Does That Come With Bacon?
Unlike my peers in the field of nutrition, I don’t have a degree in dietetics – my nutrition knowledge comes from 15 years of working with amazing athletes and practitioners. Sure, I’ve done nutrition courses and qualifications. But my time was spent seeking out science and asking why I was seeing the opposite to what the studies found, I spent a lot of time traveling the world speaking to professors in the field of nutrition. Everything I do as a performance practitioner is under-pinned by science, but it is not dictated by it. You can’t be innovative and breaking performance barriers if everything you do is based on what’s already known, the whole point of innovation is it’s ‘unknown’.
Looks paleo to me
One thing to make clear about sports science, it’s caused as many problems as it’s solved. I might have just pissed off a whole lot of people in the field saying that, but pissed off or not – its a fact. A ‘study’ into something and the result it gets is not definitive as you think. Has that study been replicated multiple times with the same result? How was the study performed? Who were the subjects? Science is looking for something called ‘statistical significance’ in it’s results, which means there is a clear result. Whereas for me at the edge of performance I’m happy with a ‘trend’ rather than some stand out obvious effect. It’s also important to understand the subjects taking part in these studies are either ill, or a student population group. I’ve actually seen an Msc study have it’s resulted skewed negatively because a few of the student footballer subjects got hammered the night before. Having studies done using elite athletes is difficult as there simply aren’t that many of them – the population group is very small, and they tend to be busy being pro sports people so don’t have time to commit to several weeks of being poked and prodded.
Seems like my kind of party
So with that in mind it’s important to balance what you know happens in the field, with what science says happens under a microscope. Balancing that ‘appliance’ and ‘science’ is key with anything and everything to do with performance, including nutrition. My journey for nutrition knowledge involved seeking out the extremes, bodybuilders are the extreme of lean tissue growth and fat burning, ultra runners are the extreme of endurance. NFL players, premiership rugby players, footballers – I saw them all, looked at what they were doing and what effect it had. I don’t mean I read books about it, I physically went to see them and what they were doing. I didn’t just look either, I threw myself into the different training regimes and diet plans of bodybuilders to see how it affected me, ballooning to 100kgs and able to bench press small houses but with the aerobic capacity of a house! Equally on the endurance side, dropping down to 79kgs and doing 5 Ironman triathlons. I was no pro athlete, but someone once told me never to ask someone to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself – and if you look like you need to take you’re own advice, how credible are you? Plenty of porky nutritionists out there who get out of breath walking up stairs (that’s actually me currently!). I’ve always put myself in the athletes position, empathy is key to connecting with an athlete.
I’ve been lucky enough to try my ideas out on premiership footballers and rugby players, including many international players who are household names. When working with elite athletes in premiership football or rugby it’s important to respect their map of the performance nutrition world. Obviously they’ve been receiving advice for many years before I came along, so to dismiss what they’ve been told before is foolish. Every person they’ve seen before I came along has tried to sell them their ideas as ‘the best’ so after several years of this cycle it’s understandable players are sceptical when yet another new practitioner arrives due the staff change circus in sport. They are also prone to the same goals everyone else is, they want to look good on the beach! So they can be more concerned with a diet which is about fat loss than a diet geared towards performance – as they are two very different things.
Just as with training, a programme to look good on the beach isn’t going to benefit performance – form should always be a result of function. So a diet which depresses body fat as much as possible, might not be one that will help when trying to physically perform. My wife competed in figure competitions for a while, and whilst her body fat may have been extremely low she was also the most ‘unfit’ she’d ever been. No energy, totally weak and huge mood swings (more than usual..!). When dealing with collision sports like rugby, players need to be able to tolerate those impacts – so being well under 10% BF might mean they ‘look’ great, but might not be right in terms of performance. This is why the trend of training rugby players like olympic sprinters makes no sense to me. If you make a player as highly strung as a sprinter then don’t be surprised when they break down as often, ferraris aren’t meant to be used like diesel trucks. A discussion for another time maybe.
Amy in 2010 – ripped, tired, unfit and weak.
Below is an extract from information I wrote for a premiership rugby team where I was nutritionist for 2 years – which I think sums up my rationale;
“Nutrition is a highly individualised aspect of performance, not only for each athlete but for the sport its relevant to. What works for a one ‘prop’ does not mean it will work for another, just as with a conditioning programme. Whilst performance nutrition should be highly individualised, there are some fundamentals that provide a foundation to move forward from. Without this foundation, performance nutrition simply fails – and becomes a series off ill advised and ineffective supplement based protocols seeking a short cut to performance which simply doesn’t exist.
