Your guide to basic nutrition
Training hard is only part of the battle when trying to get fit for sports. Like a formula 1 racing car, your body will run far better on good fuel. As the old adage goes “rubbish in equals rubbish out” so in this article we’ll briefly explore the major food groups and try to help you make healthy food choices to enhance and not hinder your training efforts
Sometimes they’re in and sometimes they’re out but for sports people, carbohydrates are essential in fuelling the active lifestyle. At higher levels of exercise intensity i.e. hard training and competition, the body almost exclusively uses carbohydrates for energy. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram and come in 2 main forms – simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are sometimes called sugars and include foods such as fruit and confectionary. As a general rule, simple carbohydrates are quickly digested and provide a quick source of energy making them ideal for providing a pick-me-up snack before training but less suitable as a sustaining meal.
Complex carbohydrates, sometimes called starches, include grains such as rice and wheat and products made from grains such as bread or pasta. Vegetables are also considered complex carbohydrates.
Both forms of carbohydrates can be unrefined or refined which refers to the amount of processing they have been though. Unrefined carbohydrates such as whole fruits, wholegrain bread, brown pasta and rice are generally considered to be healthier as they contain lots of fibre and tend to contain more vital vitamins and minerals. When it comes to carbohydrates, the more active you are, the more you should be consuming but, where possible, go for unrefined carbs as these tend to be better for you.
Part of the carbohydrate family, fibre provides no energy (calories) but is vital for our digestive health. Fibre mops up and cleans out our digestive tract ensuring everything runs smoothly and that waste materials are removed efficiently from our bodies. The RDA for fibre is around 30 grams a day and is best obtained by eating whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Insufficient fibre in the diet can lead to constipation which can have a major impact on digestive heath.
Containing 4 calories per gram and required for the process of anabolism (building up tissues) protein is vital for any hard-training sportsman. Exercise causes the breakdown of muscle tissue which, during periods of recovery, must be repaired. This is the very essence of why we get fitter and stronger after training. Protein provides the building blocks for tissue repair – called amino acids – which the body requires to build our bodies back up after a hard workout. Protein can come from animal and non-animal sources (such as Soya and Quinoa) but animal sources such as meat, fish and eggs are generally thought as being the higher quality. Protein supplementation is very common for sports people as it’s not always convenient to chow down on a steak after a workout but it should be noted that extra protein consumption does not automatically turn into muscle tissue and if consumed to excess is just as likely to contribute to an energy surplus (resulting in an increase in body fat) as any other type of food.
Probably the most contentious subject in nutrition, fats are often maligned and misunderstood. Fat is used as energy when we are exercising at low levels of intensity (i.e. aerobically) and is also vital to our health. Fats come in 4 varieties and this is where the problem with fat lies – some types of fat are, as previously mentioned, vital to our health whilst others are very detrimental. Labelling all fats as bad is a mistake!
Saturated fat is generally found in animal products, like all fats, contains 9 calories per gram so it’s very calorie dense. The body likes to use saturated fats for energy and energy storage. If you have fat around your stomach – that’s saturated fat! The main problem with saturated fat is that if consumed to excess it can make you gain weight and being overweight has many associated health risks. Being fat is actually more of a health risk than actual saturated fat consumption.
Unsaturated fats are always liquid at room temperature and come from vegetables and nuts. These fats are very healthy and are associated with improved cardiovascular and brain health. Unsaturated fats come in 2 forms – mono unsaturated (e.g. olive oil) and polyunsaturated (e.g. fish oil) and both have a variety of health benefits. Unsaturated fats are very reactive and don’t respond will to heat, light or air and especially in the case of polyunsaturated fats should not be exposed to high heats as this can damage them and make them less healthy.
Finally, trans fats are considered the “bad-boys” of the fat family and are best avoided altogether. Trans fats block healthy mono and poly unsaturated fats from doing their job and are thought to be the main cause of a variety of diseases such as CHD and hypertension. Trans fats occur in small amounts in nature but by far and away the greatest source of dietary trans fat is processed foods. When a mono or polyunsaturated oil is heated excessively or processed, trans fats are often the result. Foods like many margarines, pre-packaged meals, pies, takeaways and junk food often contain large amounts of trans fats and are best avoided.
Vitamins and minerals
The food we eat should provide us with more than just energy. Although they contain no energy themselves, vitamins and minerals are the spark plugs that cause the health giving chemical reactions in our bodies to occur. The general definition of a vitamin or mineral is “a substance that, if missing from the diet, may result in ill health.” Vitamins and minerals power virtually every reaction that occurs in our bodiesvitamin C keeps our immune system working properly, vitamin B helps with the breakdown of carbohydrate for energy, vitamin D is essential for bone health, as is the mineral calcium. Zinc keeps our hormonal system working properly, iodine helps regular thyroid levels and iron is needed to transport oxygen in the blood. Vitamins and minerals are best obtained by eating a wide variety of whole foods especially fruit and vegetables but, for hard training sports people, supplementing with a good quality vitamin and mineral complex may be a good idea.
Without water, none of the chemical reactions necessary for life would be able to occur. Water is the massively important to our health and well being. We use water as a medium for moving substances around our bodies, lubricating our joints and digestive system, regulating our body temperature and flushing waste out of our bodies. On average, we need 2 litres of water (about 8 tall glasses) a day but if you are a regular exerciser, you may need more than double that amount. Dehydration can cause a major drop off in performance and is best avoided if possible. Thirst is a very late indicator of being dehydrated so is best avoided by drinking plenty and often.
So now you know a little more about the food groups. Try not to obsess over what you eat, after all eating should be one of life’s pleasures, but remember that food is fuel for your training and competitions so it’s worth eating as healthily as you can.