by Melissa Masters, PhD, RDN
Melissa Masters is an Associate Professor and Nutrition Graduate Program Director in the Department of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Nutrition and physical activity go hand-in-hand. It’s common for athletes, from the weekend warrior to competitive, to wonder about nutrition and diets. Olympic-level Registered Dietitians say, even elite cross-country skiers have questions about diet trends and fads. Fad diets have been around since before the turn of the 20th century. From the early 1900s tape worm diet to the modern-day paleo- or keto-diets, nutrition is a confusing world to navigate. One of the most common questions athletes ask about nutrition is “what should I eat?” I think the simplest answer to this question is, keep it real.
What Is Nutrition?
Nutrition can be a highly debated topic. However, the research is clear on one thing: No matter the diet, a key ingredient to physical and mental health is real food and plenty of fruits and vegetables. This is a common theme in nutrition research across the board. This research supports the notion that nature truly knows best. Fruits and vegetables contain hundreds of bioactive compounds, or what we often call phytochemicals and antioxidants. Together, these compounds work in a complex harmony, synergistically providing benefits for our bodies including preventing disease, reducing inflammation, and promoting optimal physical and mental health.
Beyond disease fighting bioactive compounds, fruits and vegetables provide us with vitamins, minerals and fiber. A master of many things, fiber helps to regulate blood sugar, maintain bowel health and regularity, lower cholesterol, and feed health promoting microbes in the gut. For active lifestyles, incorporating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help novice to elite athletes maintain healthy immune function and optimize recovery, combating the taxing effects of training and competition.
Research suggests we should aim for 8-10 servings of fruits and veggies a day for optimal health and disease prevention. If you don’t eat many greens now, work up to this slowly to give your body and taste palate time to adjust. Always remember, food is meant to be enjoyed! Strict eating patterns are not healthy nor are they enjoyable. Focus on making healthy choices that you enjoy and that nourish your mind and body for long-term well-being.
Here are some tips and strategies for fitting in 8-10 servings a day:
1 serving of vegetables = ½ cup of raw, frozen or cooked veggies OR 1 cup of leafy veggies
1 serving of fruit = ½ cup of raw, frozen, or canned fruit OR ¼ dried fruit OR one medium whole piece of fruit
- Aim to make half of your plate vegetables with an added side of fruit for your main meals of the day.
- Get a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables. Phytochemicals, those disease fighting compounds, are what give plants different colors. Mixing up the colors of the fruits and veggies you consume will ensure you’re getting a variety of disease fighting compounds.
- Snack on freshly cut vegetables like celery, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini, and others. Add in a yogurt-based dip for extra flavor. Prep your veggies on the weekend and pre-package them into small containers or bags to make veggies a quick grab-and-go snack during the week.
- Add a serving of fruits and veggies to breakfast!
- For breakfast veggies: add spinach or arugula to scrambled eggs or top eggs with sliced avocado and salsa; serve veggie salads for breakfast like a fresh tomato and cucumber salad; or slice cucumbers and eat them on toast or as a side to your breakfast meal.
- For breakfast fruits: add frozen or fresh berries to a yogurt parfait; slice a banana and add it to your cereal; or grab a piece of fruit for on-the-go.
- Add fresh spinach and carrots to fruit smoothies. For an extra creamy smoothie, add a half or full avocado. For a smoothie with more protein, add in soy milk, plain Greek yogurt, tofu, or nut butters.
- Make fruit the focus of your desserts.
- Roasted veggies make for a delicious year-round side dish that provides a variety of vegetables. Prep veggies on the weekend or buy pre-cut veggies to save time on weeknight dinner prep. Give the roasted veggie recipe below a try!
There’s a reason elite athletes work closely with nutrition professionals. When your active pursuits are fueled by quality nutrition, you can achieve your fitness and health goals faster while becoming stronger. To improve nutrition and diet quality, focus on making small daily changes. These small changes lead to big changes, and ultimately to healthier behaviors for the long term. Ski on! And don’t forget to eat your veggies.
Balsamic Roasted Vegetables
1 head of cauliflower, cut into pieces
1 head of broccoli, cut into pieces
1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large red onion, halved and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 head of garlic, peeled into individual garlic cloves
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups baby red or yellow potatoes, halved or quartered
Small pinch of salt
Black pepper, to taste
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 tsp balsamic vinegar
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Wash and prepare vegetables. Place all vegetables in a large bowl and toss with 2-3 Tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper. Add one more Tbsp of oil if the vegetables seem dry.
- Spread vegetables onto a large baking sheet or two small baking sheets.
- Place on middle rack and back for 40-45 minutes or until vegetables are tender and roasted. Flip vegetables halfway through baking time.
- Remove from oven and drizzle vegetables with balsamic vinegar. Mix vegetables to evenly coat with the vinegar. At this point you can either serve or toss back in the oven for another 5 minutes of roasting.
- Eat and enjoy!
Recipe Tips: This is a versatile recipe and can be adjusted to suit your taste preferences and seasonal availability of vegetables. For a quick weeknight side dish, prep the cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and sweet potato in advance or purchase pre-cut cauliflower, broccoli, and baby carrots.