Nutrition’s Role in Physical Fitness: Why You Need to Consider Both

Nutrition's Role in Physical Fitness: Why You Need to Consider Both
Nutrition's Role in Physical Fitness: Why You Need to Consider Both


Whether you are a competitive athlete, play a recreational sport, or practice yoga, there is no doubt that physical activity has many health benefits. When it comes to maximizing your workouts or improving athletic performance, nutrition and physical activity go hand in hand.

What we eat before and after exercise, as well as on a regular basis, can make a large difference in how we feel and how we perform during activity. The right balance of macro and micronutrients may vary depending on your fitness level and the type of activity you perform. Still, it is important to get enough nutrition to maintain your health and optimize your performance.

Nutrients and Your Athletic Performance

Proper nutrition is imperative to maximize athletic performance. Without enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, athletes may feel sluggish and fatigued during a workout or ravenously hungry. Athletes may also need to focus on specific vitamins and minerals for fitness performance, such as iron, vitamin D, and zinc.

Nutrition for physical activity is highly individualized. It is often helpful to consult with a sports dietitian to review your individual needs and make specific recommendations for your body and activity level.

Evidence Shows Proper Nutrition Supports Activity

While we frequently think about the health benefits of nutrition and physical activity separately, there is evidence that integrating both nutrition and physical activity produces greater benefits than focusing on one or the other.1

Additionally, research shows that exercise informs food choices, and individuals who exercise may make more nutritious choices.2 Nutrition may also support muscle recovery by reducing inflammation. One study showed that individuals who were more physically active and had higher antioxidant intake had lower levels of systemic inflammation.3

The Importance of Balance and Timing of Macronutrients

Consuming adequate amounts of macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—to fuel our bodies is imperative for optimal exercise performance.

  • Carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred source of fuel. They give us the energy we need to go about our day and maximize workouts and athletic performance.
  • Protein is important for building muscle as well as the repair and recovery of bones, joints, and ligaments after a workout.
  • Fat keeps us full and satisfied, helps cushion our bones and joints, and increases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D, and K.4

When it comes to fueling for exercise, finding the right balance and optimal timing of macronutrients for your body is key. Physical performance and recovery after exercise are enhanced by consuming carbohydrates and protein.

One study looked at the effects of protein and carbohydrates on skeletal muscle regeneration given to athletes by shake or meal. 35 individuals ran 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) and then consumed either a protein/carbohydrate shake, a meal of white bread and sour milk cheese, or nothing. The study indicated that consumption of carbohydrates and protein by shake or food was preferable, as it reduced exercise-induced skeletal muscle damage and had anti-inflammatory effects.5

What To Eat For Optimal Performance

A “superfood” is a term frequently used by the food industry to market a specific food as offering maximum nutritional benefits or being exceptionally nutrient-dense.

While some foods are more nutritious than others and may positively affect health, it is essential to note that no single food is responsible for optimal health or disease prevention.

If you are looking to increase the nutrient density of your diet, including some of the following nutritious foods is an excellent place to start. These foods, including leafy greens, berries, eggs, sweet potato, and turmeric, contain antioxidants, complex carbohydrates, and protein and are beneficial for athletic performance.

Dark Leafy Greens

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Dark green leafy vegetables are packed with important nutrients such as folate, zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, and fiber. Eating leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, collard greens, and swiss chard, is shown to increase muscle function in men and women engaging in physical activity.6

Additionally, the nitrates in leafy greens convert to nitric oxide, opening blood vessels and improving blood flow during exercise.7 You can incorporate dark leafy green vegetables into your diet by making kale salads, sautéing spinach into eggs for breakfast, or blending them into a smoothie.


Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Berries are known for their powerful antioxidant properties, making them an important part of an athlete’s diet. Exercise causes oxidative stress, which results in the production of free radicals, muscle damage, and fatigue. Including antioxidants in the diet may help enhance athletic performance by decreasing muscle damage and inflammation.8

Top a yogurt parfait with blueberries, blend strawberries into a smoothie, or add raspberries or blackberries into a salad to get an antioxidant punch.