Jan 4, 2021, 9:50:22 AM CST Jan 4, 2021, 1:53:36 PM CST

Popular diets for athletes: What's best for performance?

From plant-based diets to intermittent fasting and keto, see what young athletes should know about eating healthy

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As athletes look for ways to build endurance and strength, they may be wondering if a certain diet would help boost their sports performance. But with so many trendy diets out there today, it can be hard to sift through the information and find the right regimen for their needs.

Brittany Wehrle, a performance dietitian with Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS, answers some questions about the best diet for athletes and whether these dietary trends are worth the hype.

Is a plant-based (vegetarian or vegan) diet healthy for athletes?

With some recent documentaries praising the benefits of plant-based diets, many high-profile athletes have made the switch to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. The main difference between the two diets is that vegan diets eliminate all foods derived from animals, including dairy, eggs and honey. Vegetarian diets, on the other hand, may include some animal products, but not meat.

One of the potential benefits of plant-based diets for athletes is that they can easily meet an athlete's carbohydrate needs. Many plant-based foods – including bananas, sweet potatoes, beans and quinoa – are high in carbs. Carbs help boost endurance and performance, which means athletes can perform at a higher level for a longer time.

But there are also a few downsides to plant-based diets for athletes. A vegetarian or vegan athlete diet may not meet your energy needs, and vegan athletes can miss out on certain important micronutrients, like vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.

"Most athletes on a plant-based diet are going to have to rely on supplements or fortified foods to meet their performance needs," Wehrle explains. "For athletes who are interested in following a more plant-based lifestyle, getting guidance from a sports dietitian is an important step to ensure their new diet is not lacking in key nutrients."

Is a keto diet healthy for athletes?

Doctors and dietitians created the ketogenic diet in the 1920s as a way to treat severe epilepsy. Recently, it's grown in popularity as a weight-loss tool.

The keto diet focuses on fats. An individual on a traditional keto diet would consume 90% of their calories from fat, 6% from protein and 4% from carbs. As the diet has become more popular, those percentages have shifted slightly. Still, proponents of the keto diet recommend at least 75-80% of calories come from fat.

So, can a high-fat, low-carb, low-protein diet work for athletes? Not really, Wehrle says.

"Carbohydrates are the fuel in our gas tank and they're critical to how we perform," she says. "Unfortunately, keto doesn't allow enough carbs for athletes to fuel themselves adequately for a workout or competition."

Plus, the traditional keto diet doesn't provide enough protein for muscle recovery, Wehrle adds. Many keto diets also lack essential vitamins and minerals athletes need for a healthy immune system.

Is intermittent fasting good for athletes?

Intermittent fasting is another diet trend that has gained popularity in recent years. Instead of focusing on specific foods, intermittent fasting adjusts the timing of when you eat.

Most people who do intermittent fasting create a window during the day when they can eat food. For example, someone may fast from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. (16 hours) and only eat between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. (8 hours).

Proponents of this regimen say it can spark metabolic changes and spur weight loss. However, Wehrle says more research is needed to determine the pros and cons of this diet. Similar to other trendy diets, Wehrle says athletes may have trouble getting the fuel they need to perform if they restrict their eating window too much.

What is the best diet for athletes?

Unfortunately, most trending diets today won't meet an athlete's specific and elevated nutrition needs. There also isn't enough reliable research about these diets and how they can affect athletes.

"In general, none of these diets make sense for young athletes because they're restricting too much," Wehrle says. "They wouldn't be able to meet their daily calorie or carbohydrate needs."

Ultimately, the best diet for an athlete depends on the individual's age, sex, size, sport and performance goals. Young athletes must eat a variety of healthy foods, including whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables. Nutrient timing is also critical, Wehrle says.

"Athletes need energy levels to be stable and to do that, they need to eat throughout the day," she says. "Most young athletes should aim to eat every three to four hours, which works out to five or six balanced meals and snacks each day."

However, if your child or teen athlete is focused on trying one of these trending diets, ruling it out immediately may not be best. Many adolescents will still want to try these diets due to the influence of peers or social media. Instead, connect your child with a sports dietitian to help them identify the potential pros and cons.

"Keep in mind that many popular diets were created to help adults lose weight, so adapting them to be healthy for a young athlete is often very difficult to do," Wehrle says. "If your child feels like one of these diets is for them, it is important to have a conversation about why they are interested in this approach and to meet with a sports dietitian to ensure any changes they make are healthy and sustainable."

Learn more

Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine can help athletes reach peak performance through expert nutrition counseling. Learn more about our wide-range of orthopedic and sports performance services available to help athletes improve their game.

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