The New Food Guidelines for Athletes

Confused by the USDA's new dietary guidelines? Follow these 7 simple nutrition rules to improve your diet.

The recent USDA dietary guidelines for healthy eating are already mired in controversy. In only a week, there has been an outcry from nutrition scientists and even a lawsuit regarding the failure of the updated guidelines.

"A lot of people are deeply troubled by it," said Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in an interview with The Boston Globe.

Experts contend that public interest and science were overlooked in favor of protecting the food industry. Yikes!

This makes what you should eat even more confusing. Something that should be simple is continually being made more complicated. One day you're told to eat something, and then the next day it becomes the worst thing in the world (we are looking at you, eggs).

So what should you do?

To make sense of the madness, we consulted with Leslie Bonci, who serves as the team dietitian for several professional sports teams, to provide seven simple and realistic nutrition rules that will improve the way you eat.

Rule 1: Eat a Plant-Centric Diet

You might not like this, but plant-based foods should form the bulk of your diet. Vegetables and other plant-based foods are nutritionally dense, meaning you get more nutrients per calorie when eating them.

As a matter of fact, you should eat as many vegetables as you can without concern for calories. However, this does not apply to foods like almonds and avocados, which can become an issue if you eat too much. For example, a gigantic salad that will leave you feeling stuffed might have only a few hundred calories, the same amount as a tiny granola bar.

Bonci recommends thinking outside the box when considering the plants you eat. She says, "Plants are not just greens and kale, but could be something like beans, which are a low-cost, easy-to-prepare source of fiber and protein."

Integrating more plants into your diet is actually quite easy. Most often, plants are thought of as a small side dish. Instead, put plants in the center of your plate as a featured part of your meal. Increase the portion size of plants and the nutritional value of your meal.

Rule 2: Choose Lean and High-Quality Proteins

When choosing meat, opt for high-quality products with no or limited processing. When meat is processed, additional ingredients are introduced that increase the caloric value and decrease its health benefits. The World Health Organization advises avoiding processed meats due to long-term health concerns.

Other meats can be a part of your diet and are an important source of protein. But you don't need to eat a massive steak or eight chicken breasts each day. A small portion of eight ounces or less is more than sufficient.

"Most people don't have the luxury of having an unlimited amount of meat they can eat each day," says Bonci. "So you want to get the most of what you are choosing."

Bacon and sausage are not ideal because 50 percent of their calories come from fat. On the other hand, high-quality meats, such as flank steak, tenderloin, fish, turkey and chicken have a higher protein content and may even contain healthy fats.

Too often we see athletes get stuck on one item. For example, insane consumption of chicken breast is synonymous with muscle growth. Such an exclusive strategy limits potential benefits from other protein sources—such as healthy fats from salmon—and often causes burnout on a particular food.

"I really encourage people to go shopping and set up a plan for the week," says Bonci. "That way you're not always doing the same thing all the time and you don't get bored."

Rule 3: Don't Forget About Whole Grains

With the rapidly rising popularity of Paleolithic diets, whole grains are starting to get a bad rap. Unfortunately, this eliminates an incredibly nutritious food group that should be a part of your diet.

Whole grains, such as brown rice and oats, are typically slow digesting, high in fiber and have high nutrient density. In contrast, processed grains are fast digesting and stripped of fiber and nutrients. With whole grains, you get more bang for your buckwheat.

"I really like the term 'whole grains' because it connotes something that is giving you added value," says Bonci.

She advises athletes to go beyond having whole grain bread on their sandwiches and think about how to incorporate whole grains into other areas of their diets. For example, you can incorporate whole grains into your cereal or even boost the nutrition value of a Mexican bowl by getting brown rice instead of white rice.

Transitioning to whole grains may at first be an adjustment, but you will gradually learn to appreciate the added flavor of whole grain foods—processed foods might eventually taste bland.

RELATED: How and Why to Eat 8 Healthy Grains

Rule 4: Add Healthy Fats Where You Can

Despite what you might think, fats are not the devil. In fact, eating more fat helps your body more efficiently use fat as a fuel source. You can actually become a better fat-burning machine just by eating fat.

Bonci explains that fats have several benefits. "There are fats that actually work to keep cholesterol [such as Omega 3 fatty acids] in balance by lowering the bad cholesterol and boosting good cholesterol," she explains. "Fats will also make you feel fuller longer between meals. When people decide to eat healthily and they cut back significantly on fat in their diet, they tend to feel hungry all the time."

Additionally, fats are important for proper hormone function and brain health, and fat can help reduce inflammation throughout your body, which improves recovery.

"Athletes need to make sure they are incorporating some good fats in their diets every day," Bonci adds.

Try to get creative with the fats you eat. For example, don't just have avocado in guacamole. Add a few slices to your salads or mash it up and put it on a chicken sandwich. Olive oil is another easy way to add healthy fats to your diet. Simply drizzle some olive oil on a salad or veggies for a healthy fat boost. Salmon, nuts and seeds are also great sources of healthy fats.

RELATED: The Best Sources of Fat For Athletes

Rule 5: Reduce Your Sugar Intake

Reducing your sugar intake is probably the easiest way to clean up your diet. The rule is simple: limit foods that have added sugar. This means that sugar was added during processing or before you eat it, and is not a natural component of the food.

"When I'm talking with my clients about reducing sugar intake, I'm not talking about fruit or yogurt," she says. "What I'm talking about is added sugar, what people are adding in their coffee, what people have in their beverages, what people are eating for dessert. I can't stand it when people put fruit in that same category."

To reduce your sugar content, carefully examine food labels—or just eat whole foods. If you see sugar, corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup high on the list of ingredients, avoid the product. Sometimes foods you least expect can be loaded with sugar, such as marinara sauce or salsa, so always keep a close eye on what you buy.

Inevitably, you might want something sweet. When this occurs, Bonci recommends dark chocolate, because its sugar and fat content are more satisfying and filling than something like a gummy bear, which is essentially pure sugar in gooey bear form.

Rule 6: Eat Real Food

The more real food you can eat, the better off your diet will be. Processed foods typically have a high caloric content with few nutrients and little fiber. They're incredibly convenient but they do little to support your dietary needs.

"With the teens that I work with, we are seeing them get away from things like bars and ready-to-drink shakes and instead eat real food," says Bonci.

When shopping for real food, stick to the outer rim of the grocery store. The aisles are where the majority of processed foods are located. That said, it's extremely difficult to completely eliminate all processed foods from your diet. So it's important to be selective with the types of processed foods you consume.

Bonci claims that the fewer ingredients, the better. If you buy something like a salsa, the first thing on the label should be tomatoes, not sugar. Or, for example, tortilla chips have cornmeal, salt and oil, whereas a cracker might have more than 20 ingredients.

RELATED: Study Says That More Than Half Your Daily Calories Come From Processed Foods

Rule 7: Drink Water!

Water should be your regular source of hydration—no exceptions. Sodas, sports drinks and fruit juices are basically just sugar water. A glass of fresh orange juice with breakfast is OK, but stay clear of sugary beverages on a daily basis.

How boring, right?

Bonci offers a few strategies to add flavor to your hydration routine. "People can add flavor to their water by adding a slice of lemon, lime, orange, ginger or a little bit of mint," she says. "I have a lot of people who love making herbal tea and then cooling it down to add a bit of flavor."

"When you don't have a constant sweetness on your tongue, you may end up wanting fewer sweet things," she adds.

RELATED: What Fluids Are Best for Hydration


Topics: PROTEIN | DIET | CARBS | NUTRITION | CALORIES | FOODS | HEALTH | MEATS | WHOLE GRAINS | HEALTHY FATS