What Athletes Should Eat: Back to the Basic Food Groups

  • author name McKenna Welshans, MBA, RD, LDN, ACSM-EP
Woman in her kitchen preparing food

Because athletes’ bodies face a high level of stress, proper nutrition is incredibly important. The most effective way to achieve proper nutrition is also the most basic: focus on the five main food groups—fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. Each contributes vital nutrients to your diet. Once these principle habits have been established, a registered dietitian can help you fine-tune your diet based on individual needs. 

Fruits and Vegetables

These two crucial food groups should together compose about half of your plate or 50% of each meal. They provide carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, and antioxidants which work together to serve as energy, hydration, digestion and recovery/injury prevention. A serving size of fruit and starchy vegetables (such as corn, peas, and potatoes) is about a fist, while a serving of vegetables is two fists. 


Whole grains should be prioritized in the diet because of their greater vitamin, mineral, and fiber content compared to white/refined grain products. These sources are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber which contribute substantial resources for high-intensity activity and recovery. Depending on physical activity level, these high-starch foods should be consumed in amounts equivalent to one-two fists at each meal, especially those prior to exercise. 


Complete protein sources are those that include all of the essential amino acids your body is unable to produce itself. Amino acids serve as building blocks for several vital functions in your body, such as cell structure, muscle maintenance, and chemical reactions. Animal proteins are complete sources, but certain combinations of plant-based proteins can also provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids as well. Lean animal proteins such as poultry and fish should be prioritized in the diet and portions should take up about a quarter of the plate and be about a palm in size. 


This food group is packed full of calcium, complete proteins, potassium, and carbohydrates, to name a few. This combination of nutrients provides the necessary components for energy production, muscle contraction/recovery, and bone strength. It is important for athletes to consume 2-3 cups of low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives a day in the form of cow’s milk/fortified plant-based beverages, yogurt, or cheese. 

The Athlete’s Plate

Good nutrition can be very flexible and individualized to your taste preferences and lifestyle. It starts with combining the food groups mentioned above, in roughly the amounts mentioned. Follow up by listening to your body’s response so your approach can be tweaked as necessary. 

And as often as possible, choose foods listed below in building carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat into your meal or snack.

Schedule an appointment with McKenna Welshans at 717-627-7675.


  • Fruit
  • Oatmeal
  • Starchy vegetables
    (sweet/white potatoes, squash)
  • Non-starchy vegetables
    (broccoli, leafy greens)
  • Whole grain bread or crackers
  • High-fiber, non-sugary cereals
  • Quinoa
  • Brown or wild rice


  • Whole eggs
    (white and yolk)
  • Greek yogurt
  • Milk
  • String cheese
  • Lean red meats
  • Poultry

 Healthy Fat

  • Avocado
  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olive or canola oil
  • Hummus
  • Flax seed
    (add to baking or cooking)
author name

McKenna Welshans, MBA, RD, LDN, ACSM-EP

McKenna Welshans, MBA, RD, LDN, ACSM-EP is a sports nutritionist with LG Health Physicians Sports Medicine. She completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees and a dietetic internship at Messiah College, double majoring in nutrition and exercise science. She ran collegiate track before transitioning into ultra-endurance triathlon competitions. She is passionate about personalized nutrition for both performance maximization and health.

Call: 717-627-7675

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The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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