Why Athletes Need to Eat Clean

Fit woman eating healthy salad after workout

Performance nutrition comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on an athlete’s sport and goals. I often get asked if an athlete needs to eat clean. As a sports dietitian, my answer depends on how one perceives the concept of “clean eating.” However, no matter the definition and whether I like it or not, athletes have been trending toward cleaner and more restrictive intake.

Unfortunately, it can be easy for an athlete, who often has an extremist personality, to take the concept of clean eating to an unhealthy level.

The philosophy of clean eating is aimed at providing whole foods with naturally-occurring fiber, vitamins and minerals intact with minimal processing. In addition, healthy clean eating habits should include consistency, balance and variety. Consistent meal and snack times combined with portion control teaches the body to have healthy boundaries with food.

Balance among food groups will promote macronutrient levels that make sense for weight management. Incorporating a variety of foods from each food group will increase our ability to achieve intake of a broad range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

So what does a clean eating lifestyle exclude for athletes? Initiating a clean eating lifestyle does not mean that foods are required to be bland or unnecessarily limited. In fact, athletes often fail to meet their fueling and recovery demands the way it is because of demanding schedules and limited resources. Having said this, creating an additional barrier by limiting athletes to rigid food rules may do more harm than good. The first goal isn’t to identify what athletes can’t eat, but rather what they can.

A worldwide study of athletes from 24 sports across 58 countries illustrated that there is definitely a need for education on food choices, with making healthy choices being especially challenging when they are put into a buffet-style situations.

This dynamic creates the need for athletes to have access to pre-portioned healthy meal choices that make sense for fueling and recovery. Providing athletes with a variety of choices in the form of diversity from meal to meal rather than buffet-style presentation significantly reduces pressure to make the right choice and increases the chances that they will successfully meet their needs.

Prepared meal companies, such as Clean Eatz Kitchen, provide excellent solutions aimed at just this. Because every meal provides portioned-controlled whole foods, minimal preservatives, adequate protein and fruits or veggies as sources of antioxidants, technically every meal can be a right choice for an athlete to make!  

To reinforce the importance of focusing on whole food intake, we should talk about what the problem is with highly-processed foods. When foods are processed, several things take place. First of all, they are often stripped of nutritional value.

Let’s take grains, for instance. Refined grains are milled, a process that removes the outer bran and germ components to create a softer texture and optimize visual appeal. However, during this process, a grain also loses fiber, iron and B-vitamins. Often times, grains will then be enriched, which is an attempt to add nutrients back to the nutritionally-lacking food products.

The same is true for fruits and veggies. It is not uncommon to see fruit juices and sauces or skinless veggies created for convenience purposes, which often require fortification because they have been shed of their nutritional value. Attention to these seemingly unnecessary nutritional stripping and refortifying processes has inspired an increased focus on “whole foods” and “clean” food products. Because honestly, wouldn’t it make more sense to just produce whole food products from the beginning? 

In addition to the loss of essential nutrients, food processing can also pack foods full of unwanted ingredients.

As highlighted by the Harvard School of Public Health, overconsumption of highly-processed foods often leads to weakened immunity related to high sugar and salt intake. High salt intake contributes to an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Excess sugar intake can amplify the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation, diabetes and fatty liver disease.

Chronic diseases such as these, in combination with limited intake of clean, wholesome foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein is a toxic combination for immune health. But not only is our physical health subject to an increased risk of early onset of aging and an increased risk for chronic disease comorbidities, unhealthy eating takes a toll on our mental health as well .  

Author – Crystal Zabka-Belsky, MS, RDN, CSSD, LMNT, LDN. Resident Dietitian, Clean Eatz Kitchen