One of the key differences between athletes and the general public is the approach to food. Unlike our ancestors, many people in the general public consume food with the goal of attaining a certain physique or physical aesthetic. All these diets, nutrition programs, fasting regimes etc. market themselves by tugging on the consumers’ emotional desire to look a certain way. Athletes and active people’s perceptions are more in line with our ancestors in that food is seen as a source of fuel to propel the body forward. The functionality of the physical form takes precedence over the physical aesthetics. Protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins work in synergy to enhance the performance of the body. It is important to have a general understanding of the different nutritional groups:
Protein is a compound that builds and repairs body tissues. It is also involved in many of the body’s chemical processes. Protein is made up of smaller units called amino acids, some of which are essential and cannot be made by the body and need to be consumed through food. Animal- derived protein from eggs, dairy products, and meat is considered complete because it contains all the essential amino acids. Plant- derived protein comes from nuts, grains, and legumes, but lacks one or more of the essential amino acids.
Carbohydrate is an energy- providing organic compound that is broken down by the body to produce glucose. The glucose then can immediately be used as fuel, or it may make its way to the liver and muscles (where it is stored as glycogen) and to fat cells (where it is stored as fat). The storage in fat cells is why many of these diet fads emphasize a low carbohydrate body. In addition to this, starch and sugar are the major forms of carbohydrates. Foods such as grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits that contain starch and naturally occurring sugar are referred to as complex carbohydrates because the body must break them down into simpler forms to obtain glucose. In contrast, simple sugar, refined from naturally occurring sugar and added to foods, requires little digestion and is quickly absorbed by the body.
Fats consist of fatty acids attached to a substance called glycerol. Fat is the most concentrated energy-producing nutrient. Fat also plays a role in the body’s chemical processes. Dietary fat is classified as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated, according to the structure of its fatty acids. Animal- derived fat is high in saturated fat. Plant- derived fat is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. A high intake of saturated fat is considered unhealthy.
Minerals are tiny amounts of elements that are vital for the healthy growth of teeth and bones. They also facilitate the body’s chemical processes. Mineral nutrients are classified as 1) major elements such as calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulfur, and 2) trace elements such as chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, selenium, and zinc.
Vitamins are organic substances needed for normal metabolism that cannot be synthesized by the body in adequate amounts. Vitamins are classified as fat- soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) that are absorbed and can be stored in the body so they do not need to be consumed every day to meet the body’s need, or water- soluble (vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, and folic acid) which cannot be stored in adequate amounts and need to be eaten daily to meet the body’s needs.
In addition to these nutritional substances, fiber and water are also essential to the body. Although fiber gives no energy or building material, it is vital for good health by providing proper digestive function. Sufficient water intake is crucial for maintaining efficiency in all bodily functions, and has a dramatic effect on performance. A 1 percent reduction in body weight due to dehydration leads to an average 6 percent decline in performance. It is important to focus on hydration before a workout even begins. However, it is possible to overhydrate. Hyponatremia is a dangerous condition in which extreme water intake flushes out the sodium stores in the body, leading to muscle and cardiac issues. This is a very rare phenomenon and most athletes and active people perform in an under-hydrated state.
Choosing and balancing from the four traditional food groups of dairy, meat, grains, and fruits and vegetables, is a simple and effective way to meet general nutritional needs. There is a trend in many fitness circles of “meal prepping”, in which a person may cook an abundance of food and eat the same meal for several days straight. Again, this form of eating is for aesthetics. For athletes and active people, the healthiest diet is a balanced diet. Eating different daily meals and pulling nutrients from different substances is the recommended approach. For instance, Monday’s meal may consists of steak, broccoli, and potatoes. Tuesday’s meal may have fish, rice, and asparagus. Wednesday will have baked chicken, pasta, and a salad. Etc. Eating a variety of foods improves nutrition and enhances immune system function.
Excessive amounts of highly processed and refined foods such as sugar, oils, and flour should be avoided. In general, athletes in training should aim for a target of 70 percent of their calories come from carbohydrates, 15 percent from protein, and 15 percent from fat. After a workout, 50 grams of carbohydrate should be consumed within 30 minutes of a training session to maximize glycogen resynthesis in the muscles. Simply cooked meals and raw foods are nutritionally superior to complex preparations. Whole foods that come directly from the earth are more desired over boxed and frozen foods. For athletes, eating several small meals throughout the day is recommended. Furthermore, eating breakfast is extremely important and the morning meal should contain some protein- rich food.
All in all, nutrition is key in assisting performance, and in general longevity. Avoid the gimmicks, superstitions, and trends that plague the health and wellness industry. Eating for a strong functional body is more effective than eating to simply “look good”. Starving or withholding calories is never recommended. Food is fuel, and the body needs to be properly energized to function at its highest state.