4 Nutritional Mistakes to Avoid as an Athlete

Superfoods, Carbs and other nutritional misdirections

By Coach Maria Simone

The food we eat (or don’t eat) is personal, pulling from our individual, social and cultural values. Our life experiences are often tied up with our eating experiences, and food is an important and fulfilling part of our lives. It’s yummy, and it makes us feel good.

But, there are other aspects of the relationship with food, which might not be so healthy and harmonious. For example, some may confuse “skinny” or “thin” for “healthy” and “fit,” leading to a variety of approaches to food that don’t necessarily put healthful nutrition first.

While some aspects of nutrition are individual, there are a few trends and assertions about food that can be problematic because they are promoted as “healthy” or “fit”, when the science doesn’t support those claims.

Among those assertions, here the top 4 that have been bugging me lately.

#1. Carbs are bad for you. 

The claim that carbohydrates are “bad” is simplistic and misses the important nuances of the role of carbohydrates, especially for endurance athletes.

Carbohydrates are an important fuel source. Even though long course athletes want to be more efficient with burning fat for fuel, we (and our glucose-loving brains) still need carbohydrates as well. And, when it comes time for recovery, nothing will restore those glycogen starved muscles except for carbohydrates.

Want to get up the next day and get after it again? Well, eat your carbs. Wonder why your recovery is lagging? Maybe it’s your sagging glycogen stores.

I know what you are thinking: Aren’t some sources of carbohydrates problematic?


Processed or refined carbs are problematic when they are a mainstay of the typical diet. It’s these types of foods that give whole food carbs a bad rap.

Luckily for our glucose loving brain and muscles, carbohydrates do come in a nutrient-dense, healthy and whole food variant.

Vegetables, which should be the focus of every meal we eat, have a nutrient dense supply of carbohydrates. And, many vegetables also come with grams of protein and sometimes fat. In fact, some vegetables have a higher percentage of protein per serving than meat-based sources of protein! Those poor vegetarians are saved. 😉

Let’s compare two different foods that have a high carb count: KASHI 7 Whole Grain Flakes and a sweet potato. One processed in an industrial factory, the other out of the ground.

This is the nutrition information for Kashi’s 7 Whole Grain Flakes, marketed as “healthy,” “natural,” good for you. But, take a closer look at the micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals). Not so much going on there.

While this cereal has 6 grams of fiber and limited added sugar, which is good, that’s about all it has going for it. There are only but a few nutrients (vitamin and minerals) packed into the 175 calories per serving.

Now, let’s check out the sweet potato. Same number of carbs, about the same number of calories per serving.

The sweet potato and the serving of Kashi cereal have a comparable amount of calories and carbohydrates. Yet, look at the increased amounts of vitamins and minerals that you get with a serving of sweet potatoes. While there are more sugars in the sweet potatoes, it’s important to note that these are naturally occurring sugars, and the food has an overall LOWER glycemic load than the cereal. (The glycemic load is a measure of a food’s impact on your blood sugar. The lower the number the better. Foods with 10 or under GL are low, foods with 11-19 are medium, and foods 20+ are high.)

I offer this comparison to demonstrate the difference in carbohydrates between a processed version of carbs to a whole food, plant-based version. Sweet potatoes are one of the highest carbohydrate-containing vegetables. If you look at the nutrition facts for other vegetables, such as broccoli or zucchini, you’ll see they contain carbohydrates, but in significantly lower amounts.

An important caveat: When it comes to fueling during workouts, we may need to rely more on processed carbohydrates for ease of digestion under load. 

#2. Superfoods cure what ails you. 

The “superfood” label is banned from use in the EU because the use of that term cannot supported by science. It’s not that some foods aren’t really really really good for you – they are! But, no single food contains all (or almost all) of the nutrients the human body needs. Rather, a diverse diet of nutrient-dense foods is the key to healthy eating.

The use of the term “superfood” makes it seem as if there is a single food for what ails us. And, it also persuades us to buy over-priced foods that may be no better for us than the seemingly mundane vegetables and fruits that are regularly available.

I find the use of this term particularly offensive when it is slapped on to a supplement, which is highly processed and so far removed from the original food source that the benefit is largely negated. Am I saying all supplements are junk? Definitely not. But, I do think the claims of most supplements are overstated. By a lot. They are not super foods. 

Rather than a single super food, we should have a super diet, which includes a wide variety of nutrient-dense, whole foods.

#3. You don’t eat like a “typical” person. 

In interpersonal or group settings, I have noticed that social sabotage or pressure about food choices can be a problem.

Endurance athletes don’t tend to eat the way most Americans eat. So, when we have meals with others, this can sometimes cause tension.

I’ve been told I have a “special diet,” because I “eat all of that healthy crap” (oxymoron?), and that I don’t eat “like a typical person.” All of this is said with the implication that I’m somehow imposing on or threatening the other person. I’m not. Eat-and-and-let-eat! I ask that others do the same for me.

But, I’m sure many of us have felt the strong peer pressure to conform to unhealthy choices. This social pressure works in tandem with marketing from the corporate food industry. Emotional connections to foods, social pressure, and persuasive and pervasive marketing claims make it challenging to make good food choices day in and day out.

People might give you the stink-eye if you order a salad while they are eating subs and french fries. My former colleagues used to make fun of me for eating salad for lunch everyday. I eventually learned to shrug it off, but this pressure is especially hard when we first start making changes to how we eat. The nutritional lifestyle is still new, and the pressure to conform to old habits seems hard to resist. For John and I, gradual changes were the easiest to learn and then to sustain.

At times, this peer pressure is so strong it has made me feel guilty or as if eating “green” foods is somehow shameful. But, the pressure to conform isn’t as strong as how great I feel. 

#4. This diet will make you skinny! 

Diets, in the sense of a highly structured plan for consuming certain foods, calorie counts and the like, are not a healthy approach to eating.

Trendy diets typically focus on deprivation, caloric starvation, or restriction and/or overemphasis of key macro-nutrient groups.

I prefer to think of my approach to eating as a nutritional lifestyle, with a certain philosophy that guides decision making about what to eat.. 

If a particular diet is not sustainable, does not bring us enjoyment, and does not support the activities we engage in – it’s not healthy. I don’t care how much weight people lose on that diet. Losing weight is not synonymous with being healthy.

There is also an undertone in the endurance sport community that being lighter equals being faster. This is not the case – especially if that weight loss comes at the expense of key muscle mass that we need to swim, bike, run and adventure. 

It is important to make a distinction between your lightest weight possible and your optimal weight. It’s not just about the scale. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, I have learned to move away from weight as a metric, to understanding body composition and function as significantly more important for achieving my goals. I work to think more in terms of what I need my body to do, rather than what I need it to weigh. In these cases, I find it best not to weigh myself – as my emotional reaction to that number is much too heavy. 

I can think of situations in which each of the things I’ve listed above could be problematic. For example, too many carbohydrates (even “safe” ones) can be dangerous for people with certain conditions. For others, a structured diet may be the only solution to helping them get on a path of eating healthy.

The way we eat doesn’t need a fancy label or to be perfect, causing us to police every morsel that drops in our mouths. Yeah, that’s not fun. Food should be enjoyable, AND it should be sustaining.

Thankfully, we don’t need to pick whether we live to eat or we eat to live. With the right nutritional philosophy, we can do both!

4 Nutritional Mistakes to Avoid as an Athlete
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