The Athlete’s Plate

MyPlate has generated a lot of buzz and I’m using it to show athletes how to eat for performance and good health. The USDA website contains loads of good tips on good nutrition but I’ve pulled out the tips that apply to athletes by showing them how eating by the plate method can deliver performance fuel. www.choosemyplate.gov/index.html

In the fruit section of the plate, encourage potassium-rich fruits. I’ve found that many athletes don’t get adequate potassium but they get plenty of sodium. Athletes who sweat heavily and lose sodium need more salt than most adults, but not much emphasis is put on potassium-rich foods. So I encourage bananas, melons, and dried fruit in trail mix to boost potassium. I also suggest they use a fruit-flavored yogurt as a dip for strawberries, bananas, melon wedges and apples…the dairy provides another boost of potassium. And, with the hot weather and outdoor practices, I suggest eating frozen fruit bars for a refreshing treat.

In the vegetable section, I suggest baked sweet potatoes in place of baked potatoes for a sweet change. Emphasize color (although one athlete asked me if a green apple was healthier than a red apple, so the color rule doesn’t always work) like dark lettuce, spinach salad, broccoli, and tomatoes. Athletes like pasta so they are happy to know that the marinara sauce counts as a vegetable serving. Encourage a lot of veggie toppings for pizza…they all like pizza…but I ask them try mushrooms, green peppers, and onion toppings. Stir-fries are popular, as are veggie kabobs on the grill.

For grains, I encourage whole grains, but many athletes are confused about what is a whole grain. They still think that 100% wheat bread or mixed grains or 7-grain breads are whole grains. I suggest they try whole wheat pasta in macaroni and cheese, brown rice with a stir-fry, and snacking on whole grain crackers (like Triscuits) or whole grain breakfast cereals (Wheaties and Cheerios are popular). And, popcorn is a good study snack to increase whole grains. But, only half of grains need to be whole grains and refined grains contribute some iron to an athlete’s diet. Iron is nutrient that is often in short supply in the diets of female athletes.

Protein is usually an easy sell to athletes but I encourage lean protein, like 90% lean ground beef or ground turkey or chicken breast. Athletes are often surprised to know that some beans and peas are high in protein, as are nuts and seeds. Fish and shellfish are also popular protein choices…unfortunately, often fried fish or shrimp is consumed instead of grilled or blackened fish or steamed shrimp. I encourage athletes to eat fish when they eat out as many don’t know how to cook fish.

Dairy foods can be great recovery foods and many athletes know that low-fat chocolate or strawberry milk is a good post-workout food. Yogurt makes a good snack, fruit dip, smoothie base, and baked potato topping. I also encourage “skinny” lattes for the morning coffee run.
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Using the plate to educate is an easy and smart way to reach athletes. For another good resource, check out the PowerPoint on MyPlate at www.extension.unl/edu/fnh