An athlete’s diet is more than just calories in and calories out—it’s fuel. The right foods increase your energy, promote muscle growth, and aid in muscle repair. The wrong ones set you back. When it comes to chowing down, there are certain eats a serious athlete just won’t touch.
1. Canned soup
Canned soup might be convenient, but most of the time they’re no healthier for you than other highly processed snacks–their long shelf life should tip you off. “Some soups are so processed and high in sodium that it trumps over the health benefits. I would opt for low-sodium or homemade instead,” says Jim White, RD. The body needs sodium to function properly, but too much can lead to high blood pressure.
2. Sugary cereal
Artificial sugar is a definite no, but chowing down on too much of the real thing is just as bad. While active guys can afford to take in more calories than the average man, it doesn’t mean they’re scarfing down sugary foods on the daily. No athlete gets to the top of his game, and stays there, by starting his day off with a big bowl of oat cereal and marshmallows. Too much sugar also causes a spike in insulin, priming your body to store more fat.
3. White bread
Says Jim White, “White pastas, rice, and breads are OK, [but not ideal] because they are stripped of their nutrients and fiber.” Refined white flour is made from stripping the fiber, wheat germ, and essential B vitamins from the wheat kernel—what’s left is a highly processed food product, and when consumed, raises insulin levels and contributes to dips in energy and weight gain. Stick to whole-grain products; those made of white flour are not going to give you lasting energy.
4. Sports drinks
Unless you’re doing a really long, rigorous workout, chugging a sports drinks really isn’t necessary. Electrolyte-enhanced beverages usually contain up to up to 34 grams of sugar, so an athlete is better off drinking water and refueling with other foods and beverages. (Coconut water and tart cherry juice have been hailed as miracle workout elixirs.) Research backs it up, too. A study published in the journal Obesity found that people who consume one or more sports drinks every day gained more weight over a three-year span than those who don’t.
5. Nutrition bars
The problem with most bars—be it snack, protein, or energy—is all the added sugars and fats. Obviously protein bars are calorie-dense to help you gain muscle, but if you’re chowing down on ‘em after a light workout, or eating them even if you haven’t worked out, it can easily pack on the pounds. Likewise, nutrition and snack bars tend to be saturated fat and sugar bombs with add-ins like nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate. You want to opt for bars with minimal, pronounceable ingredients.
6. Fruit juice
Fruit juice is deceiving. It’s got fruit, and you know that has essential vitamins and minerals, but it also has a boatload of sugar. What’s more, it lacks the component in fruit—the skin and fibrous flesh—that holds majority of its nutrition. And since you’re not chewing, the sugar (most of which is fructose) is sent to the liver very quickly—which can be lodge and stored there as fat. Unsweetend cherry or grape juice, on the other hand, can help you recover after a difficult workout by keeping your blood flowing properly, boosting your cardiovascular health, and filling your body with antioxidants.
7. Bottled salad dressing
You wouldn’t douse important vegetables with cream, fat, and sugar, but that’s what you’re doing when you use most salad dressings. Instead of sabotaging your health with processed oils, chemicals, and preservatives opt for olive oil- or vinegar-based dressings, which you can add your own spices to for one-of-a-kind flavor. And if you crave creaminess in a dressing, use avocado or tahini as your base.
8. Packed deli meat
If you’re making lunch from home, kudos to you, you’re saving money and calories. But not if you’re go-to is a hoagie crammed with provolone, pepper jack, ham, salami, turkey, and any other number of add-ons like bacon and condiments. Packaged deli meats are hiding tons of added salt and nitrates, which are used to preserve their freshness and color. Aside from calories, you’re upping your odds for heart disease and cancer. A smarter choice: Buy rotisserie chicken, or cook up chicken and turkey breasts that have lean protein.
9. Trail mix
You’ll run into a lot of problems with snacks hailed as “healthy”–they’re not really healthy. Trail mix may be an easy snack to keep in your car, at the office, or with you on hikes, but that fiber-filled snack you think you’re having is really just a giant tub of candy. Do coconut shavings, M&Ms, candied fruit, and yogurt- or chocolate-covered nuts seem like fuel fit for an athlete? Sorry, but neither do we. Skip the store-bought stuff and make your own muscle-building mix with seeds, nuts, and some raisins.
Frozen yogurts are a healthier alternative to ice cream. Most are fat free, but high in sugar, so always in moderation. While most frozen yogurt is nonfat or very low in fat the calories still add up. Most nonfat “original” or “plain” (typically the lowest-calorie flavor at most frozen yogurt shops) is about 30-35 calories per ounce with about 20g of sugar—meaning that a large 16-ounce cup weighs in at 380 calories and 76g of sugar before adding any toppings.