The 3 Best and 3 Worst Diets For Athletes

If you’re an athlete, don’t get sucked in by one of the many fad diets. Instead, heed these words from a registered dietitian and experienced marathoner.

It’s official: We have just ushered in a new decade. The fanfare of confetti, fireworks and champagne toasts is over and we look to 2020 as a year brimming with endless possibilities. The start of a new year often brings with it the resolve to make positive change.

It seems fitting, after what has been for many of us a period of excess and indulgence during the holiday season, that the New Year can serve as a starting point to get back on track or embark on a new goal to be happier, healthier and ultimately make it a better year than the last.

Unfortunately, resolutions are often synonymous with unfulfilled aspirations to lose weight and exercise more. Advertisements for diets flood our airwaves and social media, each boasting more rapid and significant results than the rest. Most of these we can write off as offering false promises or setting us up for failure, but it doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom.

In fact, we can reflect back on the various diets new and old from 2019 to guide us into a healthier 2020. Here we break down the top three diets from 2019 that just might be your ticket to that new and improved you.

BEST: The Mediterranean Diet

If you want to lose weight, improve your performance as an athlete and be healthier, look no further than this “diet.” I use the term “diet” loosely here because it is really more of an eating style than diet. There is no set calorie limit or specific distribution of carbohydrates, protein or fat. Instead, the Mediterranean Diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and legumes and healthy fats like olive oil. Though mostly plant-based, the Mediterranean diet encourages eating fish or seafood twice a week and still allows for moderate amounts of dairy, eggs and poultry.

As is the case for any good diet, some wiggle room is important and the allotted daily glass of red wine for women and two for men gives “dieters” just that. Studies show that those who follow a Mediterranean Diet not only lose weight, but have decreased risk for heart disease, cancer, depression and dementia. From a performance perspective, the inclusion of high-quality carbohydrates provides ample energy and antioxidants to power long workouts and reduce inflammation. For 2020, Club Med is where it’s at. Best: Flexitarian

Plant-based diets may be all the rage in the health and fitness world right now thanks to the documentary “Game Changers,” but as discussed in our  last issue, it can be a challenge for athletes to go entirely plant-based.

There’s no question a plant-based diet gets top ranking for health benefits, but it can feel unattainable for those who just can’t picture life without the occasional steak. Meat lovers don’t despair; the Flexitarian Diet was designed to allow “dieters” to derive the benefits of a vegetarian diet while still allowing for moderate amounts of animal products.

This means the majority of proteins are of the plant variety with the occasional meat or animal product. The actual health benefits of the diet are hard to determine as there are no set “rules” and thus no true definition of what constitutes a Flexitarian Diet.

However, research shows that reducing meat consumption reduces risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The best part of the diet is, as the name implies; it’s flexible. For athletes, this can be ideal as the time and effort that go into training can make it difficult to also find time to plan and prepare meals with lots of restrictions that still meet their nutritional needs. If you’re just starting out, try easing in with one meatless dish per week until you find a happy balance.

BEST: Nordic Diet

It’s no coincidence that Scandinavian countries consistently top the charts for happiness and health. Their lifestyle, including their diet, is certainly a major factor. The Nordic Diet is based on ten core concepts; Eat more fruits and vegetables every day. Eat more whole grains. Include more foods from seas and lakes. Eat less meat and ensure it is high-quality when you do. Eat more wild foods. Use organic produce as much as possible. Avoid food additives. Base more meals on seasonal produce. Consume more home-cooked food. Produce less waste.

Studies show these core concepts translate to a diet that reduces the risk for heart disease and diabetes. As a major bonus for athletes, this diet has also been shown to reduce levels of inflammation in the body. The Nordic Diet also encourages meals to have a ratio of 2:1 of carbs to protein. This emphasis on carbohydrates is ideal for many athletes, especially in a diet culture that usually discourages carb consumption. No wonder the Vikings had ample energy to pillage and plunder!

Inevitably, reflecting on the past year means learning from what we did right as much as from what we did wrong. I’m sure we can all look back at years past only to cringe wondering, “What was I thinking?” (yes, mullets were once stylish). And let me tell you; when it comes to diets in 2019 we had plenty of missteps. This is especially true for athletes who adopted diets that were never intended to be used by active individuals. Let’s delve further into the worst diets for health and performance that 2019 gave us.

WORST: Carnivore Diet

This is arguably the most polarizing diet craze of 2019—a diet where meat is the only item on the menu. This is no exaggeration. The Carnivore Diet permits only animal-based  foods and completely omits fruits and vegetables. This may sound like a dream to self-proclaimed “meat eaters” and a nightmare to those who enjoy the occasional piece of fruit, salad or slice of bread.

It’s essentially a more extreme version of the Keto Diet (discussed below) with absolutely zero carbohydrates allowed and a higher protein intake than Keto. What makes it top our list of deplorable diets? For starters, a diet solely reliant on animal products is completely contrary to everything we know about diet and health.

Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains have been proven time and again to prevent disease whereas red meat consumption has been shown to do just the opposite. For athletes, the Carnivore Diet provides more than enough protein, but is deficient in numerous vitamins and minerals and, of course, carbohydrates, making it a negative for health and performance.

WORST: Keto Diet

More formally known as the Ketogenic Diet, this was originally created to help manage symptoms of epilepsy in children. It is now far better known for producing significant and rapid weight loss through extremely low-carb, moderate protein and very high fat intake.

Contrary to the general principles of our top-three best diets, adherents essentially eliminate grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes from their diet and instead fill their plates with high-fat foods. Though the long-term health effects are unclear, the impact on athletic performance is undoubtedly negative.

For all intents and purposes, an athlete on a Keto Diet is like a car stuck in first gear; it can move, but very slowly. Attempting to push the pace will result in a total breakdown. Additionally, a lack of fruits, vegetables and whole grains leaves athletes low in antioxidants, thus impeding recovery from tough workouts.

As tempting as it can be to sign up for a diet that promises rapid weight loss while still allowing for plates piled high with bacon and eggs, let’s please leave this diet craze in 2019.

WORST: Whole30 Diet

According to its founders, the Whole30 was originally intended to resolve physical and mental health issues caused by specific foods. In theory it doesn’t sound so bad; eliminate all sugar (yes, that includes natural sugars too), alcohol, soy, dairy, beans, legumes, grains, processed additives and “junk” food for 30 days.

You can then begin the process of reintroducing individual food groups to gauge your body’s reaction and thus determine which foods you should or shouldn’t consume for optimal health. As with similar elimination diets, the Whole30 is highly restrictive and any weight loss is typically erased when individuals return to their old eating habits.

I’m all for cutting back on processed and packaged foods as stipulated with this diet. However, the biggest concern when it comes to Whole30 is that despite the fact that it was not meant to be a long-term diet, it is being treated as such, with individuals forgoing the reintroduction phase and leaving healthy foods like whole grains and legumes off the menu. Just like the Carnivore and Keto diets, limited carbohydrates will leave active individuals fatigued and ultimately hinder performance.

Featured Photo: Diets that build in flexibility and lifestyle choices may just be the key to eating and feeling better for athletes in 2020. Look out for healthy carbs, fats and plenty of produce, like what you find in the Mediterranean or Nordic diets.

Jamie Sheahan is the Director of Nutrition at The Edge in South Burlington.  Jamie holds a Master of Science in Dietetics from the University of Vermont, where she serves as an adjunct professor of sports nutrition. Jamie has run over 40 marathons in addition to several ultra marathons.

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