A simple fact: humans – and all animals, for that matter – require calories to maintain their weight and the functioning of vital organs.
A not-so-simple fact: the amount of calories each human requires each day is unique to that person and may be as low as 1,200 calories or as high as 12,000 calories (reportedly the amount Michael Phelps was consuming while training for the 2008 Olympics). Your daily total expenditure depends on a number of factors, including your BMR, genetics, gender, age, weight, lean muscle mass, diet, hormone function, and activity level.
Avoid overly processed foods.
Processed foods, like the aforementioned burgers and pizzas, are often packed with excess sodium, sugars, saturated fat, and trans fats, which have been linked to to cardiovascular disease, stroke, high cholesterol, diabetes, and certain cancers. Totino’s has a pizza with a whopping 5 grams of trans fat; the Double Double Animal Style from In-n-Out has 18 grams of saturated fat; and the Hungry-Man Boneless Pork Rib Dinner has 65 grams of sugar (that’s about 16 teaspoons). Just because an elite athlete is easily burning off all of these calories does not give them free reign to eat all the junk food they want: their bodies are still absorbing excess trans fats, saturated fats, sugars, and sodium that will ultimately hurt their health.
You can still eat fast food; just pick healthier restaurants, like Chipotle, Panera, Noodles & Company, and Subway. At Chipotle, for example, you can order a chicken burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, corn salsa, pico de gallo, cheese, and guacamole for 785 calories, 43 grams fat (most of which comes from the healthy monounsaturated kind found in the guacamole), 22 grams of fiber, and 56 grams of protein. Add a tortilla and a side salad, and you can stretch the burrito into two meals for less than $8.
Get more bang for your buck.
The goal is to find cheap foods that don’t just offer the most calories per dollar – but also the most nutrients per dollar. These staples are cheap, nutrient-rich, and, if doubled or tripled in serving size and balanced with other macronutrients, offer enough calories to become a meal.
172 calories, 2.8 g fat, 3 g fiber, 6 g protein
Brown rice and other grains cost about half as much as quinoa, but they also come up short in nutrition with fewer grams of fiber and protein. And unlike brown rice, quinoa is a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. A 2002 study also found that quinoa consumption is associated with a spike in insulin-like growth factor-1 levels, which have been tied to muscle growth. It also contains more vitamins and minerals that boost performance and recovery, including magnesium, potassium, and folate.
170 calories, .5 g fat, 15 g fiber, 12.5 g protein
Lentils contain resistant starch, a type of soluble fiber that increases satiety and reduces the glycemic responses of food, helping your body maintain a stable blood sugar. Lentils are also a good vegetarian source of iron, which plays an important role in energy production and metabolism.
Eggs: $.17/1 egg
80 calories, 5 g fat, 0 g fiber, 7 g protein
Eggs are officially off of nutrition’s blacklist. A comprehensive study from the University of Surrey found that egg consumption did not significantly contribute to raised cholesterol levels. Eggs, one of the highest quality forms of protein, also contain an ideal proportion of amino acids, making them a smart post-workout meal.
Sweet Potatoes: $.45/serving
162 calories, 0 g fat, 6 g fiber, 4 g protein
Sweet potatoes contain more fiber and have a lower glycemic index than their white counterparts; they also have more vitamin A, manganese, copper, phytosterols, and antioxidants. Two of these antioxidants are anthocyanins and beta-carotene, which work as anti-inflammatories.
161 calories, 14.5 g fat, 13 g fiber, 4 g protein
Nearly all of the fat found in avocados are monounsaturated fats, which boost cardiovascular health, regulate blood sugar, and increase absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Avocados contain a number of anti-inflammatory antioxidants, including phytosterols, carotenoids, and flavonoids, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Know your carbs.
Depending on the sport, many elite athletes will have macronutrient guidelines for training. For example, an endurance athlete might be advised to maintain the ratio of 15% daily calories from protein, 60% from carbs, and 25% from fats. For athletes with other goals (weight loss, weight gain, strength gain, etc), those percentages may be higher or lower. The protein and fat guidelines are relatively straightforward: eat lean, high-quality proteins and focus on unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. But what about carbs? The term carbohydrate includes a wide range of foods from cake, cookies, ice cream, and candy to white pasta and bagels, and from ancient grains like millet, amaranth, and quinoa to fruits and vegetables. It also says nothing about fiber.
The recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables vary depending on caloric intake. For someone eating 3,200 calories a day, the USDA guidelines recommend eating 2 ½ cups of fruit and 4 cups of vegetables per day; this may be higher if your caloric intake is higher. Because fruits and vegetables are low in calories, this will probably not make a big dent in the recommended 60% of calories from carbohydrates.
Athletes should aim to get most of the rest of their carbohydrate calories from foods with a low to moderate glycemic index, which are often the most nutritious carbs. These foods, which include whole and minimally processed grains and legumes, often contain fiber and thus result in a steady release of glucose into your bloodstream. Fiber is just as important for athletes as it is for nonathletes: it improves digestive health, lowers cholesterol, controls blood sugar levels, and prevents certain cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. Aim to get between 25 and 35 grams of fiber daily, except…
…before or during a race/competition/game. Since fiber and low-glycemic carbs are slow-digesting, they may cause gastrointestinal distress if eaten too close to intense physical activity. High glycemic and low-fiber foods, like white bread, bagels, and corn flakes, are broken down quickly – but in this instance, that’s a good thing: they can be used immediately for energy.
However, it’s important to note that everyone is different. Some people can tolerate high fiber snacks and meals close to exercise, while others would be doubled over with a cramp. Play around with the type of carbs that give you the best performance, whether it’s a plain bagel or oatmeal and stick with it.