The Truth About Sports Nutrition – Are You Doing It Right?
Do I need to take gels on my run this weekend? How many?
Should I eat before I exercise or train fasted?
Should I be having protein shakes after every workout?
Is low carb better for losing body fat?
It’s surprising you’ve still got energy left to lace up your trainers with all that to think about!
Whether you’re an regular gym-goer, long-distance runner, cyclist, swimmer or a keen triathlete, I’ll bet you’ve often wondered if you’re eating the right things or whether there’s a magic ingredient or even a special pill that will help you get leaner, train harder, lift more or perform better. Let me help you with that.
Let’s start by getting one thing straight: you can’t out train a bad diet. Despite what you may have been led to believe, there’s a great deal more to nutrition than calories in vs calories out. Food is more than just fuel. And it’s not just an amalgam of all the different macros (protein, carbohydrate and fat) either. Food is information for all the cells in your body. It includes micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals from plants, zoochemicals from animal products, water and more.
IMPORTANT - Taking expensive supplements and gels without getting the basics right first is like pouring petrol into a broken engine.
When you eat the right kind of diet for you – and that includes but is not limited to what’s appropriate for your training regime – the benefits are plentiful. Hello improved performance, injury prevention, better body composition and fast recovery.
You may also find that making small changes in one area will have a domino effect. For example, increasing the nutrient density of meals may result in more stable energy levels and better sleep, which in turn positively influences your performance and your recovery. This is the Holy Grail for most athletes; amateur, aspiring and professional.
There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to sports nutrition. Everyone has his or her own individual goals and specific energy demands. However, I’d like to share my view on those ‘facts’ you should think twice about following, and I also want to give you some tips to set you off on the right path.
“YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH PROTEIN”
Legend has it you should use protein shakes or meal replacement drinks to burn fat and build muscle… Yes, protein plays an important role in the growth and repair of connective tissues. That does not mean, however, that if you consume a LOT of protein you will instantly become leaner, shedding body fat and building muscle.
You only need about 0.8-1g per kg of body weight, and most people will consume enough protein in their day-to-day diet through their intake of real food (like fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, Greek yoghurt or vegetable protein sources like soya, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes).
Eating too much protein can have consequences. Protein is a source of energy, and if you consume more than you need, your body will break down the excess to sugar and store it as FAT, excreting surplus amino acids in urine. It will also place more stress on your kidneys as they work to remove nitrogen waste products. And, for those following their PT’s advice to eat chicken and steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you could be placing your heart at risk with studies linking excess protein intake with cardiovascular disease*.
A Nutritional Therapist can help you calculate your personal needs and advise on the healthiest way to incorporate this into your diet with the right quantities and at the right time.
“GO LOW CARB TO GET LEAN”
Ask almost anyone what advice they’ve been given when it comes to weight loss, and they’ll tell you they’ve cut back on carbs. Yes, you may have less sugar in your bloodstream and this can result in weight loss in the short term as the body becomes depleted in glycogen and forced to burn its stores of body fat. But, this is often not a realistic approach for individuals exercising regularly.
Muscles rely on glucose (sugar from carbohydrate) for energy, and when exercising at a medium to high intensity, your body can’t tap into your fat stores quickly enough to supply you with energy. Your performance can suffer.
Likewise, not eating sufficient carbohydrate following a workout will result in poor recovery. Athletes depleting themselves of carbohydrates in the long term are at risk of decreased thyroid function, increased cortisol levels and a weakened immune system.
If you’re eating smart, carbohydrate intake will be periodised to match the intensity and volume of your training output to keep your weight on an even keel and your performance and recovery at their optimum. And, for a slower energy release, you’ll be ditching the white bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits and opting for low GL carbs in the form of wholegrains (brown rice, bulgur wheat, oats, legumes) and starchy vegetables like butternut squash and sweet potato. Once you’ve got the foundations in place with a healthy intake to support your body’s requirements, you can start to think about appropriate fuelling during training sessions.
“CUT DOWN ON FAT TO LOSE FAT”
NO!!! If you lived through the 80s and 90s you’ll be familiar with the ‘low fat’ movement, when a ‘diet’ option of all products became available with little explanation as to how this was made possible. 0% fat is still enormously popular now. But let me tell you what that usually means.
When it comes to processed foods, lower fat means a higher sugar content, emulsifiers, additives and nasties. The bottom line is fats are crucial to your health. They protect your cell membranes, moderate hormone production (including steroid hormones which your bodies use for muscle growth and repair as well as your sex hormones) and help you absorb numerous vitamins including vitamin A, D, E and K.
It’s not about eating less but eating smarter. The best advice is to cut out the toxic trans fats that are sometimes found in cakes and biscuits to improve mouth feel, and vegetable oils (corn oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, palm oil) found in processed foods and increase essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are essential because your body can’t make them – they must come from your diet. Omega 3 fatty acids are particular beneficial. Why? They’re anti-inflammatory and counteract the free radicals produced as a result of intense exercise. Find them in oily fish, walnuts, hemp and chia seeds.
If it sounds complicated, it doesn’t have to be. The right nutrition comes down to building a solid foundation for your body to thrive, then tailoring macronutrient quantities and intake of specific nutrients to the requirements of your chosen sport and level of activity. That’s my job as a nutrition practitioner. A thorough analysis of your current health and fitness status and discussion around your personal goals will allow us to build a diet and lifestyle plan tailored to you as an individual, while addressing any underlying symptoms or root causes which may be hampering your performance.
Tharrey, M. Mariotti, F. Mashchak, A. Barbillon, P. Delattre, P, Fraser, G. E. (2018), ‘Patterns of plant and animal protein intake are strongly associated with cardiovascular mortality: the Adventist Health Study-2 cohort.’ International Journal of Epidemiology, DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyy030