Good & Bad Foods Explained

Whilst there are many ingredients that can compromise a healthy lifestyle, many new athletes are confused about which foods are advantageous to performance and what remain key culprits to avoid. In this article, we discuss high density calories, supplements, alcohol and caffeine.

Real Foods vs Supplements

Ideally, you should meet your nutritional needs with real foods rather than supplements, however the attraction of supplements can provide a much welcomed convenience to the time-poor athlete.

If you prepare the majority of your meals yourself using fresh ingredients and avoid the packaged products (anything with a long shelf-life is not a real food) you probably don't have a need for added supplements. However, most triathletes have training schedules, work and family restraints that leave them with limited time for selecting and preparing fresh, nutritious meals. For more detailed information, see our article titled Essential Nutrients.

All endurance athletes have a choice about how they meet their nutritional needs, and unless you make fresh food a major priority, your training loads could potentially be leaving you depleted of certain key vitamins and minerals and will leave you prone to injury, ill-health and poor performance.

However, its not as simple as that. Endurance athletes, particularly long distance and Ironman triathletes also have to find a way to allow their body time to digest high carbohydrate food intakes with sometimes very limited time between training sessions for full digestion and absorption. Bloating, cramping, constipation and low immune systems are typical problems experienced by people with large training loads and large calorie intakes to meet energy demands. For these people, the role of food becomes even more than a fuel source as they must adopt a nutrition protocol that supports wholistic health that includes fighting inflamation, controlling insulin levels and potential food allergens.

We cannot stress enough, the importance of checking your diet for deficiences (see Essential Nutrients) and then considering your options for increasing your intake, ideally through real food sources.


There are a some very good books on nutrition you can purchase from our online shop for under $40, or you can visit a sports nutritonist (for over $80!). Other good references are found on the Australian Institute of Sport website

High Density Calories (HDC)

Calorie density simply refers to the number of calories by mouthful. For optimum weight management we should aim to eat less high calorie dense foods (except during training and racing) and more low calorie dense foods.

Here's a list of common foods & drinks that are calorie dense:

Fruit juice, full-fat dairy products; nuts; dried fruit; all commerical sports nutrition - bars, gels, protein drinks; processed meats like bacon, sausages and any meat with a fat content over 10%; skin/fat on meat; soft drinks; commerically made sweets, biscuits, cakes, donuts, pancakes; mayonaise & salad dressings, pizza, lasagna and other cheese-based meals like macaroni cheese; all fast foods; fried foods; alcohol. Find ways to limit, substitute or modify your intake of these high calorie dense foods. Note that the first few foods in this list are "healthy" options but the take-home message is that these are only good choices when your calorie intake needs are high (such as post-workout recovery).

Here's a list of common foods that are low in calorie density:

Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean chicken (skin removed before cooking), turkey, pork (fat removed before cooking), lean beef and lamb (grass fed preferred), unbuttered popcorn (popped in microwave), puffed wheat cereals and rice cakes (crackers). Note that if your calorie intake needs are high (such as to gain weight or meet higher Basal Metabolic Rates), then you will need to eat large quantities of foods in this list.

Remember, food is fuel so endurance athletes will select high density calories at specific intervals during training, however there is no advantage in consuming empty calories with no nutritional value at any time. Outside of racing conditions, always choose a real food option over a supplement (more on that later).


Whilst there is some controversy about the effects of alcohol on some aspects of your health, there is no mistaking that in terms of weight management, alcohol is counterproductive. The are many reasons contributing to this:
  • Physical - alcohol suppresses the number of fat calories your body burns for energy; reduces testosterone (believed to contribute to loss of muscle in heavy drinkers); is a high calorie food with no nutritional advantage
  • Mental - alcohol impairs judgement (making it harder to stick to your food plan)
  • Emotional - alcohol stimulates hunger, making you inclined to eat more than necessary


Limit alcohol to one day per week, and only 1-2 glasses at a time. Drink water before alcohol and take sips of water in between sips of alcohol to dilute consumption and fill you up. Consider mixing alcoholic drinks with lemon, lime, soda water or ice.


It may come as a surprise but there is plenty of evidence to show positive effects of a small amount of caffeine for the healthy athlete or triathlete. Recognised as an ergogenic aid, caffeine can increase fatty acids in the blood - this can be a good thing. This means the body will burn more fat and fewer carbohydrates for fuel. The delay in depletion of glycogen stores is a bonus for athletes performing endurance activities such as cycling, and running. However, it has been shown that caffeine needs to be ingested 2-3 hours before competition to ensure a peak of performance, and is most effective if the athlete has avoided all caffeine consumption in the days leading up to the event. In real terms, 2-4 cups of coffee consumed 45-60 minutes prior to the start can give benefits lasting 3-5 hours.

Whilst most people are aware of how coffee can stimulate the body first thing in the morning, or during a lull at work, for sports people the effect on decreasing fatigue is very useful and practical. The effect of caffeine in the cortext is clearer thought process - quick thinking and rapid reactions are necessary for athletes during racing so taking sports gels or bars with added caffeine has been a popular trend in sports nutrition manufacture to give athletes "the edge".

In training, drinking two cups of coffee before an interval session may increase your power output. Provided you follow the session with adequate recovery time, the power session would produce a greater rate of fitness adaptation.

Caffeine effects vary based on the person, the amount consumed, frequency of intake and individual metabolism. There are many potential side effects to regular users, the most common being insomnia, but feelings of nausea, cramps, anxiety, fatigue, headaches and stomach upsets are also common and are indicators that you do not tolerate caffeine. No link has been found between caffeine to cancer, cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure, however overuse in athletes can be counterproductive - symptoms such as muscle cramping, dehydration, and muscle tightness are negative to performance.


Don't try caffeine in a race until you've tested it in training first.

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Created: February 2012
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