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Fueling to Win … Smart Shopping Strategies and Tips to Maximize Performance



The old adage rings true for nutrition—“failing to plan is planning to fail.” The type of fuel athletes put into their bodies can greatly impact performance gains, recovery time, injury prevalence, body composition, and overall immune function. For a positive impact, proper planning, grocery shopping, and meal preparation should be vital parts of an athlete’s schedule. Carving out as little as one to two hours per week to carry out nutrition planning and execution can give athletes a competitive advantage.

GENERAL PLANNING AND SHOPPING TIPS Meal prep and planning should be considered an important aspect of an athlete’s training program. Planning can be broken down into distinct parts: pre, during, and post.

PRE-GROCERY STORE TRIP: • Take a minute to check the week’s training and/or competition schedule. Look for any extra meals that might be needed or meals that will not need to be prepared. • Plan meals for the week and make a list. • Check the pantry and fridge to avoid overbuying. • Have a snack; do not go to the grocery store hungry.

DURING (AT THE STORE): • Stick to the list. • Shop the perimeter of the store to find the freshest, least processed foods. • If picking between two items, the one with fewer ingredients is typically the better choice. • Buying store brands can be a big money saver: same quality, cheaper cost. • Weigh the cost of convenience. Pre-cut veggies, pre-cooked meats (i.e., grilled or rotisserie chicken), and hard-boiled eggs simplify meal prep and make healthy eating more convenient.

POST (AT HOME): • Prep meal ingredients all at once so they are ready to go for quick cooking. »» Wash, cut, and portion out produce for added convenience when prepping dinner in a rush. »» Marinate, grill, or bake any meat that could be reheated during the week for quick meals. • Prepare “grab-and-go” snacks for the week by filling snack or sandwich-sized bags with fresh fruit, trail mix, veggies, etc. to meet the needs of the week. • Take preparation one step further, if time allows, and cook meals for the whole week so they can be easily reheated. »» Divide up meals into individual portions and place extras in the freezer to save time in the future.

NAVIGATING THE GROCERY STORE In order to make food choices for optimal performance athletes need to know what to look for in each section of the grocery store. The grocery store can be broken down into six major sections:

1. PRODUCE The best bet in the produce department is to try to buy as many different colors as possible. Fruits and veggies of different colors provide different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; more colors often translate to more nutrients. Pre-cut fruits and veggies are a convenient alternative, but are typically more expensive. Try to buy 2 – 3 different fruits and 2 – 3 different vegetables every week, while keeping in mind that if it is going to go to waste, it does no good. Look for fresh produce that is in season to save money and add variety each week. Suggested produce to look for throughout the year is outlined in Table 1. Frozen fruits and vegetables are another great option as they likely will not spoil, are ready to be cooked or thrown into a smoothie without added preparation time, and they are always “in-season.”

2. MEAT “Lean” is the keyword in the meat department. All fish, even the fatty varieties (e.g., salmon and tuna) are favorable protein choices. When it comes to poultry, chicken or turkey breast are the leanest options. Choose dark meat cuts (e.g., legs, wings, thighs) less often as they are higher in saturated fat. When buying ground meats, go for at least 90/10 (i.e., 90% protein, 10% fat). With larger cuts of beef or pork, look for less marbling. Marbling often equates to fat. Typically anything that ends in “-loin” (e.g., sirloin, tenderloin) is going to be a leaner cut. Avoid processed meats such as full fat sausage, hot dogs, bratwurst, and boudin as often as possible; turkey, center cut bacon, and low-fat pan sausage are better choices.

3. DELI The deli section of a grocery store provides great options for convenience. Prepared guacamole and hummus are great sources of healthy fat, and fresh salsas are a great way to add in some extra color, and thus nutrients, to your meals. Rotisserie chickens are a quick and easy source of protein that can be eaten as-is or added to soups, casseroles, or salads. Deli meats such as turkey, ham, and chicken are excellent sources of protein. Cheese can be a lean source of protein when choosing low-fat varieties.

4. DAIRY Dairy foods are a great source of lean protein; however, some options may contain high amounts of saturated fat. The best option is to make sure to choose 2% or low-fat products when it comes to milk and yogurt. Greek yogurt is a great choice, often providing three times the protein of regular yogurt. The butter versus margarine debate is a popular one. Given the choice, going for the product with fewer ingredients is typically the more common option, but the decision will ultimately depend on dietary goals. Eggs, also found in the dairy section, are a cheap and easily cooked protein. They are a staple that should always be on hand. Each egg provides 7 g of natural, highly bioavailable protein.

