Imagine watching the NBA playoffs and seeing the camera pan on Tim Duncan and you see him eating a soup bowl full of pure sugar. Especially if you were a Spurs fan, would you not question the wisdom of his food choice? Or what if you were watching the Tour de France and you see the American team get on bikes that were rusted from being left outside for the past month. Would you not think they too were wasting their hard training and preparation due to their lack of care for their equipment? These may seem like extreme examples but in reality they are an analogy for what many athletes do to their bodies leading up to competition.
I am sure cyclists take great care of their bikes and Nascar racers spend enormous time and money on their cars, but if you stop and think, do we take as good of care of our body’s as we do our other equipment? For this reason, I want to share some important nutrition principles for athletes so they can perform at their best and start to understand how nutrition affects their body.
3 Key Nutrition Principles for Athletic Success
1. High blood sugar levels from processed carbohydrates and highly sweetened foods will sabotage energy and muscle rebuilding.
High sugar levels are kryptonite to athletes. When your blood sugar goes high, your body responds by releasing steel bite pro insulin to move the sugar from your blood to the cells of your body. However, when your body has to make a whole lot of insulin to do this it causes a number of bad effects to your body. We all know and have experienced the sugar crash after eating a lot of Halloween candy as a kid or enjoying a big plate of pancakes and syrup only to feel sleepy and tired an hour later. And don’t think that just candy and pancakes can do this! Did you know that one bottle of a sports drink or vitamin water can have 8 spoonfuls of sugar and one bottle of soda may have 15-20 spoonfuls of sugar? Or that a bagel or cereal may raise your blood sugar as much as a donut? There are also a number of other hormonal ramifications we need to also understand in order to appreciate how detrimental sugar can be to an athlete.
First insulin is pro inflammatory, meaning that it will make your muscles and joints even more sore and achy. Second, high levels of insulin affect a hormone called leptin that tells your brain whether it should use the food you are eating for energy or store it as fat. Whether you are an athlete or not, who does not want their food to give them energy? No one wants it to be stored as fat and, for an athlete, this hormonal switch has a huge affect on performance. And last but not least, high insulin levels inhibit the release of human growth hormone at night. Human growth hormone not only helps growing teenagers, but it also repairs the damage our muscles, tendons and joints suffered during our training that day. Without this necessary repair how are we going to rebuild our muscles through training to be bigger, stronger, and more efficient?
So how do you avoid these high sugar levels? Avoid processed carbohydrates, i.e. anything with flour in it. Almost all the cereals, breakfast bars, crackers, and breads will cause sugar levels to sky rocket in most people. Think of each particle of flour as little tiny sugar bomb waiting to explode once digested. Instead, start incorporating whole grains into your diet like brown rice, quinoa, steel cut oatmeal, and farro just to name a few options. For bread, I recommend spouted grain brain (common example Ezekiel bread) which is not made with flour and is much less likely to cause sugar spikes. I do recommend toasting it when you first try it as the texture is different. Whole grains are like extended release carbohydrates which will slowly be broken down in your body leading to a steady rise in blood sugar. This will very effectively restore your muscle energy stores and allow your body to hormonally function as it should using your food for energy.
2. Athletes need over 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day to prevent oxidative damage to muscles.
I know this may seem like a lot but athletes in particular need to make a change in how they think about their meals from being focused on meat and potatoes to being focused on anti-oxidant consumption. Any time energy is created there is a waste by product. Think of smoke from a coal factory or oil refinery, or smoke from a fire in our fireplace. In our bodies when we use oxygen for energy the by product is an oxygen free radical (basically a little terrorist that likes to damage our muscles and soft tissues unless it is neutralized). To visualize this, think of an apple that had a bite taken out of it and then is left on the counter. In a little while the exposed apple will turn brown and become very unappetizing. If instead, someone where to put lemon juice on the exposed apple flesh, you will find it will take a long time before the apple turns brown. This is due to the antioxidant in lemon juice, vitamin C, which neutralizes the oxidation process that turns the apple brown. So in a sense you can visualize that if you don’t eat your vegetables and fruit your muscles will also rot, just like the bitten apple without the lemon juice. Remember athletes need more antioxidant’s than non-athletes because you are using more oxygen for energy as you are more active.
This means every meal should include at least 50% of your plate with fruits and vegetables and by then end of the day you should eat more vegetables than fruit. Eat the rainbow, meaning eat all main colors (blue/purple, green, red and yellow/orange) daily to make sure you consume antioxidants from each of these main groups. Each color represents a different antioxidant mechanism, like our military which has a navy, air force, army and marines. Eating only one color group will leave your body’s defenses weak just like if our military only had a navy with no air force or army. I realize this can be a challenge, particularly at breakfast, so take some time to plan out your meals and don’t be afraid to think outside the box when coming up with delicious ways to add fruits and vegetables to your diet.