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Beatrix Kenesei

Nutrition Simplified for Athletes

In the publication of “What is Fitness?” CrossFit suggested a theoretical hierarchy for the development of an athlete. This hierarchy starts with nutrition and moves to metabolic conditioning, gymnastics, weightlifting, and finally, sport.

Nutrition is the foundation of the pyramid. The quality and constituent elements of an athlete’s diet influence metabolism and therefore the molecular foundations of muscle, bone, and the nervous system. For this reason, any training system that does not consider and duly correct an athlete’s diet will be suboptimal. Long-term training depends upon a solid base of nutritional support.” Says CrossFit in their article “Theoretical Hierarchy Of Development”. https://www.crossfit.com/essentials/theoretical-hierarchy-of-development

CrossFit’s recommendation is to eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. To optimize health and fitness, measure and record intake, evaluate performance and potentially change intake until the desired results are achieved. Their specific diet recommendation is the Zone diet, which is followed by many successful athletes. More information about it is available for interested readers on CrossFit’s website.

For everyday athletes, I would like to offer a simpler approach to nutrition based on the above idea that your diet is the very base you can build your athletic performance, or in other words, your health on.

The best diet is the one you can sustain and you are able to enjoy. CrossFit’s Zone diet is a wonderful tool to optimize your nutrition, but many of us lack the time/ determination/ tools/ or simply interest to follow it. I would like to offer an alternative, building up your own diet. I am going to try to put nutrition science into a nutshell, so everyone can come up with their own healthy diet plan, adjusted to their needs (which can be varied on a wide scale, from loosing weight to gaining weight, from diabetic to healthy to best athletic performance) and enjoy the type of foods they like, making it easy to stick to their diet. There is no one size fits all solution for nutrition, I encourage you to experiment to find the most optimal diet for yourself!

To plan your own diet (which will provide a “solid base of nutritional support” 🙂 ) ask the following questions of yourself!

1. What to eat?

2. How much to eat?

3. When to eat?

4. Should I add supplements?

We need food to supply our body with energy and to provide it with the necessary building blocks to renew and grow itself and to reproduce. We need macronutrients (consumed in relatively large amounts, grams or ounces), micronutrients (consumed in small amounts milli- or micrograms) and some miscallenous nutrients, such as prebiotic fiber (in regard of consumed quantities they belong with the macronutrients).

Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Carbs and fats are your body’s primary fuel (amino acids can be used as energy source if needed, too, although not optimal).

Fats are also building blocks of your body (not just your fat cells, think about all of your cell membranes or the myelin sheath around your nerve cells’ axons) and is also essential for hormonal regulation. Some fatty acids are essential because they cannot be synthesized in the body from simpler constituents, such as alpha-linoleic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). These are also polyunsaturated fatty acids which should be preferred in your diet compared to saturated fatty acids (your body can saturate any unsaturated fatty acid but not the way back).

Carbohydrates are our primary fuel. When choosing your carbs always prefer low GI carbs to high GI ones. GI or Glycemic Index represents the relative rise in the blood glucose level two hours after consuming certain food. A low-GI food will cause blood glucose levels to increase more slowly and steadily, which leads to lower after meal blood glucose readings. A high-GI food causes a more rapid rise in blood glucose level and consuming them in excessive amounts lead to hyperinsulinaemia and eventually Type II diabetes. In a nutshell choose vegetables and fruits over starches and sugars. Even better, eat sugars only as fruits and no more at all, or as minimal as possible.

Proteins are our enzymes (that catalyse biochemical reactions), some have structural or mechanical functions, (think muscle and cytoskeleton) and others are important in cell signaling, immune response, cell adhesion and cell cycle. Adequate protein intake ensures that we have the building blocks for recovery, growth, and to prevent muscle breakdown. You should shoot for around 1g of protein intake per pound of body weight (a little more if you are underweight or just a hard gainer).

And finally our “miscellaneous” macronutrient, prebiotic fibers (prebiotics). Prebiotics aren’t nutrients theoretically, since they don’t “feed “ you. They are nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, thus improving host health. In short, they feed your gut microbiota (microorganisms that live in a mutualistic relationship with their host in their digestive tract). The gut microbiota is not only synthesizing nutrients and vitamins for their host, they also produce hormones working as an endocrine organ (!). Vegetables, fruits and insects (!) are rich in prebiotic fibers. (See more at: https://atpscience.com/gut-health-performance/)

We also need micronutrients, whichhave subtle but vital biochemical and physiological roles in cellular processes, such as vitamins and minerals. Fruits, vegetables and mushrooms are rich in micronutrients.