5. CENTER AISLES • Grains and Breads: Because carbohydrates are the main source of fuel in an athlete’s diet, it is important to stock up on starches. For dietary goals that include fiber intake, bread can be a good option. Look for bread with 3 g or more of fiber per slice, granola bars with 2 g or more of fiber per serving, and cereal with 5 g or more of fiber per serving. Oatmeal, whole wheat or corn tortillas, brown rice, and wheat pasta are also great sources of carbohydrates. Limit highly processed carbohydrates (i.e., sugary cereals, prepackaged muffins, chips, cookies, pastries, etc.) as they are often lower in fiber and essential nutrients. • Cooking Oils: Fat often gets a bad reputation, but it is a very important piece to the nutrition puzzle. The bottom line is to keep in mind that fats are high in calories and should be used with body composition goals in mind. They can be a great source of calories for weight gain and should be consumed in moderation if trying to decrease body fat. • Snacks: There are quite a few healthy and convenient snacks that can be found in the center aisles. Trail mixes and nuts provide healthy fat. Low-fat popcorn, whole grain crackers, and pretzels are not only a source of carbohydrates, but are high in sodium, a vital electrolyte for athletes. Tuna packets and jerky are great for protein on the go. Fruit cups (in 100% fruit juice), dried fruit, and granola bars provide quickdigesting carbohydrates; they also make great snacks for pre-practice or halftimes. • Canned Goods: There are a few things worth picking up in the canned goods section. First off, canned beans, which are high in both fiber and protein, are great to keep in the pantry. While canned vegetables may not contain as many nutrients as fresh or frozen varieties, they do provide some. Canned vegetables are often high in sodium, which is an important nutrient for athletes and can be prepared very easily. Soups are a great choice for convenient meals; stick with brothbased options as opposed to creamy ones.

6. FROZEN FOODS The frozen food section of the store can be a best friend or a worst enemy. Plenty of great choices can be found here, such as frozen chicken breasts, fish filets, veggies, fruits, thin crust pizzas, whole grain waffles, and fruit-based desserts. These foods not only provide quality nutrients, but they are convenient staples to have on hand for quick and easy meal prep. Things to choose less often include pot pies, frozen meals with cheesy or creamy sauces, pizzas, dessert bars, French fries, breakfast tacos or sandwiches, and frozen pastries and Danishes. These foods are often highly processed, high in fat, and may be deficient in nutrients that support athletic performance.

FUELING TO WIN—SMART SHOPPING STRATEGIES AND TIPS TO MAXIMIZE PERFORMANCE ORGANIC VS. CONVENTIONAL FOODS Per the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, the term organic is, “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances,” (2). Purchasing organic foods is a personal decision based on various health concerns, or non-concerns in some cases, and may be a bit more costly. However, the annual list published by the Environmental Working Group called the “Dirty Dozen” is a widely accepted concept and good place to start if interested in purchasing organic foods as the list orders foods based on the amount of potential pesticide residue (1). Investing a small amount of time into nutrition education and proper fueling for athletes can have a very large payoff. Grocery shopping and food preparation are key components of an athlete’s training that should be prioritized in order to optimize body composition and maximize performance. Instead of failing to plan, plan to be successful.


REFERENCES 1. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2016 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Retrieved October 2016 from https:// 2. United States Department of Agriculture. Organic Standards. Retrieved October 2016 from organic-standards. 3. United States Department of Agriculture. Seasonal Produce Guide. Retrieved October 2016 from nutrition-through-seasons/seasonal-produce.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tara Boening is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Science and a Master’s degree in Kinesiology/ Sport Management both from Texas A&M University. Boening has been working in the field of sports nutrition for ten years and has worked with athletes of all ages and abilities. She has spent time in both the Texas A&M University and University of Houston athletic departments and is currently in her fourth season as the Sports Dietitian for the Houston Rockets National Basketball Association (NBA) team. She is the owner of Eat To Win, a sports nutrition private practice in the Houston area that caters to individual athletes and team sports organizations. Boening serves on both the Conference Planning and Research Committees for the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association.





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