The Training Table
Real Food for Real Athletes
In this article, I will address what athletes eat, and not just during training sessions or before races. There is a lot of focus on sports-specific foods and beverages (which are great during training), or a focus on the “pre-race meal,” but these represent only a small number of the calories eaten throughout the day. What we eat every day, meal after meal, around those training sessions and races is what really fuels us, and sometimes we are not as mindful about what we eat for meals as we could be. What we put on the table and in our bodies is critical to both our athletic success as well as our well being, and what I like to call “Real Food” forms a strong foundation for both.
One common pitfall we all fall into is too much focus on specific nutrients, and too little focus on whole foods. Today’s market is full of supplements containing specific nutrients and extracts, and what are called “functional foods”- processed foods that have high amounts of specific nutrients added to them so that the manufacturer can have health claims in big letters displayed on the front. But we don’t eat just nutrients- we eat food. I define “Real Food” as food in as natural a state as possible: fresh fruits and vegetables; fresh-cooked meat, poultry, and seafood; whole grains and whole-grain products; dairy products with few extra additives; nuts and seeds; healthy oils from one single source.
As you might have guessed, my passion is food and my intention is to impart my appreciation for food throughout my articles. I recently read an extremely interesting article in the New York Times about the rise of ‘Nutritionism,’ as the author termed it, that I think is very relevant to my “mission” as a nutritionist. Michael Pollan defines ‘Nutritionism’ as the assumption that “the key to understanding food is … the nutrient.” In other words, any food is only as important as the sum of its parts. This is how nutrition is studied and communicated in our culture, and this is exactly the problem I hope to point out as well. This view has come with the advent of processed food over the past 50 years.
When we walk down any given aisle in the middle of the grocery store, we are bombarded with labels that shout claims about fiber, whole grains, fat content, and micronutrient content (especially calcium). For almost all these foods, the component being highlighted has been added to the product through processing and therefore is not naturally occurring in the ingredients. But these claims may entice us to purchase a product without thinking about the other ingredients in this product, such as fat, sugar, or salt. Most of these nutrients can be found naturally in other foods that we commonly eat, such as fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and minimally processed grains. This ‘Nutritionism’ is also evident when you stroll down the supplement aisle of your local grocery store- the array of bottles is overwhelming. But do not be fooled. Although some of these supplements may be beneficial to our health, they cannot help us overcome the effects of a poor diet.
Fruits and vegetables have been largely forgotten in this rise of ‘Nutritionism,’ largely because there is no industry praising their benefits. Hopefully they have not been forgotten in your diet, but just in case, here is another reason to give fruits and vegetables another thought - fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates. The majority of calories in an athlete’s diet should come from carbohydrates, which is hopefully not a surprise!
When we think of "carbs", we probably think of bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and cereal. These are very important carbohydrates in an athlete’s diet- they are very high in carbohydrates. But sometimes we may forget that fruits and vegetables are also carbohydrates and contribute substantially to good performance. They contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that we cannot get from any other source. These phytonutrients, as they are called, work together in the body and come in neat little packages together (i.e. fruits and vegetables), and so far science has not been able to figure out this synergy with pills as well as nature has with the actual foods. Fruits and vegetables are lower in calories than starchy carbohydrates, which can be a problem depending on your training needs and body composition. There are far fewer of us that have trouble eating enough calories, and many more of us that eat too many, so fruits and vegetables offer carbohydrates without the calorie load of starches that is very helpful for everyone. The phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables are also helpful for everyone, but especially for athletes, because they are a vital component of our antioxidant system. Athletes are exposed to higher levels of oxidative stress due to increased metabolism and oxygen consumption. (If this does not make complete sense to you, don’t worry. In one of my future articles I’ll tackle oxidative stress in more detail.) Phytonutrients are also cofactors for many of the biochemical reactions that occur every second to allow us to live and exercise, and keeping these processes going strong is vital to performance.
In this introduction to my approach to sports nutrition, my goal is to provide you with some ‘food for thought’ about your training table. You’re probably now asking, “What should I be eating?” The answer of “Real Foods” is surprisingly simple. The difficulty, however, is in the execution. But with a little planning and some knowledge about food choices, healthy eating is an attainable goal for all of us. We all have to eat, right? And for athletes this is doubly important because of high activity levels, subsequent high calorie intakes, and the metabolic stresses both of these cause. A sound nutrition plan can complement a good training program immensely! So in my next article, I will address the execution piece, starting with breakfast.
Emily Hoagland, Nutritionist (MS, RD)
Director of Nutrition for Sport and Life programs
JDS Sportcoaching, LLC
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