If you are an athlete ,recreational or competitive, whether your ultimate goal is to lose or gain weight ,live a healthier lifestyle, or increase your performance, it is necessary to do several things. Being more active, making better lifestyle choices like getting more sleep or sitting down less, and lastly modifying or adapting your nutrition to fit your needs whatever they might be. Of these necessities I feel that nutrition is often the most misunderstood and neglected. With all of the fad diets and the plethora of misinformation that exists regarding the topic it’s understandable as to why this might be.
The reason many people struggle with the nutritional component of fitness is most people lack the basics of what nutrition is, its purpose, and how to implement it into their daily lives. Nutrition is defined as the process of taking in food and using it for growth, metabolism, and repair. These processes of growth, metabolism, and repair occur by way of receiving the two major components of food, macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients provide the body with fuel/energy by way of calories. These caloric providing components of our foods are split into three categories carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Carbs over the past few years have gotten a very bad reputation, again I attribute this to the mounds of misinformation that exists. Carbohydrates are broken into two categories:
Simple: These carbohydrates are made of one or two sugar molecules that are rapidly digested. They can be found in certain fruits and vegetables, dairy products, bleached grains, and sugars.
Complex: These carbohydrates are strung together in long chains that are slowly digested. Carbohydrates that fit into this category are often high in starch and fiber. They can be found in green vegetables, foods with whole grains, starchy vegetables, and beans/lentils.
Carbohydrates regardless of their reputation play a key role within the body.This macronutrient is responsible for 4 major roles within the body:
1-2.) Providing energy to the body/regulating blood glucose
When carbohydrates are broken down they form a substance called glucose. Glucose is the only sugar used by the body to provide energy for its tissues. Because of the importance of maintaining proper cellular function throughout the body, blood glucose levels must be at a constant level. Blood glucose levels are controlled by way of the pancreas producing insulin to decrease blood sugar concentrations so the body may absorb the glucose into its cells. This allows the body to store fat instead of using it for energy. The pancreas also secretes a substance called glucagon that increases blood sugar concentrations when glucose levels drop too low. Because the body can only use so much glucose at a given time insulin production and glucagon production are vital to maintaining one’s overall health and maintaining appropriate energy levels.
2-4.)Store glucose/Prevent usage of proteins and fats
When there is a surplus of glucose it gets stored within the liver as glycogen. In the absence of carbohydrates the liver only stores enough glycogen for a 24-hour period. Once the storage of glucose is used up, the body begins breaking down fat to provide the body with fuel . Because some of these compounds are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier to allow proper nutrients to the brain various body tissues are broken down to fuel the brain. This use of bodies tissues essentially deteriorates its muscles and other tissues to keep the brain from “dying”. Overtime this can be very dangerous to ones health.
Because of the effects carbohydrates have on blood sugar, foods either rate high or low on the glycemic index, a ranking system from 1-100 on how they affect blood-sugar levels. The higher the number a food rates on the glycemic index the quicker blood sugar levels will rise versus the lower rated foods that don’t raise blood sugars too quickly. This is why certain foods can effectively provide quick immediate energy or provide long steady amounts of energy. Regardless of what your goals are in fitness, you need carbs.
Proteins are large, complex molecules that are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units called amino acids, which are attached to one another in long chains. Proteins play a variety of critical roles in the body including:
1.) Catalyzing metabolic reactions
Example: Structural components- proteins provide structure and support for cells. On a larger scale, they also allow the body to move.
2.) DNA replication
Example: Enzymes – carry out almost all of the thousands of chemical reactions that take place in cells. They also assist with the formation of new molecules by reading the genetic information stored in DNA.
3.) Responding to stimuli
Example: Antibodies – bind to specific foreign particles, such as viruses and bacteria, to help protect the body.
4.) Transporting molecules from one location to another.
Example: Transport/storage- These proteins bind and carry atoms and small molecules within cells and throughout the body
Fat is another macronutrient that has gotten a bad reputation as well over the years. In all actuality fat is a part of a well rounded diet. The issue of fat lies between what type of fat you are ingesting regularly. There are four types of fats:
Saturated: Chemically saturated fats have no double bounds because they are saturated with hydrogen. This is the “bad” fat that is often solid at room temperature that raises the bad cholesterol LDL and lowers the good cholesterol HDL. This fat is typically found in beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, lard, butter, cheese, and dairy products made from whole or 2% milk.
