The Athlete’s Kitchen: Talking About Food…

Food is fuel and food is medicine. Food brings people together and is supposed to be one of life’s pleasures. Shared meals are a vehicle for building relationships, enjoying conversations, and nourishing the soul.

Unfortunately in today’s society, too many athletes and fitness exercisers alike report they have no time to enjoy meals. Sports parents struggle to gather their student athletes for a family dinner; practices and games inevitably interrupt the dinner hour. And even when seated at the same table, some family members may be eating just salad while the rest of the family enjoys steak. So much for eating out of the same pot.

Today’s food conversations commonly refer to good food, bad food, clean food, fattening food. We all know athletes who don’t do sugar, gluten, white flour, or red meat, to say nothing of cake on birthdays, ice cream cones in summer, or apple pie on Thanksgiving.  We live with abundant food, but we have created a fearful eating environment with our words. This article invites you to pay attention to how you think and talk about food. Perhaps it is time to watch your mouth, so you can start to change the current culture that makes food a source of fear for many athletes.

Good food vs. Bad Food

“I eat only healthy foods —lots of fresh fruits and vegetables—and I stay away from stuff in wrappers with ingredients I can’t pronounce.“

While this may seem like a noble stance towards being a responsible caretaker for your body, it raises a few red flags for me.

  • One: a diet of only healthy foods can be a very unhealthy diet. For example, apples are a healthy food, but a diet of all apples is a very unhealthy diet.
  • Two: a diet with only unprocessed food eliminates refined or lightly processed grains that are enriched with vitamins and iron, nutrients of importance for athletes. For instance, “all natural” breakfast cereals like Puffins and Kashi offer only 4% to 10% of the Daily Value for iron, as compared to iron-enriched cereals like Wheaties, GrapeNuts, and Bran Flakes and that offer 45% to 100% of the recommended intake. If you eat very little red meat (a rich source of dietary iron), do not cook in a cast iron skillet (a meat-free source of iron), and eat only “all natural” grain foods, you could easily have an iron-deficient diet. This shows up in anemia and needless fatigue. A survey of female runners (ages 18-22) reports 50% had anemia, often undiagnosed.

Yes, many hard-to-pronounce and unfamiliar words like niacinamide, ferrous sulfate, and ascorbic acid are listed among the ingredients of many grain foods. These are the scientific names for the same vitamins in pills. There’s a reason why they were added to foods in the first place. Adding folic acid to grains has reduced the risk of having a baby with a birth defect. B-12 is important for vegans. Will the trend to avoid enriched and fortified foods come back to bite us? How about choosing the best of both?

Bad food vs. Fun Food

When athletes feel compelled to confess their nutritional sins to me (“I eat too many bad foods—chips, French fries, nachos… “), I quickly remind them there is no such thing as a bad food (or a good food, for that matter). Is birthday cake really a bad food? Is a hot dog at a baseball game going to ruin your health forever? Should you not make cookies with your children on a snowy day?

Those so-called bad foods are actually fun foods that taste yummy and can fit into an overall balanced diet.

Rather than critiquing a single food, please judge your diet by the whole week, month, and year.

Halloween candy is a fun treat in the midst of a steady intake of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and wholesome grains. So is pumpkin pie with ice cream.

Depriving yourself of fun foods creates good and bad foods, as well as a really bad relationship with food. Eating a fun food is not cheating. The problem arises when you restrict fun foods, only to succumb to devouring not just one cookie but all 24 of them. Binge-eating burdens you with not only excess body fat, but also (self-imposed) guilt for having broken your food rules, and disgust with yourself for having pigged out.

Eating the whole thing means you like that food and should actually eat it more often, rather than try to stay away from it. Contrary to what you may believe, you are not addicted to cookies. You are simply doing “last chance” eating. Last chance to have cookies (or so you tell yourself) because they are a bad food and I shouldn’t eat them at all.

There’s a more peaceful way to live. Try balancing a cookie or two into your daily menu. After all, you need not have a perfect diet to have an excellent diet. A reasonable goal is 85-90% quality foods; 10-15% “whatever.”

Healthy diet vs. A single ingredient

Salt, sugar, and saturated fat seem to be today’s food demons.

Rather than look at each ingredient, I cannot encourage you enough to look at the entire food (and your entire diet).

Take sugar, for example. Are the 3 grams of sugar in Skippy peanut butter really a source of evil? What about the 10 grams of refined sugar in chocolate milk? That (“evil”) sugar quickly refuels muscles after a hard workout. That’s why chocolate milk is an effective recovery food. After a hard workout, when you are tired and thirsty, but not yet hungry, the sugar in chocolate milk offers a quick energy boost that normalizes your low blood glucose and replenishes depleted muscle glycogen. While some athletes focus on chocolate milk’s 10 grams (40 calories) of added sugar, I invite you to welcome its high quality protein (needed to repair muscles) and abundant vitamins and minerals that invest in your good health. The fit bodies of athletes can metabolize sugar much better than the unfit bodies of couch potatoes.

The bottom line

You want to enjoy an excellent diet, and not strive for a “perfect” (but very strict) diet. You can win good health and perform well with a balanced diet, filled with a variety of foods, and enjoyed in moderation.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she counsels both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes, teaching them how to eat to win. Her popular Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer are available at, as well as information about her online workshop and teaching materials.


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