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Australian National Champion Power lifter
There is often a misconception that athletes do something special because they have some kind of special food, some type of magic potion. It’s a myth that works well to sell billions of dollars’ worth of supplements and fuels one ‘super food’ craze after the other. The reality, however, is almost laughably simple.
Athletes need all the same things a non-athlete needs, but in higher (and often only slightly higher) concentrations. There is only so much food we can eat, however, so we have to be picky about choosing foods with a high concentration of nutrients in them, and get these nutrients in the right balance – don’t go nuts on one at the expense of another. Any promotion of the latest super food or news about the benefits of a nutrient always seems to be followed by the logic that “if a little of this is good, then eating a truckload must be even better!
Protein is a perfect illustration of the point above. All elite athletes (yes, even endurance athletes) need more protein than the average person.
An average, not particularly active man requires 0.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, while a male power/strength athlete looking to bulk up may require as much as 2g per kilogram each day and an endurance athlete needs 1.2–1.4g of protein per kg. To make optimal use of this protein, it’s best to eat it in serves of no more than 30g at a time. The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) recommends an absolute limit of 200g of protein per day, regardless of bodyweight and activity.
Eating too much protein can come at the expense of carbohydrates. Carbs have had a bad rap, but they are not, in fact, the Devil’s carbunkles. For athletes, they are essential fuel and the building blocks to recovery. Australian Olympic lifting and bodybuilding champion Paul Haslam described it to me this way: “If proteins are the brick for muscles, then carbs are the mortar – you don’t get the full benefit of proteins without the carbs.”
Heavy training can often cause athletes (runners seem particularly susceptible) to run low on iron, which can often lead to tiredness and poor recovery. At its worst, you can develop anaemia and be hit with cramps, headaches and shortness of breath.
Many people go for the quick fix of an iron supplement, but these are often associated with side effects like nausea and heartburn or poor absorption, so it’s best to look to real food.
There are two types of iron. Haem iron is found in liver, lean steak, dark chicken meat, fish, oysters and salmon. It’s the real deal, while non-haem iron in foods such as eggs, breakfast cereal (fortified), wholemeal bread, cooked spinach, lentils, kidney beans (cooked), tofu, and almonds is not as well absorbed by the body. However, the absorption can be enhanced by Vitamin C – but tea and coffee can do the opposite.
There’s been a bit of a Vitamin D crisis in recent times. After years of being told to protect ourselves from the sun (sunlight is a ready source of Vitamin D), medical boffins are concerned that many of us are dangerously low in the stuff – which is a worry for athletes, because this stuff is really important.
A blood test can indicate your calcium levels, but what’s less clear is how your body is absorbing calcium – which is where Vitamin D comes in. Vitamin D is important for the absorption of calcium from the gut to boost bone health – a big factor for athletes who might be susceptible to stress fractures and other bone stress.
Oysters and fish are good sources, especially raw fish and tinned fish such as salmon, mackerel and oil-packed tuna and sardines. Eggs, mushrooms and dairy and tofu products fortified with extra Vitamin D and calcium also provide a boost.
Potassium is used to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance in the body, so it’s easy to see why this essential nutrient is a big deal for athletes. And unless you’re on dialysis, it’s almost impossible to get too much of the stuff from natural sources.
Foods high in potassium include white beans (or navy beans – it’s what they use in baked beans) and almost any other type of beans, leafy greens, baked potatoes with skins, fish, dried apricots and avocados. All these contain more potassium than the much-hyped banana!
Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals that play a role in combating the cellular damage caused by exercise. These include Vitamins C, E and A (beta-carotene) and selenium-rich foods all fit the bill, helping out with muscle soreness and enhancing recovery.
Good foods for antioxidants are acai berry (which can be bought as freeze-dried powder or frozen pulp), blueberries, leafy greens, olive oil and tomato juice or sauce. Sweet potatoes have the triple-whammy of also containing strong anti-inflammatory nutrients and the power to regulate blood sugar, along with their abilities as an antioxidant.
Sore muscles and inflammation comes with the turf for athletes, but over time, your gut will get like Swiss cheese if you eat ibuprofen like M&Ms (as some athletes do!). Fortunately, there are some harmless natural anti-inflammatories that are easy to incorporate into your diet.
Fish oil – studies show 4 grams/day of fish oil lowers cortisol – and anytime cortisol is unnecessarily elevated it causes inflammation and can cause muscle and lean tissue loss. Fish oil can be used to prevent both chronic inflammation and to guard against muscle soreness when you’re in a high-intensity training phase.
A study published in the Journal of Pain (we’ve all been in those pages!) showed that half a teaspoon of the raw root or ground herb lessened next-day muscle soreness by 23-25%. It’s all due to the pain-relieving chemicals gingerol,shogaol and zinzerone, which researchers at the University of Georgia suggested might be more effective than popping anti-inflammatory meds.
They come up a lot, don’t they? This time, researchers in the British Journal of Nutrition studied people who ate 75g of watercress before strenuous exercise and found that they had less post-workout muscle damage. They suggested that you’d get best results from long-term daily use, and that kale and silverbeet would also work well with a dash of olive oil, since the fat enhances the absorption of beta carotene (Vitamin A) and other nutrients.
There’s a lot of buzz about this in the world of athletic performance. It might turn everything yellow, but turmeric has also traditionally been used as a powerful anti-inflammatory spice Chinese and Indian medicine. It’s the curcumin (the yellow and orange components in turmeric) that does the trick, neutralising free radicals to help decrease painful joint inflammation.