There are so many recommendations for the “right diet,” where does one even begin? We’ve all heard of Atkins, Weight Watchers, the Zone, Paleo, counting calories, high protein, low carb…what does a cheerleader need to do to make sense of it all?! Start with the basics! Cheerleaders need to fuel themselves with highly nutritious food in order to perform at their very best. Stunting, tumbling, cheering, dancing, and everything else that goes into a cheerleader’s daily life requires energy, and lots of it. The best energy comes from food (put down that extra-large coffee or energy drink!) so enjoying the right kind is a big part of living an active lifestyle. Putting together a healthy eating plan can be surprisingly easy if you focus on choosing‚ and avoiding!‚ the right foods. Choose: Foods high in lean protein. Foods like lean chicken breast, fish, tofu, black beans, and even vegetables like spinach have lots of protein, and it’s important to get your required daily amount. A common myth is that too much protein will cause a person to bulk up with unwanted muscle. In reality, protein allows your body to rebuild and repair current muscles and cells, and is necessary for athletes of any kind, especially those who put in long hours conditioning, like cheerleaders. Avoid: Non-lean animal protein. A steak or juicy hamburger can be an incredibly satisfying meal every once in a while, but try not to let them be a part of your everyday menu. While they are high in protein, they also come with higher fat contents, and it’s not usually the good kind of fat. Choose: Foods with “good fat.” The good fats include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, both of which have multiple health benefits, including lowering the bad type of cholesterol and providing Vitamin E. Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3s which, according to the American Heart Association, can aid in increasing heart health. Polyunsaturated fat is commonly found in fish like salmon or trout, as well as foods like walnuts and flaxseeds. Monounsaturated fats can be found in olives and olive oil, avocado, almonds, and more. Good fats are filling and satisfying; making sure you have enough fat in your diet can help you eat less overall and control cravings. Avoid: Foods high in saturated and trans fats. It’s almost impossible to completely remove these fats from a typical diet, nor is it necessary, but try to limit them as, according to the American Heart Association, these types of fats can increase bad cholesterol (LDL), lower good cholesterol (HDL), and clog arteries. The bad fats are commonly found in animal products (meat, eggs, high fat dairy, etc.), vegetable oils, and in many fried foods or processed snack foods like cookies, crackers, and popcorn. It’s a good idea to check the labels on items before you buy to ensure that the amount of saturated or trans fat is low. Choose: Whole foods. What are the ingredients in a banana? Banana! Whole foods, or foods that are not overly processed, are typically more nutrient dense and pack a heavier punch of vitamins and minerals. Fruits, vegetables, whole grain bread (think sprouted, not just wheat), legumes, and raw or roasted nuts (hold the salt!) are great choices when looking for something that is not overly processed. Avoid: Overly processed foods. If you can’t pronounce, or at least can’t recognize, the majority of the ingredients on the label, do you really want them all inside your body? Highly processed foods include most pre-packaged meals, easy-to-grab breakfast bars, and anything else you may think of as “convenient.” But don’t worry, it’s easy, and often less expensive, to create your own versions of grab-and-go food! Used to having a cereal bar in the morning? Try low-fat Greek yogurt with your favorite berries on top. Love to get a smoothie from the fast food drive through? They’re not as healthy as you think! Whip up your own with fresh fruit, chia or flax seeds, low fat milk or almond milk, ice, and a handful of spinach (you won’t taste it, trust me!). You can even add a small amount of honey or agave syrup to sweeten it. Not only will it taste great, but you’ll know everything that went into it! Choose: Complex carbohydrates. I’ve heard too many people (not one of whom were nutritionists or fitness professionals!) say that one should avoid fruit as a part of a balanced diet. I’m not saying you should eat your daily calories in oranges, but avoiding fruit because it’s high in sugar is avoiding the wrong type of sugar. Most fruits and vegetables are naturally high in complex carbohydrates, or sugars that your body slowly digests, which in turn provide the energy you need to go from school to practice to competition. Other good sources of complex carbohydrates are starchy foods like potatoes, whole grain pastas and breads, legumes, and beans. Don’t be afraid of carbs. Without them, you won’t have the energy to successfully hit your tumbling pass or be alert enough to ensure you catch your flyer. Carbs are not the enemy. Avoid: Simple carbohydrates. While carbs in general may not be the enemy, simple carbohydrates (think corn syrup, table sugar, and molasses) are not something you need as a significant part of your daily diet. Soda, candy, cookies, cupcakes, chips, and many other types of packaged goods all contain simple carbohydrates that are rapidly digested, and in turn, do not provide long lasting energy. You may feel a sugar high for a couple of hours, but that drop after? That’s the initial effect wearing off, leaving no fuel for your body to use in the long term. Try and limit your refined sugars and simple carbs as much as possible. Choose: A healthy, balanced diet. Cheerleaders are athletes, and need to fuel their bodies to perform at their best. Try to eat a healthy balance of lean proteins, fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and healthy fats. Remember, too, that an occasional treat like ice cream or a cheeseburger is totally fine‚ as long as it isn’t a daily habit. Avoid: Obsessing. You’re human, and you’re allowed to not be perfect. Don’t look at food as the enemy, look at food as fuel: whatever quality you put in your body will have a direct effect on what energy you get out. Don’t obsess over the number of calories you’ve eaten, if you’re eating more than your friends (who may not be as active as you), or if you indulged in an ice cream sandwich after dinner. Treat your body well by eating regular meals and remembering to keep everything in moderation.