Trans fat: This group of fats can either be found naturally inside the stomachs of animals or artificially by companies adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid. This is another fat that raises bad cholesterol LDL and lowers the good cholesterol HDL. Most processed foods have trans fats inside them.
Monounsaturated fat: Chemically these fats have what’s called a double bond of on unsaturated carbon molecule. Eaten in moderation play a role in lowering bad cholesterol LDL. Monounsaturated fats can be found in sesame oils, safflower oils, peanut oil, canola oil, olive oils, and various nuts and seeds.
Polysaturated fat: From a chemical standpoint these fats have what’s called a double bond of multiple unsaturated carbon molecules . When eaten in moderation they can lower bad cholesterol LDL and provide the body with fatty acids that it otherwise cannot make. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in soybean oils, corn oils, sunflower oils, olive oils, and certain fish
Knowing that there are both “good” and “bad” fats it’s impossible to lump them together. The “good” fats are a a necessity to a well rounded diet. Fat plays several important roles in the body:
Although carbohydrates provide the primary source for fuel within the body, fat is the back-up energy system when carbohydrates are not available. This can come into play during high intensity exercise or in emergency situations for instance in trauma where your carbohydrate stores are used up and the body must rely on fat to fuel itself.
Vitamin Absorption and Storage
Certain vitamins (A,D,E, and K) require fat to be absorbed appropriately into the body. Without fats your will be unable to meet the requirements needed to process these vitamins which can lead to deficiencies. Vitamins A,D,E,and K play a role in eye sight, maintaining bone density, blood clotting, eliminating cancer causing free radicals, and affecting mood.
To sustain a normal core body temperature fat cells that are stored in adipose tissue plays a role in providing the insulation necessary to do that. Insulation also comes in the form of protecting the organs during sudden movements or outside impacts.
Micronutrients are dietary components, often referred to as vitamins and minerals. These complexes differ from macronutrients in the sense that they are required by the body in smaller amounts. Although required in smaller amounts they still are vital to development, disease prevention, and wellbeing. Micronutrients are also not produced in the body thus they must be acquired through a proper diet.
Okay now that we’ve gotten that over with…….
It is important to understand how all of the above information factors in to living a healthier lifestyle and increasing performance. This involves; Re-evaluation the basis of our nutritional goals, looking at calorie counting differently, understanding why timing is important, why hydration is important, and how eating naturally more often will aid in your efforts toward living healthier and increasing your performance.
Re-evaluating the Basis of Our Nutritional Goals
Most peoples’ goals, in terms of their weight, revolve around three basic ideas; weight maintenance, weight gain, and the most popular weight loss. While there is nothing wrong with any of these goals, this makes it easy to get distracted from the real reasons we eat. At its most basic concept the primary role of eating is to live. Simply put, eating food provides the body with fuel. Without the proper types of fuel in our bodies, the “machine” doesn’t run properly. When we eat we are not merely satisfying our hunger to gain energy. Our body as a whole is being fed, every living cell in our body and every physiological process that occurs within our body is getting fueled by what we ingest/digest. Looking at it from that perspective a few examples of what our food “Feeds” includes:
Creation/Maintenance of Cells
Anything that contains a cell within our body requires growth and maintenance (skin, hair, eyes, organs, muscles, tendons, bones, nerves, the brain) to name a few. Over time, whether daily, weekly, or monthly, our bodies are constantly breaking down and rebuilding. Without the appropriate “building blocks” our bodies will create the aforementioned structures poorly. Our bodies may even borrow materials from itself to bridge the gaps between the building blocks if necessary. Dietary deficits can even be noticed in the appearance of tissues like eyes,hair, nails, tongue, and skin for example.
Hormones are essentially tiny chemical messengers inside of your body. Different hormones perform specific roles inside of your body. Hormones also “act” differently, some quickly to start or stop a process, while others continually work over the course of a long period of time to perform their respective task. These jobs can include the body’s growth and development, metabolism (or production of energy), sexual function and reproduction. The effects of various holes in your diet can be evident by how it affects different parts of your body such as; acne/skin breakouts, frequent headaches, weight gain/inability to lose weight, decreased libido, irritability, and many other factors affected by diet.
