Gatorade, Clif bars, Protein shakes, powders, protein bars, vitamin water… with all the performance snacks out there, what should you eat in preparation for training or games? You might wonder to yourself, is there a specific formula or a certain amount of fats, carbs and protein I need to eat in order to maximize my performance? Or you may be the opposite and not think about it at all!

As a former athlete, growing up I never put too much thought into what I ate or how it affected me until college. I was fortunate to have a coach who was on the National USA Soccer Team and training for the World Cup at the time. She instilled in us right away the importance of nutrition. She was the Elite, the best of the best in the world at the time– she didn’t just talk the talk; she walked the walk. You better believe we were going to follow her advice. She taught us that the way we ate could make a huge impact in the way we played. When we traveled, we rarely ate fast food on the road, which showed her commitment to our health. Since then, I’ve come to realize that your health and “diet” can make a big difference in the way you train and play as an athlete.

When I use the word diet, I do not mean it in a sense of deprivation, restrictive food rules or any other quick fixes or fads you may hear about. Today we are usually getting our information from marketing on tv or social media such as Instagram ads, Google and viral Tik-Tok crazes. First rule of thumb is to check your sources – most likely you are getting incorrect information or being sold into a short-term solution. This often leads to poor eating habits, weight fluctuations or eating disorders. Over-examining, becoming obsessive or being too restrictive with your diet, especially in a culture fixated on female thinness and beauty, is linked to long-term physiological negative effects.

According to a summary opinion of over 40 studies, it showed that 95% of weight lost through dieting is regained. “Paradoxically, adolescent girls with elevated scores on dieting scales are at increased risk for future onset of obesity…indicating that dieting predicts weight gain in adulthood.” Stice, E., et al., ‘Psychological and Behavioral Risk Factors for Obesity Onset in Adolescent Girls: A Prospective Study,’ Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 73, No. 2 195-202 (2005).

Effects of weight cycling has been linked to many long-term problems such as: Damage to the heart and cardiovascular system, reduced bone mass, DNA damage or abnormal cell change in breast tissue and can cause physical weakness. It’s also linked to possibly altering levels and effects of serotonin function (the hormone in the brain that’s thought to regulate anxiety, happiness, and mood). Low levels of this chemical have been associated with impulsivity and depression as well. In general, we should never rely on popular culture for nutritional advice. These sources are not the answer to better health, especially for athletes, who depend on our bodies to perform at higher levels than most. Our bodies were made to do incredible things and we come in different body shapes and sizes. We need to do less scrutinizing and celebrate how strong and grateful we are that we can compete and can play the sports we love.

Your body needs the correct fuel to function, and you need to maintain a proper diet with an adequate amount of nutrients and calories to be at your best. Balance, portion size and everything in moderation is essential to weight management and matching your calories to meet your needs. This means that you are mindful of your daily activities, exercise and are aware of how your body burns food to meet your energy needs. Each person is different and unique, therefore, instead of focusing on counting calories, tune in to what your body is telling you! When it comes to nutrition, I ask you to pay attention to what you eat & how you feel during and after exercise.  Were you fatigued or energized? What has your body taught you about how to eat to feel that way? The sooner you can notice patterns within yourself, the quicker you can implement these habits and enhance your performance – ultimately becoming a better athlete, player and teammate. Also, be aware that the way you nourish your body afterwards can help your body recover and heal faster.

Whole, nutritious, non-processed and real foods with clean ingredients (you can clearly read/pronounce the ingredient on the food label) are always the rule of thumb when it comes to eating. The way your food is prepared is just as important. Cooking at home with more traditional ways of preparing foods ensures you are getting the most nutrients while also knowing what you are putting into your body. Sure, performance bars and snacks can be eaten right before performing for a quick burst of stable energy or at half time – but be aware that these are usually processed in a factory and the longer the shelf life, the less nutritional they are. If it expires in a short period of time – think vegetables, fruits, yogurt etc. – the better for you. Candy and high energy drinks may sound great at the time, but they are empty calories and after that quick burst of energy and feeling good, you will eventually crash. This can lead to headaches, a jittery feeling and most importantly, hinder your performance. Snacks such as a whole piece of fruit, handful of nuts, string cheese, organic yogurt or a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread are great sources of energy from foods 30 minutes to an hour prior to performing or at half time.

This all being said, your health is a life-long journey, and it lies in the tiny habits and choices you decide to follow each day. Although incredibly important, nutrition is just one piece of your overall health, and you must check-in with yourself daily and be honest. Are you getting an adequate amount of sleep? Are you surrounded by positive friends and relationships that energize your spirit? Are you watching or reading empowering and motivational material or are you feeding your mind negativity? Are you drinking enough water and properly hydrated? How are you coping with stress and self-care? These are all essential things we need to consider as they are all part of your diet and overall health.

Health, diet, and well-being are multi-dimensional. In order to truly understand what health means, you should consider your physical, social, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual health as well. Consistency in taking care of YOU, just like training, is the most important key to wrapping this all together. So, the next time your parents or coach tells you to eat your vegetables, instead of the eye roll – remember that proper nutrition can make a huge difference in the way you perform. Now that you are properly fueled, go out there and kill it, girl!

About the Author, Sara McClard:

Sara is a Holistic Nutrition Health Coach, single mom & soccer coach. She resides in Mokena, Illinois where she was born and raised.