As a general rule to cover your macro-, micronutrient and prebiotic fiber needs, eat real food (whole foods). Food that is not processed, does not contain artificial additives, is not packaged, that could be grown in your own garden or on your own farm. And add a serving of vegetables with every meal and 2-3 servings of fruit a day.

2. How much to eat?

Energy balance (how much you eat compared to how much calories you burn) determines whether weight will be gained or lost. If you are training really hard, but not gaining muscle (and weight), a negative calorie balance might be the culprit. Similarly, if you feel that you are eating only “healthy” foods, but are not losing weight, a positive calorie balance might be your problem.

To determine whether you are in a positive, negative or neutral calorie balance you can use calorie counting. In today’s world it is very simple, you can bring your calorie (and macro) counting device with you everywhere in your pocket, it’s your cell phone. There are many popular apps such as MyFitnessPal,Lose It, Fitocracy, My Macros+, IIFYM, Nutritionist and more. These apps will help you determine your calorie needs, based on your gender, age, body weight and the better ones also using body composition, too, and your activity level. Following what you eat and how much on these apps will show you if you eat more or less than your actual needs.These apps can also keep track of the exact amount of macronutrients you ate to make sure you consumed enough protein to meet your athletic goals.

Crossfit’s recommendation is to eat your macros in a 30% fats, 30% protein and 40% carbohydrate (calorie) ratio, adding more fat if a higher calorie intake is needed (because of a very active lifestyle like, competitive athletes’).

Following your calorie (and macro) intake adds a psychological benefit, too. When you keep track of your eating habits you will eat better. Tracking makes it easier to identify bad eating habits (like snacking, too big meal portions, too much “liquid” energy) and works as a great guide in avoiding them. Even if you take up calorie counting only for a few weeks or months, it will teach you a lot about portion sizes, hiding calories and cutting out unnecessary snacks. It is worth to give it a try if you haven’t yet! Building up good habits for the long term is the secret to success.

3. When to eat?

This is an interesting question. Instead of focusing on when to eat keep your attention on the overall picture, what you eat during a full day and how much. It looks like timing that protein shake right after working out or before bedtime or any time during the day delivers very similar results. (Read more here: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/nutrient-timing)

It also brings up the question if you should restrict from eating for periods of time (like intermittent fasting). The answer is, do whatever works for you! If fasting is sustainable for you and keeps bringing results, go for it! If it makes you feel miserable and cranky, it might not be the best way of dieting for you. (Read more here: https://journal.crossfit.com/article/my-experiments-with-intermittent-fasting-2)

4. Should I add supplements?

Supplements can be taken to ensure that you consume enough macronutrients, micronutrients and prebiotic fiber when you can not hit your nutritional goals with whole foods and/or to enhance athletic performance.

The most popular performance enhancing supplements are creatine and beta-alanin. They play no role in healthy eating, but might have a spot in your diet if optimizing your athletic performance is your main goal. Creatine is a molecule playing role in your phosphagen energy system. (It has the ability to increase muscle stores of phosphocreatine, potentially increasing the muscle’s ability to resynthesize ATP from ADP to meet increased energy demands, thus improving performance.) Beta-alanin is an amino acid which connecting with histidine creates carnosine (β-alanyl-L-histidine) an intramuscular buffer, therefore aiding performance.

Supplements ensuring a sufficient nutrient (and in some case fiber) intake are Omega-3 fatty acids (fish/krill/flax seed oils, to insure an optimal ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your body, see fats), vitamin D and magnesium (important micronutrients) and protein supplements.

You may choose to take protein supplements, such as protein bars and powders, on top of a healthy diet to ensure an adequate protein intake (preventing muscle breakdown and facilitating muscle repair and growth). There are many different protein supplements available on the market (animal proteins: whey, casein, collagen, egg albumin, crickets (https://revfitnaperville.com/blog/cricket-protein/) and other insect powders, plant proteins: soy, pea, hemp, brown rice etc, and miscellaneous such as Spirulina and mushroom products. Which one to choose? Our next blog post will help you find the most optimal one(s) for you need! Stay tuned!

Until then, let’s work on building those healthy eating habits together! The best diet is the one, built on the above guidelines, which you are able to stick to on the long term and also enjoy it!

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