A Diet For Athletes

Words: Dr Ryan N HARRISON

One of the best things about exercising regularly is that it literally helps to ‘grow’ a younger body, which is simply a body that has regenerated its cells more recently. When exercised routinely, the body must regenerate its cells more quickly than when idle. Depending on our activity level, 6-8 months from now nearly 100 per cent of our cells will have regenerated. The important concept here is that these new cells will literally be made up of what we eat between now and then. Remember, the body of an athlete is forced to regenerate rapidly; it is, therefore, comprised of ‘younger’ cells — literally a younger body.

Exercise is little more than breaking down body tissue. Its ability to grow stronger comes as a result of the regeneration process when supplied with premium fuel. Premium fuel. That’s a key concept, because the quality of newly-fabricated cells is completely and wholly dependent upon the fuel source supplied. “When rebuilding cells, the body can go one of two ways. If it has the right resources, the new cells will be strong and healthy. However, if the only available ‘building blocks’ are drawn from sub-standard resources, the body has no choice but to fabricate weaker ‘filler’ cells. This is called degeneration, more commonly known as premature aging.” [Brazier B; emphasis mine].

Brendan Brazier is a successful professional athlete and renowned expert on the benefits of plant-based foods.

If an athlete consumes nutrient-poor food, then their exercise — which should be complementary stress — can actually convert into uncomplimentary stress, simply by virtue of degeneration. In fact, according to Brazier, “performing strenuous exercise regularly without eating a nutrient-rich diet will actually speed degeneration of the cells and therefore the aging process.”

It cannot be stressed enough, especially in the case of ‘hard-core’ training athletes, that what you eat today will literally be the stuff from which your body is made within a year. Your current body — right now — has been constructed from the food you’ve consumed over the past year. How an athlete wants their body to look and perform depends entirely upon the food eaten, activity level, and how they deal with stress. The plain truth is that the more diligent an athlete’s exercise programme and the better the diet, the sooner they will have a ‘new and improved’ body.

Nutritional Advice

This is a list of the foods that you need to consume in order to become the fittest, strongest, most agile and flexible athletic self that you can be. Well, first a few guidelines.

The alkaline advantage. Alkalising foods are an integral part of the regeneration and repair process that takes place during the resting phase after exercise. Athletes in peak training are the most affected by excessively high acid levels [acidosis], as vigorous exercise causes a build-up of lactic acid in the body. Stress of any kind only makes the situation worse. Maintaining an acidic body leads to fatigue, joint pain, muscular stiffness, and a whole host of unpleasant effects, including heightened risk of cancer. Besides consuming alkalising foods, other steps to take that raise the body’s pH level include: deep breathing, yoga, light stretching, and meditation.

Plant-based foods. Raw plant protein is superior to animal protein in several ways. First, naturally occurring enzymes, present only in raw protein, are assimilated and used by the body far more easily and efficiently than processed proteins. Second, raw plant protein has a higher pH than many ‘manufactured’ forms of protein, including whey and other isolates. Additionally, plant-based foods are digested easily; many whole plant foods have their own enzymes, which contribute to their quick and efficient digestion. The quicker nutrients can be extracted from food, the sooner the waste can be eliminated and the faster you can experience optimal health. Finally, according to Brazier, “the consumption of chlorophyll-rich, raw plant food combined with moderate exercise is the best way to create a biologically younger body.”

Super Foods 

The following foods can be hugely beneficial to the serious athlete, provided they are of high quality and are consumed correctly and in appropriate amounts. Interesting, perhaps, but not surprising in the least, is that the majority of the foods and ideas you’ll find below are exactly what leaders in holistic nutrition have been saying for years, or more [A Note to Meat Eaters: Brazier is vegan. He obviously does not believe that meat is a prime source of bioavailable protein. You will not find meat in the following list of foods that make for athletic excellence. Another book that I looked at is The Paleo Diet for Athletes, and it endorses animal sources of protein. It does, maintain, however, that the best sources will be those that are organically raised, free-range/grass-fed. If you choose to use meat as a source of dietary protein, your best bet is to consume only meat that is not loaded with chemicals and toxins, for all the obvious reasons — the ones mentioned above].

Foods rich in chlorophyll are paramount in the anti-aging process. The best sources are dark green vegetables and chlorella. Why chlorophyll? It helps maintain the alkaline balance in the body and also assists in the detoxification process. Additionally, it is the richest source of nucleic acids [necessary for RNA and DNA replication] in nature.

Fibre helps to control cortisol levels in the body by stabilising insulin. Elevated cortisol levels inhibit the body’s ability to really restore itself during sleep, a vital part of regeneration. Fibre also ensures that wastes leave the body quickly.

Raw, complete protein would be the optimal facilitator for the regeneration process. Brazier recommends hemp and pea protein. The protein in hemp is complete, containing all ten essential amino acids. This amino acid profile translates into boosted immune function and quicker recovery. Hemp foods also have natural anti-inflammatory properties; they help to speed up the recovery of soft tissue damage caused by exercise.

Maca is an anti-aging root vegetable known to increase energy, assist in adaptation to stress and balance hormones naturally. Brazier insists that maca is what has given him the cutting edge. When selecting maca, be sure to choose the gelatinised form for best results. This removes the hard-to-digest starchy component of the root; it also allows the body to assimilate the nutrients more quickly.

