A Diet for MMA Fighters
Top performing mixed martial artists are among the fittest athletes, due, in part, to their commitment to clean eating. Mixed martial arts combines skills from multiple disciplines including boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling. Athletes punch, kick, strike and perform submissive holds to earn a win. They must be faster, more powerful and more agile than their opponents. An MMA fighter's diet has to provide adequate fuel for punishing workouts, but it also must be refined close to competition to allow him to make weight. Consider working with a qualified sports dietitian to tailor a diet to your individual needs.
Clean eating refers to consuming whole, unprocessed foods at most meals. Lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, unsweetened dairy, nuts and seeds are the foundation of a fighter's on- and off-season diet. Frank Mir, a UFC heavyweight, told the website Black Belt that his entire family avoids processed foods, such as chips and soda. During the off season, fighters may indulge in sweets and not count calories closely, but they still stick to the tenets of unprocessed, whole-food eating. John Manley, who has been a professional MMA fighter since 2007, told "Boston Magazine" that a typical day's menu consists of a lean meat, eggs and vegetables at breakfast; chicken with pasta and sweet potatoes at lunch; shepherd's pie consisting of ground turkey, peas and sweet potatoes at dinner; and snacks of Greek yogurt with protein powder and all-fruit preserves mixed in.
Manley notes that he prepares almost all of his meals at home when training. He avoids sugar, sticks to water and coffee for beverages and shops the outer ring of the grocery store where produce, meats and dairy are plentiful. In the months leading up to a fight, Manley reports eating five meals per day with three hours between them. Most of these meals comprise lean meats such as chicken, turkey or steak, and vegetables, including sweet potatoes and kale, with a little fruit. Mac Danzig, a vegan MMA fighter, also eats multiple times per day, consuming oatmeal for breakfast, grain salads and tempeh at lunch and brown rice with vegetables for dinner. His two or three other meals are really large snacks that include nuts and dried fruit, guacamole and chips or protein bars.
Fight Week and Cutting
Cutting refers to the process of dropping significant pounds the week before a fight to make weight for competition. Some fighters starve themselves this week to lose as much weight as possible, but Manley says this can leave you feeling weak and unable to perform at your best. During the week or two prior to a fight, you should still stick to multiple meals per day, consisting mostly of lean proteins and vegetables, but cut back on serving sizes and drink more water. Mac Danzig, who weighs in at 166 pounds, consumes about 2,200 calories per day in the two weeks leading up to a fight -- all while conducting three punishing workouts daily. He may have a meal replacement drink for breakfast, an energy bar for lunch, yogurt and fruit with low-carb tortilla chips and salsa for a snack and a protein bar after each of two workouts. For dinner, he'll stick to a broth-based soup with tofu and fruit, instead of his normal sorbet or vegan cookies, for dessert. A late-night meal could consists of a salad, again with tofu, and fruit. This amount of calories would never sustain him during his primary training season, but it enables him to lose weight but still have enough energy to train in the last week or two before a big fight.
Protein supplements are a mainstay of an MMA fighter's diet. Although most people get plenty of protein in their regular diet, athletes who exercise at high intensities doing both strength and endurance work require more protein daily to support muscle growth and recovery. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, athletes require between 0.7 and 0.9 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. Protein after a workout is also important to support recovery. Although Mir's diet contains plenty of lean meats, he drinks two whey protein shakes daily to provide extra protein. Danzig augments the protein he gets from soy and nuts with vegan meal replacement powders and soy protein bars. Mir also relies on fish oil, which he says helps him manage his cholesterol levels. Fish oil can also benefit an MMA fighter by fighting the inflammation high levels of training cause and therefore inspiring faster recovery between workouts. Speak to your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.
- Black Belt: UFC Fighter Frank Mir’s MMA Diet and MMA Workouts for Powering Up His MMA Techniques
- American Council on Exercise: Who Are the Fittest Athletes?
- Stack Fitness: 5 Rules You Must Know Before Taking a Fish Oil Supplement
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.