First and foremost, I need to begin by saying that as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and USA Triathlon and USA Cycling coach, I have the fundamental nutrition knowledge to provide general nutrition information and recommendations. I am not, however, a licensed dietician and it would be beyond my scope of practice to give specific nutrition advice, prescribe meal plans, or give advice for medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, etc. and it is advised that you take any nutrition advice lightly, if it is NOT coming from a licensed dietician.
In the same way that different training plans will work for different people training for the same event, there are many different nutrition approaches that will work for different people. This post is not meant to discuss or spark debate about various nutrition or dietary approaches, it is simply to provide general nutrition information to help those without much nutrition background to understand the basics and maybe spark some interest into learning more about it.
Good nutrition means something different to almost everyone, but if you ask 100 experts in the field, I think they would all agree on a few key points:
- Eat whole, natural foods that are nutrient dense and nourishing for the body
- Foods that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc
- A variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables
- Lean meats and unprocessed grains
- Eat mostly non or low processed foods that are simple and recognizable (sports nutrition products during training are exempt)
- Eat enough to fuel and sustain energy demands and physical performance, as well as provide satiety and enjoyment
- Eat foods that are sustainable for us and the planet
Now let’s discuss the components of our food:
Macronutrients: the three substrates that our bodies need in the largest amounts: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Let’s break them down.
Carbohydrates- The body’s primary source of energy. There are 3 main categories of carbohydrates based on their level of complexity and number of sugar groups they contain. They range from simple to complex.
- Monosaccharides and oligosaccharides are the “simple” carbs which you know as processed grains like breakfast cereals and breads, cakes, pastries, candy, and some fruits and vegetables. These have a higher Glycemic Index (rating of how quickly and significantly a food raises blood sugar, on a scale of 0-100) and more effect on blood sugar and insulin levels. If it gives you an energy boost quickly, it’s probably a simple sugar.
- Polysaccharides are your complex chains of linked monosaccharides that take longer to digest, enter the bloodstream, and burn. They don’t raise insulin and blood sugar levels drastically, have a low Glycemic Index and more fiber.
- Best examples include less or unprocessed whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats, etc.), fruits and vegetables, (starchy vegetables have more), beans, legumes.
- All Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram
- Managing your carbohydrate intake is important for optimizing health, body composition and athletic performance.
Protein- There are 20 individual Amino Acids that are the building blocks of protein. The body uses amino acids to make proteins that help the body break down food (i.e. enzymes), repair tissues, regulate the body’s tissues and organs (i.e. insulin- regulates blood sugar), transport materials throughout the body (ie. hemoglobin- protein in red blood cells that allows the transport of oxygen)
- 9 of them are “essential” meaning that you must get them from food and the rest are “non-essential” meaning that our bodies can produce them on their own.
- “Conditional” amino acids are usually only needed during periods of illness and stress
- Contain 4 calories per gram
- It is not necessary to get all amino acids at every meal, but it is important to have a daily/weekly balance. The proteins we eat in food are broken down into their individual amino acids that the body then uses to build the specific proteins it needs.
- Most common/best sources of protein:
- Lean beef and pork
- Wild game: venison, elk, etc.
- Chicken, turkey & duck
- Seafood: Fish and shellfish
- Beans & legumes: black, kidney, garbanzo & pinto beans, lentils, peas
- Nuts & seeds
- Soy products
- Dairy products: milk, yogurt, butter, etc
- Animal and plant based sources have their own advantages and disadvantages.
- Some animal proteins (such as beef) contain heme iron, which is more absorbable than the non-heme iron found in plants.
- Animal proteins are more anabolic, which is better for stimulating protein synthesis for muscle repair
Fat- Critical for regulating and producing hormones that allow your bodies to adapt to and recover from training, absorb and store fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), cushion internal organs, maintain core body temperature, support a healthy immune system and are burned for energy.
- Fats contain 9 calories per gram- much more calorically dense than carbs and protein
- “Good” Fats: Mono and polyunsaturated fats make up your HDL cholesterol which stabilize cholesterol levels by decreasing LDL’s. These fats are usually rich in Omega 3’s.
- Examples include fatty fish, nuts, seeds (flax, hemp, chia), avocados, olives & olive oil, green leafy vegetables
- “Bad” Fats: trans fat and saturated fats cause an increase of LDL cholesterol which increase blood pressure, harden arteries and increases risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Examples include saturated fat found in processed/packaged foods, poor quality meat, seafood and dairy products. Opt for grass-fed (pasture raised) meat and dairy products as much as possible.
Micronutrients: Vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients
These nutrients are needed in trace quantities in our bodies, but still play very important roles and are critical to a healthy metabolism and strong bones, among many other things!
Vitamins are necessary for normal cell function, growth, and development.
