Holiday Food: Drafting a Winning Lineup

One of the many perks of being an athlete is that when the holidays come around, you do not have to worry so much about a few—or more likely a few hundred—extra calories. First of all, your energy needs are much higher than those whose idea of a sport is a particularly cutthroat game of foosball. And secondly, any weight that sneaks on during the holidays is just as easily shed in January when athletes fall back into their normal routine of eating and working out.

Although the period from Thanksgiving until just after New Year's Day is somewhat of a nutritional black hole, there are actually plenty of foods in the holiday buffet that can fit quite nicely into an athlete's game plan. The secret is to draft the best foods for your dietary lineup. If you are an athlete, here are some of the most promising players in the typical holiday pool, and some tips for enhancing their performance.

Pre-game Standouts

Shrimp cocktail —This lean source of protein is also swimming in selenium, a potent antioxidant. Selenium may boost the immune system and, like other antioxidants, is reported to help reduce the risk for heart disease and cancer. Go for the extra point—dip in cocktail sauce, not butter.

Antipasto —The vegetables in this Italian delight—peppers, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms—are filled with phytochemicals, which are plant chemicals that enhance immunity and lower the risk for chronic disease. Nosh on a few pieces of cheese for some calcium, essential for strong bones. Go for the extra point—savor just a couple of slices of pepperoni and focus more on the vegetables in this dish.

Mixed nuts —Scoop up a handful of selenium, fiber, protein, vitamin E, and magnesium. Stored in bones and muscles, magnesium is crucial for endurance performance. And while nuts are relatively high in fat, it is mostly the good-for-your-heart unsaturated type. Go for the extra point—choose dry roasted over oil roasted, and add raisins or dried cranberries to the mix.

Big Game MVPs

Roast beef —This choice is a solid source of protein, iron, and zinc. In the blood, iron carries oxygen to working muscles, and zinc speeds healing and injury recovery. Endurance athletes are often low in these 2 minerals, but need sufficient levels to perform at their best. Go for the extra point—trim visible fat before eating and go light on the gravy.

Turkey —Carve off a slice and you will get a good dose of protein as well as some iron with each serving. Dark meat contains more iron than the lighter parts. Go for the extra point—Top slices of turkey with cranberry sauce instead of gravy.

Stuffing —This is the ultimate dish for carbo-loaders. And if it is made with celery, raisins, cranberries, apples, nuts, or any other goodies, you will get extra fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Cranberry sauce —Whether you slice it or scoop it, this rich, tart sauce is excellent on its own or as a topping for turkey, stuffing, or potatoes. It also boosts fiber and phytochemical levels.

Squash —The pilgrim who introduced this beauty to the table was a true nutritional visionary. Dig in to the butternut, hubbard, or acorn varieties and be treated to a mouthful of flavor as well as a whole host of phytochemicals and the potent antioxidant, vitamin A. Go for the extra point—go easy on the butter; often a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg is enough to bring out squash's natural flavor.

Green peas —These little guys are really legumes who are cousins to black beans, chickpeas, and lentils. More importantly, they provide athletes with a shot of protein, carbohydrate, and fiber, as well as potassium and vitamin A in a mini, bite-size package.

Sweet potatoes —Vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants, carbohydrate. All this and it can satisfy your sweet tooth with barely any calories and no fat too. You didn't think such a food existed, but think again. If only they made an energy gel out of these tubers.

Overtime Stars

Pumpkin pie —This is a pumpkin's time to shine, and boy does it shine in this position. Not only does this pie provide the vitamin A and potassium we come to expect from anything pumpkin, it also delivers a good supply of calcium and carbohydrate. Go for the extra point—skip the whipped cream or go for the lighter version.

Apple pie —This pie or any other fruit pie for that matter is delicious, especially if it is homemade. It is as close as most people will get to eating fruit for dessert, and often slightly lower in calories than other desserts like cakes or pastries. Go for the extra point—top with low-fat frozen yogurt (for calcium) instead of ice cream.

Sugar cookies —Yes, they are full of sugar, but they are still carbohydrate. Trail runners can get away with eating jelly beans and gum drops, so enjoy a couple of these sweets at the office holiday party. Go for the extra point—eat your cookies Santa-style! A glass of skim milk is a great source of carbohydrate, protein, calcium, vitamin D, and several other vitamins and minerals athletes need a lot of.

Hydration Team

Beer —Athletes, from the armchair to the gym-rat variety, seem to really like their beer, which may be good news for heart health. Moderate drinking (maximum 1 drink/day for women and 2 for men) of alcoholic beverages is believed to decrease the risk for heart disease. Go for the extra point—stick with moderation and alternate with a few glasses of water, since alcohol can lead to dehydration. If you do not drink, you do not have to start to get any benefits.

Red wine —While all alcoholic drinks are thought to offer some health benefits, red wine gets an extra healthful punch from the phytochemicals in grapes. Go for the extra point—again, moderation is key.

Hot apple cider —In addition to providing the quintessential holiday aroma for your kitchen, hot apple cider adds a few extra phytochemicals—you can never have too many of these.

A Winning Lineup

As an athlete, it is especially important to get enough nutrients, particularly carbohydrate, protein, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, D, E, B6, and B12, to maintain a healthy immune system. Getting your nutrients from food, versus supplements, is always your best bet, and now you see how easy that can be—even during the high holidays. So, with all these great foods to choose from, bench the scale this holiday season and enjoy your favorites. Just be sure to work in a few runs, walks, or pick-up games in between meals.


Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
US Department of Agriculture


Dietitians of Canada


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Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 5/29/2015

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