You are what you eat and in the ultra-competitive world of sport, key elements like diet and nutrition can give athletes the edge and the literal ingredients to win.
Sports science is leading the way forward and top footballers now pretty much watch everything they consume as they look to extend their careers longer and longer. Managers like Arsene Wenger, after moving from Nagoya Grampus Eight, lead the way when he transformed the English Premier League by simply introducing…steamed rice and vegetables, onto the menu at Highbury. In hindsight, a straightforward move but ground-breaking back then!
Globally, teams now invest hundreds of millions into Sports Science in order to bring out the best in their players.
What should athletes or anyone eat to maintain their peak fitness and competitive edge?
Expert Denise Tam has a few tips to share.
Denise Tam is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, founder of Food for Life and a two–time cancer survivor. Her life-changing battle with stage 4 cancer has inspired her to share her newfound appreciation for life by teaching and motivating others towards a more natural way of living and healing.
Denise is a member of the Canadian Association of Natural Nutritional Practitioners and a contributing author to ‘Saved by Nutrition’, an anthology of nutrition success stories. She has completed a certificate in Sports Nutrition and had provided nutritional support to Jérôme Lacorte in beating the Guinness World Record for consecutive tennis matches in a row. She has also provided advice to Wong Ho Fai, an ultra–trail runner, in his adventures around Taiwan and Japan.
Here, she takes the time to answer some questions to help people see which foods and supplements are best and suitable for them.
How has diet and nutrition for athletes changed over the decades?
“Tremendously! We now not only see nutrition as a key component to performance but also crucial lifestyle habits like sleep which has a crucial role in recovery, training and performance. Previously, athletes and their coaches would maybe only be looking at the macros like protein, carbohydrates and fat in their training regiment. It is important to understand how to use these macronutrients in different periods of training and for different outcomes, many are now including micronutrients like vitamins, isolated amino or minerals and antioxidants to enhance their athletic training. A machine, our bodies, run with much more than just the macronutrients, particularly if you want to get the most out of your body. It‘s interesting to see sports nutrition experts acknowledging this and evolving in this area.”
Sports like football are high intensity and fast. What types of foods or nutrients do you recommend footballers eat before a match?
“It actually depends on the metabolic flexibility of the athlete prior to the match, but in general, if we‘re talking about several hours before a match, faster burning healthy carbohydrates like whole-wheat bread, sweet potatoes and bananas, have a nice balance of fibre and carbohydrates that can help bring a footballer through the longer period of performance on the field.
I would also add in healthy fats like Omega oils or MCT oil which can help fuel the athlete longer than carbohydrates. In terms of protein, I would space it out even longer before the match to allow it to be utilised by the muscle so protein is less important right before a match. If protein is added, choose a clean whey protein shake, or soft cheese, or yogurt in small amounts. The amount of the above macros would depend on the metabolic flexibility of the athlete. The most ideal is to get the athlete to a place where he or she can switch between carbohydrate and fat as fuel prior and focus in on digestible carbohydrates and healthy fats in small amounts right before a match.”
There is a term ‘You are what you eat’ – Do athletes have to be highly disciplined at all times to maintain a peak physical performance?
“Absolutely, it‘s not to say ‘cheat‘ days are not allowed but discipline even in the ‘cheating’ is crucial to optimising performance. You would be surprised but a simple alteration in our gut microbiome can have significant effects on our performance. For example, how a piece of toast with highly processed grains or a large amount of gluten can create instant inflammation in our bodies – inflammation you may not necessarily feel, but it is still inflammation that inhibits your body. It is hard to be perfect but it‘s important to be disciplined and to also be aware of how your body responds to certain foods and more importantly what extra ‘help‘ your body needs.
We all have some underlying conditions, and if you can support your body in the form of general health, you would be able to get more output from it. Also it‘s important to note that it‘s not just about what you eat, but the source and quality of what you eat are equally important. Beef from a grass-fed vs grain-fed cow has very different nutrient properties, similarly, vegetables grown in fertile and healthy soil, have a very different nutrient profile than ones grown conventionally, not to mention the absence of a lot of pesticides and herbicides that cause further damage and inflammation to our cells. In short, we need to expand the phrase to “you are what you eat… eats!“
There are a lot of different diets and dieting fads, is it recommended to follow these trends?
“Certain diets, provided they have scientific backing, can be useful when needing to achieve certain results within a short amount of time. For example, the popular ketogenic diet can be adopted when needing to shed pounds and lighten load quickly, a plant-based keto diet which is surprisingly becoming more popular can be adopted into a high-intensity endurance training program where oxidative stress could be a concern. Diets are diets, not lifestyles. I prefer using nutrients for specific outcomes but always falling back to whole foods. Once we eliminate a certain food group for too long, we can run into nutrient deficiencies and alteration of our gut microbiome, in the case of the keto diet for example.”
What should top level athletes be eating and drinking to achieve peak performances?
“This really depends on the type of athletic performance one is trying to achieve; endurance sports like football, trail running etc are different from high intensity weight bearing sports like weight lifting. But in general clean foods, be it carbohydrates, protein or fats, is foundational to everyone but especially athletes. You would never put diesel in your Ferrari, similarly if you want to run your body optimally, you need to feed it well and with clean fuel.
Clean food is foundational. Depending on the athletic needs, it‘s best to work with a trained nutritionist to work out the portion of the macros and the intake timing which is just as important. For example, eating carbohydrates too far from a performance event can result in hypoglycemia before the event and a crash in energy. It‘s also important to note that what not to eat is as important as what to eat. Sugar, which can come in all forms from processed carbs or hidden in sauces or electrolyte drinks and sports gels, is one item an athlete, in particular, should stay clear of. Sugar causes inflammation and high sugar intake has been associated with lower heart rate variability (HRV) which measures recovery.
Because it is difficult to get all of our nutrients at an optimal level from food alone no matter how well you eat, supplementation is important especially when we‘re pushing our bodies hard, be it at the gym, at work, or in training for elite athletes. Common and proven supplements include fish, oils, vitamin D, magnesium, PQQ which I prefer over creatine, and nitric oxide. A good multi–mineral supplement with sufficient trace minerals to support all of your body pathways is also important. The body must be looked at as a whole, we can‘t just be fueling our muscles; athleticism includes mental clarity and so supporting neurological pathways that sends signals to our muscles to be activated is just as important as supporting our heart, lungs or muscles as one would think to focus on with athletes.
Furthermore, because athletic training can actually cause a lot of inflammation, it‘s important to feed your cells with nutrients to support healing and recovery but also protect it from oxidation. So as much as the carbohydrates, fat and protein are important, the antioxidants from various fruits and vegetables along with antioxidant supplements like turmeric and coq10 are extremely important in protecting the cells and helping calm inflammation.”
For more information, please go to: https://foodforlifehk.com