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Nutrition for the Athlete Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

There is no question that nutrition plays a key role in improving sports performance. A good sports performance diet can be a powerful solution for safely and naturally improving your energy, endurance, speed, reaction time and recovery. In the world of competitive sports, where winning and losing may come down to milliseconds, athletes need to examine all areas to see where they can improve. Grabbing a healthy pre-workout snack won’t help if there are holes in the rest of your diet. 

For adolescents specifically: Teens have a very high energy requirement, and when activity is added, the numbers are even greater. Adolescent males require ~2600-3000 calories per day, male athletes may require 3500-4000 calories. Female adolescents require 2000-2400 calories, female athletes can require 2600-3000 calories or more. 

Why a plate? The plate model provides a  visual guide for athletes to easily understand how much food they need. It is not necessary to count calories or measure out portions. Using a 9” sized dinner plate, athletes can fill their plate according to the breakdown recommended below.  

Starches/Grains – 50% of plate:

  • Choose whole grain options when possible: whole wheat bread (3 grams fiber/slice), bran cereal, whole wheat waffles/pitas/rolls/wraps/buns.

  • Fiber should be at least 25 g/day.

  • It is an essential component of your sports diet. It helps assure that the brain, heart and muscles are getting enough energy to function.

  • Getting sufficient starches will help with the restoration of glycogen stores (the "energy tank") which will help with energy, endurance and recovery.

Proteins – 25% of plate:

  • Aim for a variety of proteins such as chicken, turkey, tuna, fish, grass-fed beef (*contains iron), beans, nuts, tofu, cheeses, Greek yogurt.

  • Aim to include some red meat in the diet. Chicken, turkey and fish do not contain a lot of iron.

  • Athletes need 1.0-1.5 grams of protein/kg/day. To calculate how many grams of protein are required each day, first convert your weight in pounds to kilograms by dividing the weight in pounds by 2.2. Then multiply that number by 1.0 (endurance training), or 1.5 (strength training).

Fruits/Vegetables – 25% of plate:

  • Aim for 5-7 servings per day.

  • Strive for plenty of colors with each meal; it allows for more variety.

  • Skins/peels contain the most fiber.

  • A high consumption of fruits and vegetables will help reduce the inflammation associated with training.

  • Fruits and vegetables will keep the immune system healthy.

  • If you have at least one serving of fruits or vegetables at every meal and snack, you will achieve the recommended servings total per day. This is a minimum requirement.


  • Choose monounsaturated fats such as avocados, nuts, olive oil, flaxseeds.

  • Fats are necessary to keep hormone levels in the normal range.

  • Fats help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.


  • Choose sources such as low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt.

  • Aim for 3-4 servings/day.

  • Dairy-free alternatives include soy milk, hemp milk, almond milk, coconut milk and rice milk. *Soy milk is the highest in protein.

  • Dairy serves as another way of boosting protein consumption throughout the day (1 glass of milk is approximately 8 grams of protein; 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt is about 14 grams of protein, plus added calcium).

3 Meals + 2-3 Snacks: For low to moderate expenditure, aim for “3 + 2,” that is, three meals, plus two snacks. For higher-intensity sports like football, soccer and cross country, “3 + 3” might be necessary, which is three meals and three snacks. Snacks are an essential component of a sports diet, and together with three meals, will keep an athlete's metabolism working from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. Adding snacks will give the athlete an extra boost of energy and can help meet weight goals. 

Quality: The food an athlete eats should be nutrient-dense, which will maximize vitamin, mineral, fiber and antioxidant consumption. Extra vitamins and minerals can help your body work more efficiently and recover faster. Look for whole foods versus processed foods, as these foods tend to have the most nutrients per bite.   

Variety: Eating a variety of foods every day ensures that an athlete is getting their necessary nutrients. For example, oranges are very high in vitamin C, however, they lack potassium. If someone is “always eating the same thing,” brainstorm together on new meal ideas, go food shopping together and explore new foods and recipes. This also helps to keep food fun!

Timing: Athletes should eat every 3-4 hours, which is optimal for keeping their metabolism firing, keeping blood sugar stable, providing energy to the muscles, fueling pre- and post-workouts, and providing fuel for their brains. Eating regularly has been associated not only with enhanced sports performance but also with improved mood, energy and concentration. 

Rest Days and Light Training: The plate can be adjusted based on the intensity of the athlete’s training. On recovery days, or for lighter workouts, the plate can be divided into equal thirds: one-third, grain/starch; one-third, vegetables/fruits; and one-third, protein.

Next week, I will explore the principles surrounding hydration for athletes. Optimal nutrition and hydration are critical and help ensure that the athlete can perform at their best.


Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD

Wendy is a Registered Dietitian and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in the Bay Area in California.  She specializes in sports nutrition, eating disorders and weight management. 

Wendy is the team nutritionist for the Oakland Athletics and consults for the Menlo School and for The Healthy Teen Project. She has consulted for the Golden State Warriors, the New York Jets, and New York Islanders. She has been on the Clinical Advisory Board of Project HEAL, a nonprofit organization created to aid in the funding for the treatment of eating disorders since it was created in 2008. Wendy maintains a private practice in Menlo Park and Los Altos, California.

Email: Phone: (917) 568-9695 Twitter: @WendyMSRD Facebook: Sterling Nutrition

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