Nutrition in sports is a widely debated topic these days among expert nutritionists and dieticians. Everyone seems to hold their own view on what the best way to eat is in order to become stronger and fitter.
I, personally believe that as an athlete or any other type of sportsperson the crux of your diet should be protein. If there is one thing your diet should not neglect whether you are a vegetarian, vegan or follow another specific diet, it is protein.
Importance of protein
Proteins are the building blocks of the body. Around 50% of our bone structure is made up of protein and a substantial amount is used in building muscle. Therefore I always make it a point to try and have a large portion of protein with each meal every day to prevent muscle catabolism and encourage muscle growth.
Our bodies can handle quite large amounts of protein and there is little risk of damage to our kidneys unless you have kidney disease in which case I recommend you stick to the lower end of the scale when it comes to protein and check if it is safe for you to up your intake.
If you eat more protein than you need, don’t worry, it will either be stored in your fat cells as energy (not necessarily a bad thing) or converted into glucose via gluconeogenesis which will aim to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Importance of fats
Fats play an important role in energy storage. They allow us to survive if we don’t eat enough food. Fat is the key reason we are still alive today
because when we were too cold we could burn fat for energy and when food was in abundance we would eat more than necessary and store it in our bodies.
Fats are necessary for transporting essential fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) around our body and monounsaturated fats have been shown to make our mitochondria function better, support our immune system and are a sustainable source of energy we can rely upon.
Hydration is critical
Water is the one thing that we must always aim to consume. We can go without food for several weeks and function (particularly if we have trained ourselves) but without water we will struggle to survive for more than a few days.
Water acts as a coolant in our body when we are exercising. As our body temperature rises, we begin to sweat to cool ourselves down allowing us to continue to run efficiently.
45% – 65% of our body is made up of water so it’s vital for functioning. Even a slight shift in the body’s fluid balance can cause a significant decrease in running performance.
Sweating accounts for over 90% loss in water during a run and studies have observed that a 1% loss of water in bodyweight equates to a 2% drop in performance. As a rule try not to lose more than 2% bodyweight in water.
Don’t wait until you’re thirsty either, by then you’re already dehydrated and your performance will suffer. These effects are much more pronounced for longer events, so sip regularly on water and don’t overhydrate either. This can cause the concentration of sodium in your body (yes salt in suitable amounts according to your activity is good for performance) to become so low causing disorientation, muscle weakness and nausea.
Eat how many carbs?
It is drilled into our heads as runners that we need to eat loads of carbohydrates, but how many do we really need?
The majority of us are eating far more than necessary, and I’m talking about the general population here. Carbohydrates are used for energy and most people live sedentary lifestyles which do not require anywhere near as many carbs as they think they need.
Lots of carbohydrates cause blood sugar levels to rise and insulin levels to spike. Insulin directs the glucose to muscle and liver cells to store the glucose. And guess what if you’re not active? The glucose is sent directly to fat cells to be stored as fats.
The sharp spike in blood sugar causes the typical sugar crash that people experience in the afternoon between lunch and dinner when our blood sugar levels dive down which is why many of us crave a sugary snack during this time.
By limiting your carbs, you can train your body to use fat as a primary source of energy (very useful for running marathons) and this will mean your blood sugar levels will not spike causing insulin levels to spike.
Converting protein and fat into glycogen
Back to my point on protein above, your body can help keep blood sugar levels stable by converting excess protein into glucose via gluconeogenesis which is why I don’t worry about having a high protein intake and a lower carb intake.
If it gets to the point where you’re feeling lethargic and are struggling to complete your workout after restricting carbs, then you probably need to eat more or stick at it for 2 weeks or so to let your body adapt.
When it comes to carb timing, I typically aim to eat the majority of my carbs (usually starchy vegetables or fruit) before training and usually have some fruit after to replenish glycogen stores.
Unless you are training hard twice a day, you don’t need to worry much about eating carbs to sustain performance because 24 hours is enough time for your body to utilise the fat in your fat cells and break it down into glucose which can be converted into glycogen. This typically happens when carbohydrate levels are depleted, so this is a good way to lose fat.
Based on this I try to eat lots of protein, an ample amount of fats and a low amount of carbs.
I try to emphasise protein and healthy fats in my diet more than carbohydrates due to the structural role protein plays in our body.
If you are an athlete or someone who expends a fair amount of energy then carbohydrates are good to eat – don’t neglect them entirely as they do play a role in the regulation of hormones and too little can leave you feeling lethargic. However, try to eat natural, unprocessed sources of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes instead of bread or crisps as this will cause insulin levels to rise slowly – not spike, which will help avoid a sugar crash and keep blood sugar levels stable.
What are your thoughts and how do you eat?