common pitfalls to avoid: eliminating grains, which increases risk for illness and injury, and eliminating meat, which increases risk for anemia.”
16. And Definitely Don’t Blacklist Pasta
The former darling of endurance-sport nutrition has recently come under fire. But it’s not the fault of the noodles—it’s how much of them you’re eating the night before a race. When eaten in appropriate amounts, pasts remains a top source of performance fuel. “Pasta’s advantage is that it’s a slow-burning complex carbohydrate. Unlike white bread, which is quickly digested and sends blood glucose levels skyrocketing (and then plummeting), pasta releases its energy more gradually. In fact, it scores lower on the glycemic index than most processed grains.”
17. You Must Eat While Racing
Seems obvious, but many first-timers still don’t think it’s a requirement. “For races longer than an hour, the research is clear: Consuming fuel, especially carbohydrates, improves performance and is key to keeping your body revved. And while racing without fuel may alleviate your GI woes, bonking has its own set of miserable consequences. And the worst part is that you may not know until it’s too late.”
18. You Shouldn’t Reward Every Long Run
Yes, you’re clocking more minutes and logging more miles now that you’ve signed up for a big race. But that doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you want in bulk without consequences. “The average person eats three additional calories for every ten extra calories they burn through exercise. You have to manage it with high-quality foods, pay more attention to nutrient timing, and become aware of satiety signals so you don’t overeat by plate cleaning.”
19. Don’t Fear Salt
Sodium has become public enemy number one in the dieting and health world. But athletes, especially those in training, don’t need to stress near as much. “The more you sweat, the more you salt you can—and should—consume before, during, and after your workout. Processed and fast food can certainly replenish what you’ve lost (and then some), but a sports drink and a well-seasoned home-cooked meal is probably your healthiest overall choice.”
20. DIY Your Snack Game
Professional climber Sasha DiGiulian depends on a diet of nutritious, whole ingredients and has found that making her own homemade energy bars gives her everything she needs. She doesn’t have a single recipe, but she always starts with the same basic foundation: a one-to-one ratio of oats to nuts, with honey or dates as the glue to hold it all together. Then she gets wild with mix-ins like coconut flakes, chocolate chips, dried fruits, chopped nuts, chia seeds, ground ginger, and nut butters.
21. Add Iron at Altitude
While you can up your iron intake through natural sources like beef and spinach, some experts have begun to recommend supplementation as well. “Iron-deficient athletes could certainly benefit from iron supplementation, but so might athletes with normal iron stores. Iron supplementation can help facilitate adaptation. You won’t get a faster response, but you increase your chances of getting a positive response rather than none at all.”
22. Nutritional Gospel Is Geared Toward Men
Shocker: Most research on sports nutrition in endurance sports has been done largely on fields of men. As a result, the vast majority of fueling advice has led many women to think they need to eat just like a dude. “Of course, it makes sense that much of what we consider gospel is based off male-centric research. Women are complicated research subjects because of our hormone fluctuations, potential for pregnancy, and so on. [It’s] just easier to extrapolate data from the guys. Historically, the field was also male-dominated, so it probably wouldn’t really occur to men to specifically study women in this way. But the biggest nutritional mistake most female athletes make is not eating enough—especially when it comes to carbs. While your husband may get super-lean on a paleo diet, your results may be lackluster. For women, severe calorie and, particularly, carbohydrate restriction leads to a change in hormone production. As soon as we slash carbs, our bodies start producing cortisol, a hormone that signals the storage of fat.”
23. Use Food as a Recovery Tool
That means what you eat after a 20-miler can’t be the same as what you eat after your morning trip to the weight room. Across the board, you want to “eat carbs and protein and drink plenty of water or another sports drink after a workout,” but that carb-to-protein ratio, as well as the timing of the meal, should differ depending on the work you just put in.
24. Bulk Up During the Off-Season
One, you deserve it. Two, your body needs the break. “Don’t stress about gaining an extra five pounds or so. Especially if you’ve been at a super-slim competition weight for the past few months, the extra weight can help your immune system during cold and flu season by ensuring your body is getting essential vitamins and minerals. Just make sure your holiday diet doesn’t consistent entirely of eggnog and rum cake—leave room for some healthy foods, too.”
25. “Clean Eating” Is Bullshit
There are countless ways to give your body the food it needs to perform at its best. Rather than focus on what your peers are doing, find what works best for you and stick with it. For some people—like 28-year-old U.S. triathlete Kirsten Kasper—that could mean oatmeal, yogurt, turkey, veggies, quinoa, and rice cakes. For others—like her teammate, 25-year-old Renée Tomlin—that could mean doughnuts, chips, hot dogs, beer, and milkshakes.
26. Stop Overthinking It
“Wellness is fairly straightforward in theory, if not in practice. We don’t need catchy headlines or complicated formulas to stay healthy.” As the New York Times wrote in an obituary for Lester Breslow, a researcher who identified seven key factors to living a healthy life, “Do not smoke; drink in moderation; sleep seven to eight hours; exercise at least moderately; eat regular meals; maintain a moderate weight; eat breakfast.” For the average Outside reader, this can be adapted quite simply. “Spend most of your day moving [and] between runs and rides, eat vegetables to stay at a healthy weight…I’ve written and edited hundreds of stories on health and fitness for multiple publications. No matter the study or advice we discuss in the newsroom, we almost always come back to the same conclusion: This stuff isn’t all that complicated—it’s just really hard.”