Nutrition for Athletes
The secret to using food to fuel performance is actually quite simple: Choose a plate that is rich in colorful produce, high-quality whole grain carbohydrates and lean protein.
Fruits and vegetables contain powerful, colorful phytonutrients
Did you know there are more than 3,000 known phytonutrients that occur naturally in plant foods? These nutritional powerhouses create complex biochemical reactions and positive, healing effects in the body that simply cannot be duplicated in a pill.
Phytonutrients are food nutrients that are not vitamins or minerals. They provide valuable weapons for the prevention of chronic illnesses and possibly in the treatment of disease.
The orange in the carrot
Look to the many colors in fruits and vegetables for clues to their phytonutrients. For example, there are approximately 600 carotenoids in nature. The one most commonly known is beta carotene, the orange pigment found in carrots. Of the 600 carotenoids, four have vitamin A activity. Two other important carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, act as antioxidants in protecting the eye.
Supplements often miss the point
Rather than eat real food, the American strategy has been to isolate the potential “active” ingredient, and put it in a pill. In the case of the carotenoids, this has proven to be a potentially dangerous choice. A recent analysis of 68 research studies on beta carotene showed that no significant benefit was found in taking this isolated carotenoid, and in smokers, beta carotene caused harm. This is most likely because beta carotene does not occur alone in a food but rather as part of a nutrient-rich mix of chemicals that react certain ways in the healthy human body.
So rather than take a supplement, choose carotenoid-rich foods such as carrots, mango, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Blueberries are another great example. As a source of vitamin C (14 mg) and potassium (112 mg) there are better sources of both those nutrients in oranges and bananas. However, it is the anthocyanins that give blueberries their super powers. Blueberries have been shown to reduce muscle soreness after exercise. So choose from the colors of the rainbow, and recognize that each color gives unique health-promoting benefits.
Magnesium-rich whole grain carbohydrates
The secret is whole grain. Whole grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal and 100 percent whole wheat bread are examples of the type of high-fiber, high-nutrition grains that should make up one-quarter of your plate. Eating fiber-rich carbohydrates makes you feel full and may aid in weight reduction.
Whole grain foods are also a hidden source of magnesium. However, when grains are refined or processed, the magnesium-rich bran is lost. Magnesium is required in more than 300 biochemical reactions, including the production of energy, muscular function and normal immune functioning.
Although the research is not clear, there is some potential benefit on performance when magnesium intake is adequate. In addition to performance improvement, magnesium is linked to the prevention of metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes.
The key is lean
Lean protein should be approximately one-quarter of your plate. Typically, Americans grab a quick breakfast like a bagel, muffin or a bowl of cereal. But new research shows that protein should be consumed at each meal for optimal performance benefit. Breakfast protein choices can include Greek yogurt, egg whites, Canadian bacon or a peanut butter sandwich.
The key is choosing lean meats throughout the day. Most meats contain saturated fat, which should be limited to reduce the risks of high blood cholesterol. Look for the words “loin” or “round” in the name. Fish, and chicken without the skin, are excellent sources of lean protein.
The right mix to build muscle mass
Many athletes believe they just need to eat more protein to gain lean mass. In reality, carbohydrate calories and fat help guard dietary protein. When carbohydrate intake is inadequate, protein can be processed by the liver with a portion being converted to carbohydrate. Adequate carbohydrate fueling spares the protein so that it’s available to make lean mass. In addition to a high quality diet, athletes need an evidence-based, high-intensity strength training program to gain muscle mass.
So, the next time an athlete wants to try the latest supplement, remind them that the real power is on the plate!