It’s important to be strategic about what you eat and drink on training and event days, but fueling your body with healthy food and drinks every day helps keep you mission-ready. Regardless of your activity level, inadequate nutrition and hydration will leave you with less energy to perform mental and physical tasks and can also increase your risk for injuries. There’s no “off-season” in the military—and your job is physically and mentally challenging—so your fueling strategy needs to support those daily demands.
Build a warrior athlete’s plate
A warrior athlete’s plate typically includes optimal amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Eating balanced meals and snacks throughout the day—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, lean meat, eggs, nuts, and healthy fats—will provide the nutrients you need to perform well.
- Protein provides amino acids and minerals to support muscle growth, repair tissue, and prevent muscle loss. Sources include lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, milk products, nuts, eggs, and small amounts in whole grains (quinoa, rice, etc.). In addition, milk products—such as yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, and low-fat milk—provide calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D among other nutrients to support bone health.
- Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel, preserve protein for muscle growth, and contain fiber for a healthy gut. Sources include fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, milk products, and whole grains such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, and 100% whole-wheat pasta, bread, or cereal. Fruits and vegetables—including dark leafy greens, citrus fruit, bananas, and pineapple—also provide essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and flavanols for immune health, reduced inflammation, and recovery support.
- Fats provide energy for muscles, transport fat-soluble vitamins, satisfy your hunger, insulate and protect organs, and help keep you warm. Sources include cold-water fish, nuts and seeds, nut butter, avocados, olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, and dairy. Also, cold-water fish—such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies—contain omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation and support joint health.
A warrior athlete’s plate should include foods from at least 3 food groups at each meal—whether you’re resting, training, or on a mission. When you choose nutrient-dense, high-performance foods from each food group, you feel more satisfied and have more energy. Tip: Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, throughout the day with meals and snacks to help maintain hydration too.
Try these high-performance meals:
- Omelet with spinach and mushrooms, whole-grain bread with jam, and orange juice
- Whole-wheat pita sandwich with turkey and veggies, pretzels, apple, and unsweetened iced tea
- Cheese tortellini in tomato sauce, tossed salad, grapes, and water
- Lamb kebabs, pita, spinach, and mango-yogurt drink
Fuel up with these high-performance snacks:
- Yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Fruit and yogurt smoothie
- No-Bake Energy Bites
- Snack mix
Too much of a good thing
In addition to eating high-performance meals daily, it’s also important to space your meals throughout the day and eat the right amount of calories for your specific energy needs. And remember the amount of calories will look different for everyone because your calorie needs are unique.
To maintain or reach a healthy weight, the amount of energy you expend in activities needs to balance or exceed the amount of energy (fuel) you consume each day. Find out how to calculate how many calories you need at rest and when you exercise in the HPRC Warfighter Nutrition Guide’s “Balance Your Energy Tank” chapter.
Keep in mind you don’t need additional fuel on days you’re actively resting (that is, walking, doing light strength training, or going on a recovery run). Eating regular, balanced meals and snacks will provide plenty of nutrition to fuel your daily needs. You also can reduce the portions of grains and healthy fats on your plate to lower calories and help maintain your fighting weight. However, on days that you’re more active, your fuel needs will be higher. Learn more about when and how much to fuel on active days in HPRC’s “An athlete’s guide to everyday nutrient timing.”
Sawka, M. N., Burke, L. M., Eichner, E. R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S. J., Stachenfeld, N. S., et al. (2007). Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(2), 377–390. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e31802ca597
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. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006