Diets for Physically Active People Rebecca Rogers College of William and Mary

Nutrition is a vital component in any person’s development and growth. To athletes, certain diets and nutritional practices could be the ultimate determinant between success and failure. When taking in proper amounts of imperative nutrients and fluids to gain optimal energy for growth and activity, physically active individuals excel. This paper’s objectives are to delve into the various diets for physically active people and how certain altercations can help one excel in his or her activity. In addition, the paper will also analyze and help determine which diet leads to the best performance and the variations between training, competition, and recovery nutritional needs. Accordingly, this paper examines the various dietary needs of physically active people and the science behind it.

Differences between diets of active vs. non-active people

The energy expenditure differs between physically active and sedentary individuals greatly. Physically active people expend more energy and in result have a larger need to fill their micronutrient, macronutrient, and fluid depletions to avoid weight loss, fatigue, prolonged recovery, injury, and illness (Rodriguez et al., 2009). A journal article published by the American College of Sports Medicine states that “the fundamental differences between an athlete’s diet and that of the general population are that athletes require additional fluid to cover sweat losses and additional energy to fuel physical activity” (Rodriguez et al., 2009). For physically active people the necessities differ mainly in carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fluid intake. During physical activity, an individual experiences depletion of glycogen stores, damage to muscle, and dehydration through sweat (Nascimento et al., 2016). Due to this, it is imperative that those who engage in physical activity utilize lean milk, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates alongside hydration to maintain thermoregulation and improve energy stores while maximizing muscle protein synthesis (Nascimento et al., 2016). Active individuals expend more energy than sedentary individuals, which creates the difference in diets. Athletes require a more adjusted and specific diet to meet and enhance the demands of the sports they participate in. Non-active individuals typically have lower estimated energy requirements therefore their diets can be generalized throughout the population to conform with basic daily values and RDAs.

Different types of diets for different types of physical activity

There are numerous types of physical activity that many individuals and athletes participate in. The sports that athletes chose to participate in often are determined by what the athlete has a natural gravitation towards. This natural gravitation can be a result from the genetic components within one’s body. There is a common divide between endurance, strength, and sprint sports, and the individuals that participate in them. Those who gravitate towards endurance activities, like cross country or swimming, tend to have a higher compilation of “slow twitch” muscle fibers (Type I). While others who engage in activities that require short, large bursts of energy tend to have more “fast twitch” muscle fibers (Type II). However, the muscular mechanisms of each athlete are not the only components that vary among them. The nutritional practices for endurance and shorter activities vary greatly between metabolic needs and energy requirements. The diets between the two types of athletes vary the most in carbohydrate need. It is recommended that activities up to 75 min, like a sprint triathlon, only need a small amount of carbohydrates (Beck et al., 2015). However, as the duration of the activity increases so does the carbohydrate need. For example, soccer and football players only need 30 grams yet if the exercise exceeds 2.5 hours the carbohydrate need increases to 90 grams (Beck et al., 2015). These differences exist because in longer and more endurance demanding events, carbohydrates are needed to help prevent hypoglycemia and maintain high levels of carbohydrate oxidation (Beck et al., 2015). In addition to the difference between carbohydrates amongst the variety of activities, protein is another macronutrient that changes based on the exercise. For strength and endurance athletes, excess levels of protein in comparison to the RDA would be beneficial to support muscle growth and strength (Rodriguez et al., 2009).

Which diet leads to the best performance?

Contention over what will lead to an athlete’s optimal performance is not uncommon in the sport industry. Heated debate lies between which source of hydration offers the adequate amount of energy during physical activity and recovery. While some say that water is the most efficient source of hydration, others believe that, in spite of their sugary components, sport drinks are more favorable in relation to optimal performance. Sport drinks can be defined as “drinks consumed in association with sport or exercise- either in preparation for exercise, during exercise itself, or as a recovery drink after exercise” (Shirreffs, 2009). In comparison to water, sports drinks contain more advantageous components. Through many studies it has been proven that water is not the prime fluid to be consuming during endurance exercise due to the nonexistent source of carbohydrates which would enhance an athlete’s fuel level (Shirreffs, 2009). However, while sports drinks are the best option in an ideal world, there are concerns over the possible adverse effects of high salt intake through sports drinks (Shirreffs, 2009). In the few situations where sports drinks could have a negative impact on an athlete, sports drinks with a properly formulated mixture of carbohydrates and electrolytes out-rank water substantially in benefits (Shirreffs, 2009). The choice of whether to consume a sports drink or water is ultimately decided by the individual participating in the activity and their particular circumstances (Shirreffs, 2009).

