By Alex Cotie and Hannah Gilroy
As an athlete, have you ever wondered “what should I eat?” or as a coach, have you been asked the same question?
Pro and elite athletes come to the Chicago-based sports nutrition consulting firm SportFuel seeking answers to the most detailed sports nutrition questions—the tip of the iceberg, the top of the pyramid, the ultimate fine-tuning. They’re looking for the best practices for fuel timing, the perfect pre-game meal or snack, what to eat during activity, what to have afterwards for optimal recovery, or what to eat to gain or lose weight.
And to that, I put my hands up and say, “Woooaaahh…ok, well, tell me what you eat for breakfast.” If the answer to this vital question is something in the family of a pop-tart, a bowl of cereal with milk, a granola bar, or even nothing, then my friend, we’ve got a foundation to build first before we can get to your burning questions.
Ask yourself—would you start painting the trim of a house if the house was built on sand? My guess is no. These fine details are best addressed when you know the foundation of your house is solid. The same thing goes for your body.
Before we can focus on the nuanced details of sports nutrition, it’s vital we build a strong foundation first. In order to feel your best, perform at your peak, strengthen your memory and ability to focus and learn, maintain a healthy body and immune system, ward off disease, and recover quickly, we must focus on foundational nourishment.
If most of the food you eat on a daily basis is not supporting your mood, concentration, recovery, and performance, then your pregame snack choices, for instance, aren’t going to make much of an impact.
Which brings us back to the question, “what should I eat?” – the answer can be found in a simple concept that the owner of SportFuel, Julie Burns, has been saying for years:
“Eat foods that will rot and spoil, but eat them before they do.”
What kinds of foods will rot and spoil? Go ahead and name 5 right now. Think of foods that don’t come in colorful wrappers, but are naturally colorful. Think of foods that are sold without an ingredients list.
You might have thought of different types of fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish, right? These foods are capable of rotting and spoiling because they are alive—they are living foods with energy in the form of nutrients and enzymes. They in turn give you life along with energy to fuel, grow, and repair your body. These living foods are what make up the majority of a high-quality foundational diet (diet meaning how and what you eat, not being “on a diet”).
What portion of your intake on a daily basis is made of these living foods? Take a minute to think about what you’ve eaten in the last few days.
“Eat foods that will rot and spoil, but eat them before they do.” – Julie Burns, @SportFuelChiTweet
Non-living Foods to Minimize
Now, what are some types of foods that don’t rot and spoil? Again, try to name 5. Think of foods that come in boxes and bags and have ingredient lists that are unintelligible. Think of foods that you could leave in a pantry while you’re out of town for a tournament and come back to see that they remain unchanged in taste, smell, and appearance. These foods are usually either brown or artificially bright colored.
We typically call these processed foods. Think cereal, pop-tarts, chips, crackers, cookies, candies, bagels, soda—even milk or creamer that is ultra-pasteurized. These are the types of foods that will go stale way before they produce mold or taste sour, if they even get to that point. The reason they don’t rot and spoil is because they aren’t living foods—they won’t give you the type of energy that you need to sustain a healthy life, let alone a high-performing one.
This doesn’t mean you should never have these foods, just that they should make up a small part of your diet. If you reflected earlier on how much of your typical intake contains living foods, think now about these more processed foods. Throughout your day, how often are you eating something out of a bag or a box as a quick snack or meal? What percentage of your plate is a shade of brown?
There are, however, some packaged, brown foods that can be good for you—foods like olive oil, nuts, seeds, potatoes, and butter come in bottles, bags, and boxes, yet are great real-food choices. If you look at the ingredients of these products, you’ll often simply see the name of the product: “olive oil “or “pistachios, salt.” These items with very small ingredients lists are real foods put into a container so you can easily buy them.
So how can you introduce more living, naturally colorful, real foods into your diet? Think of 3 instances throughout your day where you can make a better choice.
Maybe you can have an apple with peanut butter instead of chips. Maybe you can add a handful of broccoli to your dinner. Maybe you can grab a bag of mixed nuts at the corner store instead of sour candy. What one change can you make TODAY?
