Food for Sport

Basic Principles

The basic principles of healthy eating apply to all athletes. Eating a healthy balanced diet will provide you with all the nutrients you need to take part in your favourite sport or activity. If you take your sport seriously, you need to get to know which foods are good sources of the nutrients you need and when to eat them.

The golden rules are:

  • Be the right weight for your height, this means eat enough food for your level of activity. If you eat too little then you won’t be able to keep up your exercise levels.
  • Eat enough carbohydrate to keep you going during exercise.
  • Eat the right foods at the right time – the timings of meals are just as important as what you eat.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.  It pays to be well hydrated.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you get good amounts of all the nutrients your body needs - plenty of wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals, fruit and vegetables and moderate amounts of milk, yoghurt and cheese, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and pulses.

Carbohydrate – healthy energy foods

Carbohydrate provides the body with the most easily accessed source of energy, so for sporty people carbohydrate is really important.

When you eat carbohydrat,e the energy that you get from it is stored in the liver and in the muscles. This means that when you are active the muscles can use the energy source quickly.

If you get tired during your sport or activity it might be because your stores of energy are running low. The stores in your muscles and liver are used up after about 1 hour of continuous activity.

You can train yourself to store more energy in your muscles. If you train more and eat the right carbohydrate at the right time, the amount of energy you store in your muscles will increase.

Glycogen is stored in limited amounts but the stronger your muscles, the more glycogen they can store and the longer you can keep going. This is why athletes involved in sports like running and cycling spend time in the gym building up their muscles.

Many different foods contain carbohydrate. The richest sources of carbohydrate are:

  • Bread (including pizza base)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Potatoes
  • Rice and other cereals 
  • Pasta, noodles
  • Peas, beans and lentils
  • Sweetcorn and root vegetables

At least 60% of the energy (calories) in an athlete's diet should be from carbohydrate.  This might seem a lot as most people eat about 40% of their energy as carbohydrate!  As a general rule, aim to have half your plate covered by one or more of the above foods.

Other good sources of carbohydrate include fruit (bananas are a great source), juices, low fat cakes (such as scones, teacakes, fruit cake, jaffa cakes), confectionery and sugary products (such as jelly babies, marshmallows, syrups and honey), sweetened dairy products (such as smoothies, milkshakes, sweetened yoghurts and low-fat ice cream) and sports drinks. These can be used as snacks between meals to increase your carbohydrate intake especially when you are training hard.

Protein and Sport

We need protein for our muscles to grow, get stronger and repair themselves.

Good protein choices include:

  • Lean meats and poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Beans, lentils, pulses and soya (TVP)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Low-fat dairy products

If you are very active, and train frequently your body generally requires more protein than people who are less active.

But as most people in the UK eat more protein than they need, you’re likely to be getting enough protein to meet your increased needs. This means there should be no need for you to increase the amount you eat and no need to buy protein supplements.

Remember, you should be able to get all the protein you need by eating a variety of foods.


To make sure you get enough carbohydrate in your diet, you need to limit your fat intake, although not by too much as some fat in the diet is essential for good health. Make sure you have the healthier fats in your diet (the unsaturated ones) that come from oily fish, avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds and oils. Cut down on the saturated fats that come from fatty meat products, hard cheese and full-fat dairy products, butter, cream, cakes, biscuits, pies and pastries.

It is still important to keep your heart healthy. Here are some useful tips to reduce fat in your diet:

  • Reduce your intake of fried foods, chips and crisps
  • Use a minimal amount of fat or oil when cooking
  • Use low-fat spreads and low-fat dairy products, such as semi-skimmed milk and low-fat yogurts
  • Eat lean meat and remove all visible fat or skin
  • Avoid fatty meat products such as pies, pasties, sausages, burgers, pate and salami
  • Cut down on pastries, cream cakes and biscuits that contain hidden fats
  • Avoid mayonnaise, salad cream and creamy sauces or choose a low-fat version.  Try using pickle, mustard or chutney instead.


Get some great ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner!


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