Eating for Performance Should Be Simple—and Cheap
Overcomplicating sports nutrition wastes money and time. It also perpetuates privilege.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Eating well isn’t cheap. At least, not according to the sports-nutrition industry. For $220 a month, Renaissance Periodization will pair you with a credentialed coach who will tell you what and when to eat based on your body composition and training goals. For $100, you can have a fitness influencer set macro targets for you (which you can then track yourself for free via MyFitnessPal). And for a comparatively minuscule price of $20, you can learn to eat exactly like seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady—although his supplement bundle will cost you $147.
We’re constantly being marketed products that promise us better workouts, bigger muscles, improved circulation, and more. Caffeinated beverages, sugary gummies, and even vegetables have all been reformulated and rebranded as performance-supporting foods.
Things didn’t used to be nearly this complicated or expensive. According to an article in Muscle and Fitness, bodybuilders in the 1970s stuck to basic (if boring) meal plans of mostly protein (beef, eggs, cottage cheese, chicken, and fish) and vegetables. The only thing that resembled a supplement was an analog protein shake, which was either made with soy protein powder or milk, with additional powdered milk stirred in. Among runners, even basic energy bars weren’t commonplace until marathoner Brian Maxwell created PowerBars in 1984 and started marketing them to other athletes.
The notion that fitness and healthy eating are complicated and expensive perpetuates privilege in the wellness world. Regardless of how effective supplements, meal plans, and similar products may be, it’s important to consider whether they make good sports nutrition—and, by extension, performance—seem out of reach to anyone who can’t afford them.
Normalizing pricey supplements, meal plans, and snacks just adds one more barrier to entry for lower-income individuals and families, when whole foods and a simple healthy diet will suffice. Journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote about this recently in her newsletter, Culture Study, explaining how this messaging is especially challenging for young athletes in lower-income households, who are already at a massive disadvantage due to how expensive it’s become to play competitive peewee sports: “$4000-$6000 a year spent for each kid in hockey, upwards of $3700 for baseball, and between $2500 and $6000 for soccer,” Petersen writes, citing stats from USA Today.) And it’s certainly not a helpful message for college athletes, over a quarter of whom experience food insecurity (including 24 percent of Division 1 athletes), according to a 2020 survey.
Predictably, a 2015 review in PLoS One states that people with higher incomes are more likely to participate in any type of physical activity than people with lower incomes, and that those in the highest income group expended roughly 26 percent more energy through exercise than those in the lowest income group. The researchers can’t pinpoint the exact cause, but they point to time constraints as a possible explanation: those with lower incomes typically have less leisure time, because they work more hours and can’t afford as many conveniences. There’s also the fact that even basic forms of physical activity require investments like shoes and athletic apparel, not to mention the gym memberships, expensive gear, and travel required for more specialized sports.
A personalized fueling strategy can complement training and boost performance, but too much focus on how you eat can have diminishing physiological returns. “Unless they have aspirations of going pro or reaching elite status, the everyday athlete doesn’t need to be overly preoccupied with fine-tuning their nutrition,” says Cara Harbstreet, a dietitian and the owner of Street Smart Nutrition. In fact, she says, athletes who rely heavily on supplements or buy into “performance boosting” meal plans often end up eating too little, which has a significant negative effect on performance.
The basic tenets of good sports nutrition are to eat balanced snacks and meals—each containing protein, carbs, and fat—every two to four hours, and to make sure you’re properly hydrated, explains Rachel Manor, a sports dietitian and the former director of sports nutrition at the University of North Carolina. This alone can be enough for many people, as long as you’re eating a variety of nutritious foods in quantities large enough to feel satisfied and energized. And while certain athletes might need to supplement specific nutrients that they don’t get enough of from their diet (vitamin D, iron, and calcium are common deficiencies among athletes), there’s no need for a cabinet full of pills and powders.
Plus, sports-specific supplements don’t necessarily offer anything that food doesn’t. “The ingredients in many sports supplements, such as creatine, branched-chain amino acids, and nitric-oxide boosters, are actually food components, and athletes should be reassured that food is an effective and inexpensive way to consume them,” says Kathleen Searles, a sports dietitian based in Littleton, New Hampshire. She recommends basic protein-dense foods—poultry, meats, fish, dairy, and legumes—in place of powders, and inexpensive snacks like chocolate milk or a bowl of cereal in place of bars and shakes marketed as recovery aids.
The bottom line is that pricey meal plans and sports supplements don’t offer a whole lot of value, despite costing significantly more than whole-food alternatives. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich has roughly the same nutrient profile as a peanut butter ProBar, and at a fraction of the cost (about 44 cents for the PB&J, compared to over three dollars for the ProBar). The next time you think about shelling out for one of these things, ask yourself if you really benefit from it or if you’re just buying into marketing or convenience. And remember that plenty of people don’t even have the luxury of making that choice.