Helping Your Team Transition to More Living Foods
So now comes the implementation. This article would be incomplete without acknowledging the social, emotional, and physical process of changing one’s diet. For coaches hoping to help your team take advantage of nutrition as well as for athletes looking to build a strong performance foundation, it’s important to start by creating an intentional plan that promotes sustainable success.
Coaching Your Team on Nutrition
Coaches, when you want to introduce the concept of including more living foods, start by assessing what the majority of your athletes are currently eating. You might have them complete an anonymous survey where they report:
- What they ate that day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
- What they had for their snack(s)
- What they drank (water, sports drinks, soda/pop, etc.)
- How important they think living foods are for their athletic performance (scale 1-10)
- The number of natural colors of foods they ate that day
Survey your team randomly over 6-8 weeks (no more than 8 times). Try to get different data: foods consumed on a practice day, game day, and weekend to better understand if and how the players’ consumption patterns are changing after you begin to help them reflect and start coaching them on positive changes.
After the first survey, start to offer small bits of nutrition education. From the article above, you could start by talking about the benefits of including foods that rot and spoil. Then, have the athletes list off their favorite foods that would be considered “living,” and including some of your own examples of living foods. If the concept of living foods isn’t connecting for the students, try using other imagery like natural colors or foods they would find outside, such as a red apple (natural) vs a red jolly rancher (artificial). Ask the team collectively what they would be willing to commit to in terms of increasing their living food intake. The team might commit to adding one additional color or living food per day over the next week.
After the next survey, notice if anything has changed. Before you introduce the next concept, potentially have a quick 10-minute recap with your team before or after practice. What was helpful about their experiment of including one more living food per day? What was difficult? While a community discussion can feel supportive, you can also get this feedback in writing if your team feels reluctant to share openly about their eating patterns.
Let your athletes know that you are available to talk more specifically about their food plans one-on-one if and when they are ready. This could benefit athletes who struggle to incorporate healthy foods, despite knowing their benefits, as well as those without access to healthy foods, or food at all. Most schools have food programs, so if a student describes difficulty with their access to food, ensure you connect them with the appropriate resources.
The next topic to introduce could be around the quality of living foods. For example, maybe an athlete has realized they love canned green beans, and they make the very keen connection that when they include these green foods, they sleep better and feel more recovered the next day. Encourage the athletes’ success and self-awareness. Then when the athlete acknowledges that they are ready for the next step, teach them about the quality of green beans. Would it be possible for them to ask their parents to buy them fresh or frozen green beans, and to cook them in a quality fat, such as olive oil, avocado oil, or butter?
The Power of the Group
Group discussion can be really powerful. One athlete might have realized that beets are helpful to their basketball performance (beets have nitric oxide which improves blood flow and muscle contraction). Hearing this from a fellow teammate will help others be more open to experimentation and assist in their personal creative processes around food. An athlete might also bring up a negative experience, such as digestive stress after introducing more vegetables. This is a great opportunity to discuss how the body needs some time to get used to the increased fiber found in vegetables, and how this is temporary. They might trust that their body will adapt soon, or they can slow down on the veggies and increase their intake more slowly to avoid this response.
The education-reflection-assessment process can toggle back and forth as you SLOWLY introduce new topics, with the eventual goal of helping your athletes include better food choices. Helping them tap into the differences in energy, focus, decision-making, and athletic performance as it relates to the foods they eat, will be a powerful motivator for change.
Remember that small-yet-consistent shifts are more important and better at building lasting habits than grand, unsustainable changes.
What will your first step be?
For more performance nutrition information and education tips, head to sportfuel.com/articles.
About the authors:
Alex Cotie, SportFuel Senior Sports Nutritionist
Alex Cotie is a registered dietitian, with a degree in Dietetic Science from the University of Illinois in Chicago. Having trained with Julie Burns for over 10 years, Alex is dedicated to finding integrative and individualized methods to help clients reach their fullest potential.
Hannah Gilroy, SportFuel Performance Health Coach and Community Manager
Hannah Gilroy supports clients with informative and simple content and by working collaboratively with them as a health coach. She also manages SportFuel’s marketing and content.
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