Building/Maintaining Healthy Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are basically chemical messengers that transmit signals across neurons. Neurotransmitters are important because they “excite” and activate the brain and its various sections as well as “excite” and activate muscles. The building blocks to sustain these particular chemicals can all be found within a solid foundation of a well balanced diet. When neurotransmitters aren’t doing their jobs it can affect; mood, memory and learning, alertness, appetite control, and muscle contractions, to name a few things.
If there are gaps in your diet the body can’t have the best “building materials” to maintain healthy cells, and physiological processes. When the approach is taken of using food to live many of the goals you set for yourself will be met naturally.
Re-evaluate Calorie Counting
Calorie counting has become a staple amongst a majority of people who are looking to reach a fitness goal.Why? In my opinion, it is because we are living in the age of tracking EVERYTHING. We track our steps, activity, food, and even our sleep. Because of the quantitative approach society has adapted we have lost the most important component of any concept, including nutrition, which is QUALITY. Anyone who has ever trained with me has heard me preach “quality, quality, quality…!” time and time again. This is with good reason, as it translates so well into nutrition. For example, 2,000 calories eaten at McDonald’s does not equal 2,000 calories of home cooked/prepared meals and snacks.
When the quality of the food is taken into account, the quality of the results will show. Depending on the type of diet that you are on can affect an individual in a number of ways. Some research has shown that in the case of a high protein diet, participants of that study gained weight as a 50/50 mixture of fat and muscle while a low protein diet revealed mostly fat (90%) was gained while muscle was lost. Other research showed participants on low fat diets burn fewer calories while changing certain metabolic factors that predicted weight regain, low-carb diets burn more calories but increase markers within the body related to stress and inflammation, and low-glycemic diets burn calories without some of side effects of the previously mentioned diet choices. Does this mean automatically switch your diet to low-glycemic choices, NO. That is a decision that needs to be made between you and an appropriate professional. However, the information suggests quality matters, if quantity is the only factor taken into account not only will goals not be met but it can be really unhealthy.
When performance is taken into account in reference to the quality of caloric intake, it can make or break an athlete regardless of weekend warrior status or the most elite. Throughout the length of a year or a season there must be a delicate balance of breakdown, recovery, and maintenance. Without the appropriate nutritional choices the recovery and maintenance portions that should occur can be reduced significantly especially if the previously mentioned dietary factors play in (increased stress hormones, increased inflammatory hormones, and decreased muscle mass). Not only will performance suffer but injuries can occur more frequently without the proper rebuilding materials .
Timing is Everything
While quality of foods is often missed, the timing in which we eat our foods plays a major role as well. Time can affect a number of factors that can lead to gaining results or wasting time. The first key to success is breakfast, by eating within an hour of waking up in the morning insulin and blood sugar levels can be regulated and jump starting the bodies metabolism. They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and it’s true. By eating within the first hour of waking up it will help regulate insulin and blood sugar levels to start the day as well as give the metabolism a jumpstart. 3-4 hours after breakfast It’s appropriate to eat a meal to keep your metabolism going and maintain a regular blood glucose level.
Most people are typically working or are in class around those times, so packing a snack will help. It’s important to not skip a meal as this is when the bodies insulin and blood glucose levels change and energy levels suffer. By waiting until lunch time or dinner it can affect the bodies metabolism negatively. Because the body is always searching for ways to “survive” by depriving it of the appropriate nutrients at the appropriate times it will hold on to different nutrients and use the bodies nutrients as a fuel source.
