Nutrition isn't rocket science; nor should it be. Food is one of the few things in life that are relevant to everyone. We start being nourished in the womb, long before we were born, and continue fuelling our bodies (or having our bodies fuelled for us), until we die. Something as essential and far-reaching as nutrition shouldn't be complicated. It should be as simple as pulling up at the pumps, putting in the right fuel, and speeding off with ourselves.
Unfortunately, sports nutrition is often portrayed as a series of complicated equations consisting of big words, expensive foods, and all conquering nutritional supplements. And there's a whole array of misinformation, misinterpretation of information and seemingly contradictory advice out there. Where did it all go so wrong?
I've been eating for 34 years, and running for almost as long. I've never had a protein shake in my life, nor have I ever been on a diet. Food for me is simple, and these are my simple guidelines to good nutrition for athletes:
Variety is the spice of life
The best way to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that you need is to eat a good variety of foods. Some foods are high in fibre, while others are high in calcium and zinc. Plant foods will be higher in water soluble vitamins, than will iron-rich meat produce. Eating foods from all categories of the food pyramid (fruit and vegetables, cereals and carbohydrate-rich foods, calcium-rich foods, protein-rich foods and healthy fats) is a good start, but foods will even vary in nutritional content within food groups. Some fruit will be high in vitamin C, while others will be high in vitamin A. Choosing different coloured fruit and vegetables will help cover all bases, and eating a variety of protein foods will ensure that all essential amino acids are being consumed.
Individuals with food allergies (lactose or wheat intolerance), or who restrict their diet (e.g. vegetarians), need to be extra careful to ensure that their diet otherwise varied.
Fresh is best
The less processed a food is, and the more it looks like itself, the better it is for you. Smoothies are preferable to fruit juices because they retain the fibre-rich skin and pith of the fruit; and a poached fillet of cod is better than a deep fried piece of battered cod. Processed food tends to be low in vitamins and fibre, high in salt, sugar and fat, and may also contain harmful additives such as artificial colours, sweeteners, and trans fats.
Foods with three or less ingredients are likely to be less processed (and less harmful) than those with a long list of ingredients. Take a look at the ingredient list for Wheetabix compared with that for Coco Pops. Use by date is also a good indicator. Natural yoghurt will go off much quicker than the nasty highly sweetened versions that have little probiotic versions, which would quite happily sit in the corner of your fridge for weeks on end.
A good start is half the battle
Breakfast, they say, is the most important meal of the day. I would argue that all meals are important, and none should be skipped, but getting your day off to the right start is definitely a good thing. An ideal breakfast for many people would consist of a slow release breakfast cereal – eg Wheetabix , Shredded Wheat or porridge, rather than the high sugar options of Coco Pops or Frosties; toast and some fruit or a smoothie.
Those who have high protein needs may add some eggs, but there’s no need for a high-fat fry up, which apart from the egg and beans, contains low quality proteins.
Slow release carbohydrates should sustain you through to lunch time, and reduce the desire for a junk food pick-me-up mid morning. Of course, if you’re training hard, you will probably need a snack before lunch, so plan for this and have healthy options at hand.
Carbohydrates are fuel; proteins are the building blocks
Despite what you might hear in the media, all food groups (even fats) are important. Carbohydrates have been getting a bashing recently, but carbohydrates are THE single most important fuel source for athletes. Even simple sugars have their place in the balance diet of the athlete. We’ll deal with each food group in more detail over coming weeks, but suffice to say, athletes should not be restricting their carbohydrate intake.
Similarly, proteins are needed by all athletes, even those who are not looking to increase their muscle mass. Body tissues are constantly being broken down and rebuilt, and this process is exacerbated when we train. Modern diets tend to be high in protein, and most individuals consume more protein that they need. Many foods which are high in protein are also high in fat (e.g. hard cheese), and despite what you might hear, extra protein can be stored as fat.
The 10 minute window of opportunity
If there is a meal more important than breakfast it’s definitely the post exercise snack. Food of some description should be consumed within 10 minutes of completing exercise. A chocolate bar is better than nothing, but as always there are better options. You are aiming to replenish glycogen stores and blood sugar levels by consuming carbohydrates; enhance muscle repair through the consumption of protein; and prevent illness by consuming vitamins. A chocolate bar will achieve some, but not all of that. Post training nutrition will be covered at a later date.
Water is life
Don’t forget the water. Our bodies cannot survive without water, and dehydration can cause a range of issues including irritability, headaches, poor concentration and injury. We should be consuming at least 2 litres of fluids every day. Carry a bottle of water with you at all times, and if you find that you have trouble consuming enough, add a small amount of squash.
We’re athletes, not dieters
True, athletes tend to be lean, and muscle mass is preferable to fat when trying to float around the track, but no athlete should be restricting their intake of food. As such, information in the ‘diet’ industry often doesn’t apply to athletes (and I would argue, shouldn't apply to those who are not active either, but that’s a debate for another day).
As I mentioned previously, carbohydrates are the best source of fuel for an athlete. Sportspeople should not restrict their carbohydrate intake. Any short-term weight loss that occurs as a result of reduced carbohydrate intake is purely fluid loss (not a good thing), and will leave the muscles less capable of storing glycogen (definitely not good news for an athlete). Additionally, starving the body will result in reduced metabolism, and may actually result in weight gain.
Over the years, people have often asked me if I’m on a special diet for my sport. They almost seem disappointed when I say I’m not. True, I eat well, but just like my training, I see that as a choice, not a sacrifice. I like good food, and feel much better after a big plate of pasta and vegetables than I do after a greasy bag of chips.
Enjoy your food!