Food for thought: whole food eating tips for athletes

By: Dr. Beth Mansfield

Many athletes are interested in replacing highly processed or engineered “sport foods” with minimally processed whole foods to improve their overall health, but they aren’t sure where to start. It doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy eating is primed for sport performance with a focus on minimally processed foods. The plate approach is an easy visual cue to help you get the types and relative amounts of foods you need to achieve your running goals.


Choose Whole Foods (primarily plant based) for health and performance.

One great way to weed out processed “junk foods” is to focus on building a whole foods based sport nutrition plate. This includes plenty of raw and cooked vegetables and fruits, different sources of protein rich foods (pulses, Greek/Skyr style yogurts, soy/cow’s milk, eggs, fish, poultry, meats) and appropriate amounts of nutritionally rich sources of carbohydrate rich foods, such as pulses, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pulses and minimally processed whole grain foods including oats, barley, rice, and quinoa-based products.

Using minimally processed foods during training such as small boiled potatoes for a plant based “carbohydrate shot” supports performance as effectively as ingesting commercially available sport products. Common sense says that it could save you a lot of money too!

Five Ways to Include Whole Foods as Training Snacks:

  • Pre-workout fueling with oatmeal makes sure you have a steady supply of energy for your run. 
  • Fresh and dried fruit as well as potatoes (white, sweet, purple) pack a carbohydrate rich punch to keep you from running out of fuel in your longer runs.
  • Plant based sources of protein, also known as pulses (e.g. chick peas, lentils, kidney beans), help kick start muscle refueling and diminish post workout inflammation. They are also a whole food source of iron, zinc, phosphorous, folate and other B-vitamins. Make your own hummus and grab a bag of cut up veggies for a post work-out snack or meal.
  • Greek or Skyr yogurt with fruit or made into tzatziki with cucumbers and garlic adds a nice dose of the amino acid leucine (found in the whey part of the milk protein) to prime your muscles for recovery (and repair) post workout.
  • Wrap things up with gluten rich whole grain pita bread to promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. These bugs decrease gut inflammation (a side effect of too much exercise induced stress on the gut) and improve absorption of nutrients from the other foods that you eat.

Choose “WET” Foods Over “DRY Foods.

An athlete’s body is more than 50% water and maintaining that fluid balance is important for peak health and performance. Drinking water as your beverage of choice and drinking to thirst are key, but you can also improve your fluid balance and have better appetite control by choosing to eat wet foods more often than dry foods. Check this chart below and see where you could make some changes

Food Group REPLACE Dry Foods WITH Wet Foods

& Cereals

Bread, toast, crackers, pita

Granola bars, cereal, popcorn

Muffins, cookies, biscuits

Cake, donuts, pastries, pie

Powerfuel porridge, Cream of wheat

Quinoa/rice/barley risotto

Spaghetti, macaroni, fusilli


& Fruit

Dried fruit

Potato chips, vegetable chips

Roasted veggies

Baked fruit crumble

Fruit pies

Fresh veggies and fruit

Steamed or stir fried veggies

Vegetable and fruit salads

Pureed fruits, fruit compote

Fruit and vegetable smoothies


& Alternatives

Brick cheeses

Soft cheeses

Shredded or grated cheeses

Low fat/skim cottage cheese, Quark cheese

Tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt)

Greek/Skyr yogurt, milk, soy milk, Kefir


& alternatives

Dried meats, sliced meats, roasted, grilled or barbecued meats

Nuts and seeds, trail mix, nut butters

Energy bars with soy protein

Hummus dip with raw veggies

Three bean salads; Lentil vegetable soup

Black beans with quinoa and veggies

Poached or steamed fish/ Omelette fritattas

More bean than meat chili


Dr. Elizabeth (Beth) Mansfield, PhD, RD is a Registered Dietitian, Sport Nutrition Specialist, and Certified Exercise Physiologist with Peak Performance in Ottawa. Beth educates Canadian athletes on sport nutrition for health and performance.