Flax. “Out of the entire plant kingdom, flax contains the highest level of omega-3, an essential fatty acid” [Brazier]. Omega-3s are vital to the athlete as they reduce inflammation and play a role in the metabolism of fat. According to Brazier, “a diet with a daily dose of 10gm [about 1 tablespoon] of whole flax seeds will allow the body to more efficiently burn body fat as fuel.” Who doesn’t want that? For athletes, this is especially important, as they need to spare muscle glycogen. Be sure to select whole flaxseed, not flaxseed meal.

Dates are high in glucose; they are called ‘nature’s fuel.’ When consumed, the glucose is quickly converted to glycogen in the liver. Maintaining an adequate glycogen supply in both the muscles and the liver is imperative for sustained energy. Dates are best consumed shortly before, during, or immediately following exercise [Extra bonus: dates are also alkaline-forming].

What About Supplements?

Believe it or not, most reliable research does not justify the need for extra single, or combination vitamin supplements, except when the athlete is in a deficiency state [Dorfman]. Lisa Dorfman MS, RD, LMHC, is an award-winning nutritionist, dietitian, chef and personal trainer, as well as a mental health counsellor and author. At first you might feel like this leaves you in a position where you’re limited in giving sports nutrition advice, but take another look at that sentence. It states that supplements are not needed unless the athlete is in a deficiency state. Most athletes that you speak with, unless you live in a holistically-aware community, will probably be labouring under false sports nutrition beliefs. Taking time to get a full nutritional profile from them will allow you to better understand in what ways their diets could be improved.

That said, let’s look at a few vitamins and minerals and the role they play in athletic nutrition.

B vitamins are involved in energy production from carbohydrates and fats as well as with red blood cell production. According to Dorfman, “the rationale for using supplements is due to their physiological effect on the athlete and the fact that prolonged deficiency can affect endurance performance. Since cooking and the use of certain medications can affect nutrient absorption, it may be likely that a secondary deficiency exists. Therefore, it seems logical that any activity requiring additional energy would justify the need for extra Bs.”

Vitamin C is easily the most popular supplement. It plays a role in many functions important to athletic performance including collagen and hormone synthesis, enhancing iron absorption, and the oxidation of food and energy production [Dorfman]. Even slight deficiency can affect performance and immunity in an athlete.

Fat-soluble vitamins. Athletes should really focus on getting these nutrients from foods, as this will reduce their chance of ‘overdosing’ and the resulting toxicity. Dorfman maintains that “supplementing with vitamins A, D, and K is not warranted” for vegetarian athletes. As for vitamin E, the research does not give support either way. As with the other fat-soluble vitamins, obtaining vitamin E from whole foods is probably the best way to get them.

Minerals. If an athlete is making wise food choices [chiefly, a vegetarian diet high in complex carbs, quality protein, and fruits and vegetables], they are probably getting enough minerals. Still, it is noted that athletes who may be at an increased risk for iron deficiency [such as regular and heavily menstruating women, endurance athletes, and low-body-weight and long-distance runners] may benefit from iron supplementation [Dorfman]. Too much iron, however, can cause problems, so to improve iron intake and availability without supplementation: do not consume calcium and iron products together; limit the amount of fibre with high-iron meals; and, take a citrus source of at least 100mg of vitamin C with an iron-rich food to increase absorption.

Probiotics [Greek, meaning ‘for life’] are also known as the ‘friendly’ bacteria that live in your body. A positive balance of friendly bacteria will help the body digest, process, and utilise complex carbohydrates and protein. Consider a dairy-free probiotic for use, daily. 

Other supplements. The jury is still out on a number of well-known and widely used supplements [such as creatine, L-carnitine, pyruvate, etc.], and it would be a disservice to only present one view here. Alas, because this is a ‘mini-course,’ there isn’t room to give you all the available information on these supplements.


Most people scoff at the suggestion that an athlete can excel on a vegetarian [or, vegan] diet. As far as energy goes, getting it from fruits and vegetables really does eliminate the ‘middle man’ —you can either eat your veggies, or eat the meat from animals that have eaten veggies. Why not go directly to the source? Beyond that, the net gain of energy that comes from eating whole foods that are easily digested really does give an athlete extra energy from conservation rather than consumption. Anyone who wants to trim off the extra weight and yet receive more energy should read that sentence again.

Of prime importance for the holistic athlete are nutrient-rich, whole foods of organic plant origin. When consumed, they become the building blocks from which our bodies are actually re-made. An athlete who wants to excel in their chosen area of competition cannot afford to regenerate an unhealthy body.

The subject of nutrition is a vast and well-studied, but many theories exist regarding the best way to eat, exercise, rest, and supplement the diet in order to excel as an athlete. The general information given in this mini-course was designed not to inundate with technical jargon, but to educate you, dear reader, on the benefits of making holistic nutrition choices for athletes.


  • Brazier, B. Thrive: A Guide to Optimal Health & Performance Through Plant-Based Whole Foods.
  • Dorfman, L. The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide.
  • Cordain, L and Friel J. The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance.
Dr RYAN HARRISON, PsyD, MA, BCIH, EFT-ADV, HHP, NC, MH, QTP, LWM, HSM, is a holistic health educator and consultant in private practice. He also holds a post-graduate degree in transpersonal psychology and certifications as a nutritional consultant, holistic health practitioner, spiritual counsellor, and quantum-touch. Aside from being an advanced practitioner of EFT [Emotional Freedom Techniques], Harrison teaches and lectures in conventional and online forums. He lives in California, US. 

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