As it gets closer to the time to workout or practice, timing is even more crucial as it is important that within 1-2 hours prior to exercise to consume foods with carbohydrates and protein so that the body does not need to rely on the glycogen (energy reserves) it has stored “in case of emergency”. This will allow for a better workout/performance due to having energy readily available from food versus relying on the bodies back-up storage. After a workout,practice, or game it’s critical to eat within 45 minutes. By doing this you:
1.) Stop the catabolic processes (breaking down) and initiate the anabolic processes (building up) thus allowing faster recovery and minimizing soreness
2.) Speed up the process of eliminating the waste products of exercise from your muscles and blood stream
3.) Replenish the bodies stored glycogen (energy reserves)
4.) Reduce muscle damage and promote muscle growth
5.) Bolster the immune system
To keep the bodies ability to maintain the anabolic state that it is in, it is suggested that eating 4 hours after the workout is important. For the next 14-16 hours keeping a well rounded diet will promote synthesis of protein within the body’s tissues and muscle growth. It is also important to note that if you go to bed late it is still necessary to eat, as you are still using calories by being awake, and sleeping still burns calories (not as many as being awake) so refraining from eating only reiterates the detriments of not eating that were previously discussed.
Hydration is Nutrition Too!
Just as it is important to understand eating healthy yields amazing results, drinking healthy does just the same. Before you go and reach for that sports drink or energy drink thinking it is going to rehydrate you think about this. Most of those sports drinks and energy drinks are diuretics, they make you eliminate water through urination more frequently dehydrating you. In small amounts there is nothing wrong with sports drinks or combining sports drinks while hydrating with water simultaneously. Alone it is only hurting the performance most people are desperately seeking.
It only makes sense to drink water. With the body being roughly about 60% water (the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, the lungs are about 83% water, skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are 31% water). Water isn’t only limited to our basic make-up it also plays a vital role in our bodies processes as well; it regulates our internal body temperature through sweating, carbohydrates and proteins are metabolized and transported by water in the bloodstream, it assists in flushing waste mainly through urination, it acts as a shock absorber for brain, spinal cord, and fetus, forms saliva, and lubricates our joints. Something as small as a 2% decrease in our body can cause slight brain shrinkage that can impair neuromuscular coordination, decrease concentration, and slow thinking. This also affects the body by causing cramps, reducing endurance, decreasing strength/power, and decrease the conductivity of our muscles ability to fire.
Just like dehydration has its pitfalls so does overhydrating. Overhydrating has become a more recent phenomenon as some people drink water excessively to overcompensate for dehydration. This can lead Hyponatremia, a condition in which the bodies sodium levels drop dangerously low. Hyponatremia at its least severity can have symptoms of; Nausea and vomiting headache, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, appetite loss, restlessness and irritability, muscle weakness, and spasms or cramps. At its most sever it can cause; seizures, decreased consciousness, coma, and even death. Understanding that the body is about balance helps to eliminate/decrease the likelihood that dehydration or over hydration will affect your overall health and performance.
Eat Real Food
I saved this topic for last as the above topics only matter as much as long as this last one is taken into consideration. It’s the simple suggestion of trying to eat real food more often. No, I’m not suggesting that the food you are eating is imaginary. However, take into account how processed and preserved is the food that you are eating regularly. If a majority of the food you consume is already pre-packaged, frozen, or full of artificial dyes, then this applies to you.
Without throwing out a list of preservatives and their ill effects I think it’s critical to consider a simple notion, the guilty pleasures we enjoy that contain artificial substances that make our food last longer and taste better were primarily designed for short-term preservation and minimal consumption. Nowadays foods are able to stay on the shelf much longer and most American diets contain a majority of these types of foods. With that being said, isn’t it weird that high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, ADHD, and obesity are at a all time high? Something like type II diabetes that was seen as a condition that affected adults is now affecting children. 30 years ago that would be unheard of, just some food for thought.
I’ll get off of my soap box now and appeal to the performance side of those reading this article. Many of the artificial substances that go into processed foods are full of saturated and trans fats, simple carbohydrates, are diuretics, and rank very high on the glycemic index. Pardon the pun but any of those combinations caloric content equal a recipe for disaster. Mixing high blood sugar levels, dehydration, affected pulse/heart rate, and weight fluctuations is no way for any athletic or fitness minded person to find success. In order to have a high level of performance it’s virtually impossible when real food isn’t being consumed. Besides the ill effects of artificial substances, without real food certain macro/micronutrients cannot be obtained in a diet full of pre-packaged/frozen meals. Ignoring the importance of a well-rounded diet will only translate in a decrease in performance.
Audric R. Warren