Nutrition is an integral part of any fitness plan. If you want to train like an athlete and see real results, you need to eat like one, too. In the third of a three-part series, Missouri Orthopaedic Institute’s Seth L. Sherman, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, shares the basics of how a healthy diet can help you achieve your athletic goals.

How nutrition affects your performance

It’s common knowledge that a diet rich in protein helps to build muscle mass. But to make gains in strength and endurance, you also need strong bones and joints.

“Maintaining your vitamin status is important for healthy bones,” Sherman said.

He recommends getting plenty of calcium and Vitamin D. Dark green veggies such as kale and spinach are high in calcium, while cheese and egg yolks contain Vitamin D. Salmon is a great source for both.

Additionally, overeating can undermine your fitness goals. Shedding some weight will prevent injury and help you go further with your workouts.

“From an orthopaedic perspective, body-mass index is very important," Sherman said. "Forces on joints matter. Load matters. Even small amounts of weight modification and weight loss can provide exponential benefits for your joints, particularly your knee joints.”

In fact, too high of a body mass index (BMI) makes patients ineligible for certain orthopaedic procedures because of a higher rate of failure. Getting your weight under control should be the first step in your athletic journey.

For weight loss, diet > exercise

There’s a reason all MU athletes are provided with comprehensive nutrition services. Hitting the gym is less than half the battle when it comes to maintaining or losing weight.

Sherman said 80 to 90 percent of weight management has to do with diet. That’s actually great news for folks dealing with an orthopaedic injury.

“Patients might feel like they can’t exercise to lose weight because they’re in pain, and that’s a very real problem,” he said. “But most people can and should be able to lose the weight by making smart choices with their eating habits.”

Cut through the diet industry noise

It seems like a new fad diet hits the scene every day and promises life-changing results. But some of the more extreme diets can actually lead to nutrient deficiencies, and many simply don’t work for the long term. Sustainable weight loss and management, Sherman said, “is more about choosing a diet that fits your lifestyle and adhering to it — one that you can maintain compliance to is probably as or more important than the specific diet. It's more of a full lifestyle change than a ‘diet.’”

Sherman recommends cutting out foods that come with high calorie counts but low nutritional value, such as soda and other sugary drinks.

“That’s a large carbohydrate load for no reason,” he said.

Cutting your portion sizes and reducing the amount of processed foods will help, as well.

“But if you need to do more effective weight loss, it’s good to consult an expert,” said Sherman, who highly recommends his colleagues at MU Health Care's Bariatric Center for those conversations.