Macronutrients are essential to anyone’s diets and are a necessity to athletic performance. Nonetheless, athletes who also indulge in micronutrients separate themselves from their competition substantially due to the role micronutrients paly in energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, bone health, infection immunity, and oxidative damage protection (Rodriguez et al., 2009). The most influential vitamins and minerals that enhance one’s performance are calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B, iron, and magnesium (Rodriguez et al., 2009). Two major vitamins that are commonly used when enhancing a physically active person’s diet are vitamins B and D. Intaking vitamin B helps increase energy production and red blood cells for protein synthesis, whereas vitamin D helps maintain calcium absorption and bone health (Rodriguez et al., 2009).

In conjunction with vitamins, minerals are also beneficial micronutrients in diets for physically active people. Essential minerals that are recommended to help athletes exceed standard performance are calcium, magnesium, and iron. Calcium is essential for bone health and muscle contractions, and an increase in calcium can help athletes recover faster and more efficiently after stressing their muscles during training (Purcell, 2013). Alongside calcium, iron assists the body with important delivery of oxygen to the body’s tissues (Purcell, 2013). Oxygen-carrying capacity, when enhanced by iron vitamins, can help one endure an activity for longer periods of time with less activity; in addition to increased oxygen-carrying capacity, iron helps the body’s behavioral, immune, and nervous systems (Rodriguez et al., 2009). Supplementation in magnesium is beneficial for physically active individuals because magnesium helps regulate cellular metabolism, neuromuscular, and cardiovascular functions (Rodriguez et al., 2009). A lack of magnesium in one’s diet increases oxygen requirements for less extreme workouts making reaching maximal performance almost impossible to achieve (Rodriguez et al., 2009).

Differences in Training vs. Competition vs. Recovery diets

Training, Competition, and Recovery are the three basic components of an athlete’s season. Training to an athlete is essential in enhancing one’s abilities before competition. It is critical for physically active people to understand the importance of their diet through training to maximize the probability of a desired outcome. Diets will vary based on intensity and duration through practices, but ultimately the focus in one’s training diet should be their carbohydrate intake. Training with an average consumption of carbohydrates may lead one to gain some metabolic improvement, yet did not lead to competition improvements (Thomas, 2016). It is important that throughout training, physically active people consume enough carbohydrates to match the energy they expend to conserve amino acids for protein synthesis and not oxidation (Thomas, 2016).

While the target in training diets is to adapt the body’s metabolic efficiency, competition diets focus on providing sufficient substrate stores to meet the body’s demands of the event (Thomas 2016). Competition nutrition should enhance resistance to fatigue and need to be specified for each athlete’s event or activity (Thomas 2016). In addition, it is advised to consume carbohydrate rich sources that are low in fiber so that fuel targets are accompanied by gut comfort (Thomas 2016).

Just like a diet to optimize training and competition performance, recovery plays a critical component in a physically active individual’s diet. In addition to refueling energy lost, post-exercise meals help glycogen synthesis (Rodriguez et al., 2009). Contrary to competition and training diets, the macronutrient of focus is protein for the post-exercise diet. Consuming protein as a part of a recovery diet provides amino acids for muscle protein repair (Rodriguez et al., 2009).


The scientific field of nutrition is constantly improving and evolving in relation to what diets are best for people and certain Daily Value amounts. Keeping physically active people in mind, there is still much more research that can be done due to the different demands each sport requires. Recommendations for further research include certain supplements that can help preserve endurance or upcoming energy drinks in comparison to water. Some areas that lack research and deserve to be researched further include the differences amongst diets between endurance and strength activities. Advancements in nutrition could greatly further the future of athletics. Diets for physically active people vary greatly in manner of the activity and even the individual themselves.



American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine, 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. Nascimento, M., Silva, D., Ribeiro, S., Nunes, M., Almeida, M., & Mendes-Netto, R. (2016). Effect of a nutritional intervention in athlete’s body composition, eating behaviour and nutritional knowledge: A comparison between adults and adolescents. Nutrients, 8(9), 535. Purcell, L. K. (2013). Sport nutrition for young athletes. Paediatrics & Child Health, 18(4), 200-202. Shirreffs, S. (2009). Hydration in sport and exercise: Water, sports drinks and other drinks. Nutrition Bulletin, 34(4), 374-379. Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics, dietitians of canada, and the american college of sports medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528.

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