This sports nutrition pyramid should be the basis of your nutrition approach to exercise, health and performance goals. The lower layers are ALWAYS the most important and critical to achieving a successful outcome. Evaluate your diet from the bottom up.
This means getting the consumption of all foods to meet your energy requirements. Athletes should be in a state of energy availability that is sufficient relative to their goals and the period of the season. Portions of meals and snacks and general foods choices should assist these goals. Eating behaviour, food myths and personal relationships or emotions regarding food intake should be addressed here too. An adjustment in total food intake will have the greatest impact on health or performance should this be an area that is of concern.
Macronutrients & Fluid
Now we start distributing your total food intake into proportions of carbohydrate, protein and fat relative to your goals. This focus may enhance the results of the total food intake level or make achieving that goal easier. As an example, ensuring sufficient protein will benefit hunger cues while assisting muscle growth and recovery allowing effective training but reducing excess intake of food for fat loss. Fluid in the form of both water and alcohol containing drinks should be considered here too.
Micronutrients and Functional Foods
By hitting your total food and macronutrient goals you should be covering your bases provided your nutrition plan is balanced. However, certain dietary practices and at risk individuals may need a greater focus on this level to ensure vitamin and mineral requirements are met. Where deficiencies are suspected or shown supplementation may be required.
Functional foods refer to certain foods that are particularly good sources of beneficial nutrients for athletes. They may benefit both health and performance due to their nutrient density or particular characteristic. Foods high in dietary nitrates or probiotic containing foods are examples of functional foods.
Once all the lower levels are in place we start looking at issues that may enhance their effectiveness or give small margins of improvement to performance. Nutrient timing is one such mechanism, although for some nutritional practices the benefit may be more significant than for others. Nutrient timing will refer to eating around training and competition, recovery issues as well as placement of meals and snacks throughout the day to maximise outcomes. Certain meals may comprise a higher amount of one or two macronutrients at the expense of another but this would still fit in with your overall goals.
The cherry on the cake will be the use of a supplement should it be necessary. As mentioned this may be part of the micronutrient level but performance enhancing supplements should only be considered once the remainder of the nutrition program is in place as they will provide only marginal gains in the majority of individuals. Meal replacement or macronutrient type supplements may assist in achieving goals at a lower level of the pyramid due to their practicality and ease of use but they should not be relied upon indefinitely. When choosing a supplement it MUST be one that is both effective and safe. Remember that as an athlete you are solely liable for any adverse test. Choose a trusted product.