After a short time as a professional athlete you should be aware of the basics to get the most out of the adaptations from training, the fuelling for performance and recovery – built on a basic knowledge of what to eat. Unfortunately in the 21st century in sport we exist in a world where someone has to tell you what to eat, which when you step back and look at it seems ridiculous – because it is. The role which should be filled by parents/grandparents has largely be junked in favour of sports scientists and supplements. The problem with this is that we forget what the basic good varied diet is supposed to be.”
My opening gambit with the players was to tell them how stupid my role was! Just to be clear, I’m a huge fan of quality supplementation with athletes and weekend warriors. Supplementation is a vital part of any athletes performance nutrition armoury – but only when it’s built on a very solid base good diet with food from the table.
So what is ‘nutrition’ then? One of the definitions is, “Nutrition is the provision, to cells and organisms, of the materials necessary (in the form of food) to support life.” We will all have our own definition of what it means to us as individuals, and that’s the key – its a totally individual thing. As with anything you need to define your nutrition goal, is it to build or maintain lean mass, burn fat, be healthier or manipulate a performance? It’s usually all of the those goals with most people.
Whether an athlete or weekend warrior here’s some simple ideas to think about;
- Ensure the food on your plate is as colourful as possible – this means the food is nutrient dense – the more colourful the better.
- Eat a varied diet – eating the same plain bland thing over and over is not what we’re designed to do. We’re designed to eat a varied diet, and it’s also good for the soul as well as the body to eat many different foods.
- Traditional food is good – whichever country your from, the traditional meals are actually good for you. It’s how we cook and prepare them that causes the problems. Traditional English cooked breakfast (which I encourage all athletes and anyone to eat) is a great meal to start the day. Might sound crazy, but just think about what it actually is – meat, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, a great colourful meal full of protein. It’s how we prepare it that causes problems when we fry it. Traditional English Sunday dinner is meat and lots of vegetables – seems like a nutrient dense varied meal to me.
- Don’t buy food that lasts longer than you – anything a bacteria doesn’t want to eat probably isn’t good for you. So any food which appears immortal should be avoided.
- Have protein with every meal – we tend to eat a very carb dominant diet in the west, when really we need to go the ‘meat and two veg’ route as my gran used to say. You can get the carbs you need in vegetables without having to have a plate full of pasta or rice. I’m not saying you should never eat those foods, and we all enjoy a good pasta dish. But moderation is key
- Have a day off – just as with training you need to give yourself a break. We don’t just eat food for fuel, it’s something to be enjoyed, its a social occasion or special occasions. Going to the Cheesecake Factory or In ‘n Out Burger might not be good for the body, but it’s good for the soul on a ‘treat’ day. Those two establishments have always been my only motivation to go to California training with athletes.
- It’s a lifestyle choice - whatever you do and however you do it, it’s not about restrictive systems or the latest ‘hollywood’ diet – it will be a lifestyle choice. Locking yourself into a super strict diet is fine if that’s how you want to live, but whatever you do it can’t be just about the next 5 day juice cleanse. You have to fit your diet into your lifestyle and vice versa. Make informed, sensible decisions which you can stick with day in day out as consistency with what you do will be a key to success.
Eating a balanced, varied and nutrient dense diet will get 90% of people and athletes to 90% of where they need to get to in health and body composition. Clearly and obviously there are some products and methods that can help athletes and people alike recover faster to get maximum adaptation to the training they’re doing and demands of competition. However as mentioned, this needs to be done on a solid base of nutrient dense varied diet.
I’ve got my daughter to understand the importance of nutrition
It’s all about ‘paleo’ among a lot of people I know at the moment, i.e eating a Paleolithic diet, awakening your inner caveman (or woman) as our digestive systems are essentially 20,000 years old. Ultimately you do whatever works for you, but eating a balanced healthy colourful diet with plenty of lean meat and vegetables seems like common sense and not just something we did 20,000 years ago.
The subject is massive, controversial and highly individual. There are no secrets or shortcuts, it’s fairly straightforward – we just love to make it complicated. Now, it’s time for an In ‘n Out double double burger. With bacon.