FUEL: The Basics of Healthy Eating
Written by Elsa Chu, P. Dt.
Elsa is part of Coast to Coast Nutrition - an Instagram page dedicated to helping Ultimate players navigate their nutrition
Despite what the internet has to say, there are a few basic concepts that are vital to healthy eating, especially for athletes. There are two major reasons why it’s so confusing to find 100% factual nutrition advice on the internet.
Nutrition research is still new: Serious research involving high-quality trials and experiments only started 80 years ago. Evidence is now evolving much more quickly than during early research, so some findings may contradict each other.
Lots of different things work: We can find healthy, strong, and happy humans that thrive off of many different diets. Indigenous Arctic peoples can live almost exclusively on animal meat, while native peoples in tropical regions eat mostly plant foods. There is no perfect diet, so it’s not useful to argue over whether keto, paleo, plant-based, or fasting diets are the best way to live.
In the world of nutrition, it’s simpler to zoom out than to zoom in. In other words, it’s easier and more beneficial to live by a few universal concepts than to follow a strict set of rules, like counting calories, measuring every portion, or excluding a group of foods.
1. Variety is key
Many people wonder if they’re getting enough of each vitamin, mineral, and nutrient through their diet. Headlines in the news that use buzzwords like “superfood,” “miracle,” and “you’re missing this food” capitalize on that confusion to sell products. The truth is, if you eat from all parts of the food spectrum, you rarely lack any nutrients. Mother Nature has cleverly hidden all the good stuff in many different types of food, so if you don’t like bananas, you won’t die of a potassium deficiency. Vary your sources of fruits, vegetables, animal products, grains, nuts, and beans to get the rainbow of nutrients. As for your sweet or salty tooth, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a little bit of room for your favorite treat. Making healthy food the first priority will leave you in better health and in a better mood than restricting yourself!
2. Honor your hunger
One of the largest problems athletes, especially female athletes, face is failing to meet their energy (read: calorie) needs each day. They become so used to hunger that they might not notice it anymore. Hunger can masquerade as fatigue, dizziness, brain fog, or irritability, so it’s easy to dismiss. Hunger serves a very specific purpose, and athletes have higher needs for almost every nutrient in the book. Fill your plate during meals according to the hunger you feel before eating, but monitor how quickly you fill up as well! If you’re feeling hungry outside of meals, honor that feeling and make yourself a snack with a source of protein and a source of carbohydrates.
3. Nourish regularly
Blood sugar naturally fluctuates every three to four hours, and hunger, mood, and energy fluctuate along with it. To maximize your productivity and performance, it’s important to eat every three or four hours. For most people, this looks like three meals a day, with one or two snacks scattered between.
4. Balance your plate
Meals that are balanced offer more than just a pretty plate. Balance implies having a variety of nutrients that serve to fuel a healthy body and mind. Protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruits are all extremely important parts of each meal. A balanced plate will leave an athlete feeling comfortably full without feeling stuffed, as well as alert and energized rather than drowsy and lazy.
5. Make snacks count
For many people, a snack can be just about anything: a piece of fruit, a cup of coffee, a pastry, a bowl of popcorn, a chicken leg. Snacks provide an opportunity to top off the fuel in our tank for whatever’s ahead and keep us full until the next meal. Snacks should have a source of carbohydrates, for immediate energy and to restore blood sugars, and a source of protein, to keep stomachs full and muscles replenished.