5 Ways to Eat Better, According to Powerlifters

updated May 1, 2019
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If you rank meal planning as a chore right up there with scrubbing the bathroom, imagine what it’s like for people who have to plan a balanced diet to fuel intense workouts (and shop and cook in between lengthy gym sessions). Welcome to the world of powerlifters.

Powerlifting is the pursuit of strength as measured by the amount of iron you can move in three classic lifts: the bench press, deadlift, and squat. Participants are competing to beat their own one-rep maximum as much as they are each others’.

For these athletes, the right diet can make the difference between a mediocre workout and a killer one, between taking home a medal in their sport and bombing out. On the bright side for these folks, they get to eat a lot. When I competed in powerlifting I reveled in multi-course meals, almond butter by the gallon, and chocolate milk for days. The more and better I ate the stronger I got and the more I could lift.

Even though most of us don’t share their goal of consuming massive amounts of calories, we can learn a lot about eating healthy, fast, and cheap from powerlifters who need their meals to pack the most nutritional punch with the least amount of time and money.

Meet the Powerlifters

I remember my own tried-and-true techniques for powering up for workouts, and chatted with a couple lifters for more ideas. Cynthia Leu, whose instagram tagline (“probably eating or squatting”) told me she’s a woman after my own heart, is a champion powerlifter who loves food and craft beer. Caroline Weeks is an elite powerlifter (and classical violinist) who’s in clinical rotations to become a registered dietitian. Here’s what you can learn from three women whose combined deadlift is nearly a thousand pounds.

1. Meal planning is key.

Powerlifters, they’re just like us! “When I’m in weightlifting mode I view food as fuel,” Caroline explains. “I eat very simply, no frills, and I make pretty much the same meals in a cycle.”

Meal Templates & Dinner Themes Can Help

We’re big fans of recipes that double as templates. For some that’s a matter of having a few back pocket concepts to revisit over and over again, like a grain bowl or sautéed chicken thighs. Another practice to consider is adding themes to weeknights for meal planning. That way you know every Wednesday is a large salad.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

Look, we all want bragging rights to a gorgeous meal, but don’t let that get in the way. “People think they have to be so gourmet, but no,” Caroline says. “If I look at a recipe with more than eight ingredients I turn away.”

Get Inspired

3. Keep your favorites on hand at all times.

Deciding what to eat is overwhelming when you can literally have almost anything. Powerlifters make it easier by building up a rotation of favorites to choose from.

I used to lean on ground lamb frittata with curry (I’d make them in muffin tins so I could take them with me and chow down at work) and wasabi-ginger tuna salad. Caroline loves Greek yogurt for an on-the-go snack and oatmeal for breakfast (microwaved with a scoop of peanut butter and dark chocolate chips). Cynthia keeps a stash of frozen whole-grain waffles that she’ll slather with peanut butter for a quick fuel-up.

Build a Helpful Pantry

We often talk about pantries as a tool to help you cook dinner quickly, but it’s also something to consider when eating well on a budget is on your priority list as well.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

4. Listen to your body and stop counting.

Powerlifters have to stay attuned to their bodies, knowing when they need to dial back their workout, spend some time in recovery, or amp things up. They also need to know how to fuel it, which is easy if they pay attention.

“If your body is really hungry you probably want to feed it; if not, have a salad,” Cynthia says. “My training changes weekly, and so do my needs. I like not having a set plan.”

And while lifters need copious amounts of calories, including plenty from carbs for energy and protein for muscle-building, counting is not their thing. Caroline finds it unsustainable, and Cynthia learned to eyeball portions. We all agree it’s a much more relaxed way of eating.

Educate Your Eye

Being able to eyeball the portion and size of different foods is such a useful tool. Whether you’re buying groceries and need to pick up a pound of fruit for a recipe or are trying to decide if you ate your daily portion of veggies, having a strong sense of what it looks like is critical. You can learn this valuable skill by weighing things out at first, and then trying to guess an amount without weighing and checking your success and correcting for next time.

5. Make your spending count.

Caroline is a student with a limited food budget, but that’s no excuse for not eating healthfully, she says. She’s mindful of her food dollars and gets protein from lots of eggs, dairy (like cottage cheese, yogurt, or string cheese), and the occasional frozen chicken or fresh meat. She spends where it counts — on flavor, using fresh herbs, garlic, and citrus to brighten her dishes.