Food first, yet not food only.

Last Weeks Q&A: Food first, yet should it be food only?

Food first

For optimal health and performance, athletes should prioritize a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods. Whole foods provide a complex matrix of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, that work synergistically to promote health and support athletic performance.

While there may be certain circumstances where supplementation is necessary, such as when an athlete has a specific nutrient deficiency or is unable to meet their nutrient needs through food alone, supplements should not be relied upon as a replacement for whole foods. In fact, research suggests that consuming isolated nutrients in supplement form may not provide the same benefits as obtaining them through whole foods. Furthermore, the quality and safety of supplements can vary widely, and some may even pose health risks. Therefore, it is important for athletes to work with a qualified healthcare professional or sports nutritionist to determine whether supplementation is necessary, and if so, which supplements are appropriate for their individual needs.

Why not food only?

Protein is a critical nutrient for athletes, as it is necessary for muscle repair and growth. While protein requirements vary depending on the individual's body weight, training status, and sport, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that athletes consume approximately 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to support muscle protein synthesis and enhance recovery.

While whole food sources such as meat, poultry, fish, beans, and lentils can provide sufficient protein for most athletes, some may benefit from protein supplementation, particularly if they have higher protein needs or are unable to consume enough protein through food alone. Protein supplements such as whey protein, casein protein, soy protein, and pea protein are popular choices among athletes due to their high protein content and convenience. For a lot of athletes, the shear volume of food to consume to hit athletic requirements for protein makes the use of protein supplementation a practical solution with a lot of benefits. Practicality and ease of consumption are very important for the execution of any nutrition program. Studies have shown that protein supplementation can enhance muscle protein synthesis and improve recovery following exercise, particularly when consumed within 60-120 minutes before or after exercise.

Vitamin D is essential for bone health, muscle function, and immune function. Primary source of vitamin D is through the body via exposure to the correct wavelength and duration of sunlight. Unfortunately, due to limitations with latitude, being indoors and lack of correct wavelength during Winter months, supplementation is often required and essential. Athletes can obtain vitamin D from whole food sources such as fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna), egg yolks, and fortified  products. While it may be challenging to obtain sufficient vitamin D solely through food sources, supplementation can be used under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional. Understanding an athlete's blood serum levels of Vitamin D3 will assist with supplementation requirements for individual athletes. Please refer to the article on vitamin D for blood marker levels and supplementation regimes here.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for athletes, as they have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve cardiovascular health, and enhance cognitive function. Fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, are excellent sources of omega-3s, as are flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Supplementation with fish oil or algae-based omega-3 supplements may be required for some athletes due to inability to tolerate fish or dietary preferences. Supplementation also allows for the dose of omega 3 to be consistent. Evidence exists to show that huge variability exists in EPA:DHA content of fish species from one fish to the next. It is therefore unclear for an athlete on what dose they are consistently consuming when eating fish only.

When to go 'processed'...

As a general rule, whole foods are preferred over processed foods for athletes due to their higher nutrient content and potential health benefits. Whole foods are typically less processed, which means they retain more of their natural nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals. Additionally, whole foods have been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

There may be some situations where processed foods can be considered as a source of carbohydrates for athletes. For example, sports drinks or gels can be a convenient way to replenish glycogen stores during prolonged or intense exercise. Additionally, some athletes may benefit from carbohydrate supplementation in the form of powders or gels to enhance endurance performance. It is not practical nor feasible for a triathlete to eat soley whole foods whilst competing at teh top level. It could be argued that it is not feasible nor practical to eat any whole foods for top performing triathletes during races due to the speed and nutritional demands.

In addition, some processed foods, such as fortified cereals or protein bars, can provide targeted nutrients that are difficult to obtain from whole foods alone. For example, a protein bar may provide a convenient source of protein immediately after exercise, when whole food sources may not be practical or available. It is important to note, however, that not all processed foods are created equal, and will vary in sugar content, sodium, or unhealthy fats (vegetable oils). Athletes should aim to choose minimally processed options that are nutrient-dense and support their athletic goals. The specificity of carbohydrates for the work required will be determined by athlete intensity and ability to consume large volumes without GI complaints.


In summary, a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods can provide athletes with essential nutrients such as vitamin D, protein, and omega-3s, which are important for optimal health and performance. Supplementation can be used when necessary and under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional.



Phillips, S. M., Van Loon, L. J., & Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S29-S38.

Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., ... & Phillips, S. M. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British journal of sports medicine, 52(6), 376-384.

Vitamin D:

Holick, M. F. (2011). Vitamin D: a D-lightful solution for health. Journal of investigative medicine, 59(6), 872-880.

Zittermann, A., & Pilz, S. (2019). Vitamin D supplementation in athletes. Nutrients, 11(3), 682.


Gray, P., & Chadd, K. (2015). The effects of omega-3 supplementation on cognition and mood in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of psychopharmacology, 29(2), 167-171.

Da Boit, M., Hunter, A. M., Gray, S. R., & McDonagh, S. T. (2017). Evidence for a reduction in fatigue in older adults with omega-3 supplementation: a systematic review. Advances in nutrition, 8(4), 461-474.

Processed Foods

Rodriguez, N. R., Di Marco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(3), 709-731.

Johnston, C. S., Tjonn, S. L., & Swan, P. D. (2004). High-protein, low-fat diets are effective for weight loss and favorably alter biomarkers in healthy adults. The Journal of nutrition, 134(3), 586-591.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Rethink your drink.

May 6, 2024
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