How much variety should athletes have on their plates

You might have heard that you need to eat a wide variety of food to be healthy and improve your sports performance. In the end, different foods provide different vitamins and minerals.
Ideally, we want to eat 30 different plant foods a week to support the gut microflora. But it can be overwhelming, especially if you are just increasing the variety of food you eat.
In reality, eating a variety of food to support both your health and performance can be pretty simple.


When it comes to variety, we know that eating a variety of food makes it easier to get all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or other chemicals your body needs for proper functioning.
Let’s take a step back. Before making the positive changes you had probably eaten the same meals in a rotation but instead of oatmeal it was ham and eggs, and in place of rice and beans it was chicken with rice and potatoes. Whatever our food philosophy is, we stick to a few of our favorite meals.
Consider also that if you are new to this way of eating, you need time to collect and try more recipes. Some people are naturally more drawn to test many new things in a short period of time while others take more time.
However, an easy way to bring more variety into your meals is to switch a few ingredients, for example, you can switch buckwheat for rice, or beans for the variety you have not had in a long time. There are more than 20 different legumes! Check out the guides page for nutritious recipes.


Lack of Variety also has a positive side to it, which is consistency. When you don’t need to think about what to eat you save a lot of time and mental energy. Think about Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs. He wore the same clothes every day. When you don’t need to make small decisions like what to eat each day, it leaves you more energy for other things because every decision takes energy.
Sometimes we are simply bored with life and we look for variety in food. Would you have no choice, you’d be satisfied with what you have. I would argue this is an example of abusing food to cover something more important we want to avoid solving. That is why I place a huge importance on mental conditioning when working with clients 1 on1.
Consistency also brings results. Ethiopian runners have a very boring diet consisting mostly of grains and starches in different forms like corn maize, rice, bread, beans and vegetables and some eggs and dairy.

Ugali: made from maize meal, it is cooked in water to form a sort of corn cake. This staple is very high in starch and is very bland, lacking much in the way of flavor.[1]

Commonly, these foods are not rich in taste, quite the opposite. They are bland and “boring”. For example, they might have a plain bread for breakfast.
“The lack of variety in the diet was something that really surprised us. Another thing that I was continually struggling to understand was the lack of flavor in most meals…. The diet was almost purely unprocessed fruits, vegetables, legumes and cereals. This alimentary regime is not unique to the athletes we spent time with, it is the diet adhered to by most people in Kenya. This same array of food is on offer in most local restaurants.”[1]
Their bland diet covers their nutritional needs, it is easy to prepare and it also eliminates the need to make choices.

My friend, Michal Kovac shared his experience while training in Kenya.

Unlike lunch, they take dinner a little more serious here. Sometimes we only have dry spaghetti, a piece of tuna and vegetables, but mostly we get a Kenyan specialty – chapati. Chapati is something like a lokshe in Slovakia.

However, they are much juicier, taste very good and it is clearly the most popular food for all foreigners from Slovakia through India to America.

Ground beef and cabbage are served for this purpose. I don’t know exactly how cabbage is prepared, but it tastes great. Another raw material is sukuma and, of course, ugali. Sukuma is a plant that resembles kohlrabi leaves. It tastes like spinach combined with something more acidic, the first thing that struck me was a dandelion. Just nothing much!

Even worse is ugali. While this is a national dish that Kenyans cannot forgo, the truth is that ugali is just boiled ground corn and water. The taste is bland, sometimes unpleasant. Some locals claim that it tastes sweet, others admit fairly that ugali has no taste, and therefore it should be eaten together with the mentioned succum.

There are several foreign visitors in our camp, but few can handle this combination. However, when all the ingredients are mixed together, wrapped in chapati, something like a tortilla is created. Then the whole thing tastes really great. Together with mango compote and melon, it’s a great ride. 🙂

How much variety should athletes have on their plate?

While I recommend athletes to get as much variety in their meals as they can for several reasons, you don’t need to stress it. Introduce new foods to your diet slowly.

  • Try a different vegetable weekly, for example.
  • I typically recommend athletes to have three or more colours on their plate.
  • Use seasonal ingredients, that way you will introduce variety to your plate without really trying.
  • Seasonal ingredients are also more sustainable and ecological as they don’t need to be transported from across the world. At the same time, you are supporting local producers.

Take home message

It is perfectly fine and advisable to stick with your staple meals. You can simply rotate ingredients and come up with different final effect. Take Buddha bowls as an example. They contain a variety of produce and you can easily eat them as your every meal without being afraid of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Or to get bored with them.

You can find mentioned articles here:

  1.  Eliud Kipchoge – Diet

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