Food matters. The body needs certain nutrients to function properly. So for athletes who need their body to do a lot, food matters a lot. Athletes need to eat for energy, to build and repair muscle, and to maintain a certain weight. To improve fitness and performance, athletes need to know both what, and how to eat.

Many diets tell you what to eat: a balanced diet, vegetarian, low-carb, gluten free, paleo, no refined sugar. However, the content of your diet is just one dimension of dieting. You could be given the perfect list of foods to eat for you and your sport, but it still may not help you that much. You still need to know how to eat.

How much and when you eat is also important. Breakfast and lunch should contain primarily carbs to give you energy for workouts and games, while dinner should contain more protein to help build and repair muscles. Portion size and your schedule of meals also matter. Generally for athletes, 4-6 smaller meals spread throughout the day is better than 2-3 larger meals. This helps keep your blood-sugar level consistent throughout the day instead of being extremely hungry and extremely full. Also, late night meals can affect your body’s ability to recover during sleep (because it focuses on digestion instead).

I suggest that you experiment with your diet and performance. Create a food journal and keep track of what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat it, how your body feels, and how you perform. After discovering patterns, you will make better dieting decisions.

How you eat, psychologically, may be one of the most important parts of dieting. Too often, people become obsessive about dieting. It’s like they’re in a cult, labeling certain foods as “good” and others as “evil.” Their mind is constantly worried about what they should eat. They stress out if they don’t have the perfect meal or have the wrong ingredient. Nervous eating can be be harmful not only psychologically, but physically. It’s called the placebo effect. When nervous eaters expect that a piece of bread or candy will hurt them, the bread or candy actually hurts them more than if they wouldn’t have worried. They end up performing bad because they believe that the food that they eat is causing them to feel sluggish. Other athletes, who worry less about what they eat, don't use their food as an excuse and they will use their willpower to maintain peak performance.

This doesn’t mean that you can eat whatever you want and still perform at your very best all the time. I suggest that you still attempt to eat healthy. Eat more balanced, more fruits/veggies, and less junk food, but don’t become too obsessive about it. Enjoy your food and don’t worry so much about it. Don’t believe food completely determines your level of performance. Even if you ate something unhealthy, you can still perform well. Some of the best athletes admit to eating unhealthy sometimes. Rafael Nadal admits to having a big sweet tooth. He says he plays better if he’s happy off the court. The middle path between no dieting and extreme dieting, between caring and not caring, is what you should aim for. In the future, I will write more about dieting tips.