- There are 13 essential vitamins that all have important jobs in our bodies, and a deficiency in any one of them could cause deleterious health effects. I.e. a deficiency in Vitamin K is a serious concern because your blood would not clot (stop bleeding).
- Fat soluble vitamins- A, D, E, K.
- These are stored in fatty tissue in the body and are more easily absorbed when consumed with dietary fat.
- Water soluble vitamins- B1, B2, B6, B12, C, Biotin, Niacin, Folate, Pantothenic acid.
- Must be consumed daily as they are not stored in the body (except for Vitamin B12 which can be stored in the liver). Any amount consumed in excess of what the body uses is excreted in the urine.
- We also have “vitamin-like-factors” which serve similar purposes as vitamins.
- Choline- aids in the functioning of the brain and nervous system
- Carnitine- helps the body use fatty acids for energy
|Vitamin A||Butter, eggs, liver, seafood, cod liver oil|
|Vitamin B||Whole unrefined grains, fresh fruit & vegetables, raw nuts, legumes, seafood, organ meats|
|Vitamin C||Fresh fruit & vegetables, organ meats|
|Vitamin D||Butter, eggs, liver, seafood, cod liver oil|
|Vitamin E||Vegetable oils, butter, organ meats, whole grains, raw nuts & seeds, dark green leafy vegetables|
|Vitamin K||Liver, eggs, butter, whole grains, dark green leafy veg|
Minerals- Important for brain, muscle and heart function, making enzymes and hormones and keeping bones strong. For example, Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen to our cells, and sodium and potassium are minerals that also act as electrolytes which regulate muscle contractions, fluid balance and nerve impulses.
- Macrominerals- Needed in larger amounts than the rest:
- Magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulfur, calcium and phosphorus.
- Microminerals- Needed in trace amounts only
- Copper, chromium, iodine, manganese, selenium, zinc, iron, cobalt, fluoride
|Calcium||Dairy products, fish with soft bones, green leafy vegetables|
|Chloride||Natural unprocessed sea salt, coconut flesh|
|Magnesium||Natural unprocessed sea salt, fish, dairy produce, nuts|
|Phosphorus||Animal produce, whole grains, nuts & legumes|
|Potassium||Natural unprocessed sea salt, nuts, vegetables|
|Sodium||Natural unprocessed sea salt, meat broths, zucchini (courgette)|
|Sulphur||Cruciferous vegetables, eggs, dairy products|
Phytonutrients- chemicals produced in plants which are not essential to human health, but can enhance it with their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Generally, the fruits and vegetables with the most color, flavor and aroma have the most benefit, so look for foods with deep hues or bright colors, as well as herbs, teas and pungent foods like garlic and onions. Population studies have shown that phytonutrients provide health benefits to humans by reducing risk of disease, enhancing immunity and intercellular communication, repairing DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxifying carcinogens and altering estrogen metabolism.
Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables generally provides an adequate amount of micronutrients to prevent nutrient deficiencies, reduce risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, reduce free-radical damage to cells, improve blood sugar control and promote digestive health.
I think it’s pretty common knowledge that consuming too much sugar is harmful. Overconsumption can reduce the body’s ability to tolerate carbohydrates, reduce insulin sensitivity and lead to fat gain due to excess calories and chronically high insulin levels.
For athletes, however, there are appropriate times to consume sugar and it can actually be beneficial to our performance when the session or race is very intense, or longer than 60 minutes. Sugar consumed during exercise is processed immediately and used for energy, and sugar consumed after exercise is used to replenish the energy burned so we’re ready for the next training session. Sugar consumed outside of training and racing should be limited, however, in order to avoid the negative effects described above.
Water is an essential part of our daily nutrition needs. It has many functions, such as dissolving and transporting nutrients throughout the body, carrying waste away from cells, speeding enzymatic processes, lubricating the joints, acting as a shock absorber, regulating body temperature, and providing a source of minerals.
Challenge: 3 Day Diet Log
Keep a record of everything you eat for at least 3 days (two week days and 1 weekend day). Record as many details as possible:
- what the food is (the brand or is it homemade?)
- how much you eat
- what time you eat it
- how you felt when you ate it, etc.
The purpose of this exercise is not to nit pick your dietary habits, but to help you notice trends and find imbalances so you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. This exercise can also provide some insight into how your food choices affect your energy level and quality of training and how emotions affect your eating habits and vise versa.
You can do this the old school way with a paper and pencil, or with an app like My Fitness Pal where you can scan barcodes on packages or search the database for your food to see the nutrition facts and information about it. This isn’t necessary as you’re not analyzing it for actual nutrient density, but if it’s easier for you, then by all means.
I hope you all learn something about your dietary habits by doing this exercise or that it triggers a little more curiosity about nutrition and the role it plays in your health and athletic performance.
If you discover something interesting and not too personal, please feel free to share or ask questions. Just remember, this is a very general and broad overview and friendly discussion, not meant to debate diet trends or opinions.