Olympic athletes might spend every waking moment preparing for the Games, but there’s more to their regimen than strength training, cardiovascular conditioning, and mental discipline. Equally important is chowing down.
It’s not just world-class competitors who need to eat well. So does anyone who runs half-marathons, goes to the gym regularly, or spends their weekends hiking, biking, and snowshoeing.
Those who are physically active need to be aware not only of what qualifies as wholesome foods but also how much to consume and when. Too much food can lead to weight gain and can also hinder performance and stamina. Too little, meanwhile, can lead to fatigue, burnout, and, as a result, injury or illness.
Cliff Harvey, vice president of Vancouver-based Human Motion Strength and Conditioning—which provides training, coaching, and nutritional services—explains that there’s no shortage of advice out there when it comes to what makes a healthy diet.
“People are not necessarily burdened by a lack of information as much as they are an abundance of information,” Harvey says in a phone interview. “It’s confusing for people. A lot of information out there misses the main point; it has almost become too specific. People need to look more at the quality of the food they’re eating, rather than the quantity”¦and look for natural, whole, unprocessed foods. Look for foods that come off a tree or out of the ground that people have been eating for thousands of years.
“We’ve stripped the goodness out of what we eat,” he adds. “There are so many empty calories, the body has no choice but to store fat.”
Although premade, processed, and fast foods might make life more convenient in today’s swift-paced society, they do little to provide substantial sustenance.
“Food is fuel,” says Patricia Chuey, a consulting dietitian with SportMedBC—a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about sport science, medicine, and training—in a phone interview. “You need to cross-train your diet and eat a wide variety of foods.”
The Whitecaps soccer team dietitian, who also worked with the Grizzlies basketball team when it was based in Vancouver, notes that the “fuel” needs of professional athletes—some of whom consume more than 6,000 calories a day—are far more technical than those of the average person, who takes in about 2,000 calories a day. Athletes have to ensure they’re getting enough calories to replenish their hard-working bodies, unlike the rest of us, who typically consume far too many.
But there are basic rules that everyone should follow, Chuey says, like eating balanced, high-quality foods containing iron, calcium, and vitamin D, among other nutrients, that are low in fat and high in fibre.
“Go easy on salt, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol,” Chuey says. “Sports nutrition can get confusing and overwhelming, so people don’t know where to start. You need to break things back down to basics.”
Here’s her straightforward advice on how to load up your plate: half should consist of fruit or vegetables. The other half should consist of equal parts protein and whole grains.
Chuey has long advocated the 80/20 rule: strive to eat well 80 percent of the time but don’t fret if you indulge or slack off the other 20 percent. She also encourages people to keep portions small and eat every three to four hours.
For those who are physically active, it’s not just what they eat but when they eat that matters, Chuey adds.
“The timing of meals and snacks in relation to exercise is very important,” she says. It’s common for NHL players to eat a big meal at least three hours before a game, and then have a substantial snack in between, she says.
Then there’s the all-important “recovery window” after a workout.
“Thirty to 60 minutes after exercising, the immediate priority is to rehydrate and to look at replacing carbohydrates,” Chuey says. “To replace them, eat foods from fruit, vegetable, and grain groups, and to maximize the uptake of carbohydrates, add some protein with it: aim for a three-to-one ratio of [complex] carbs to protein.”¦You need to focus on recovery. That’s why after a marathon, there are oranges, bananas, and bagels available right away.”
Kristen Reaves, a dietitian specializing in sports medicine who’s also the head of Burnaby’s KRR Consulting, works with athletes to increase their energy and improve their performance, as well as with people wanting to lose weight. She says eating properly maximizes the potential benefits of exercise.
“The importance of what to eat when is really overlooked,” Reaves says by phone. “A lot of people will just reach for anything that’s convenient but that has almost zero nutritional value. You’ve got to replenish with the right nutrients.”
An example she gives of a good post-workout meal containing protein and complex carbohydrates is a Gatorade, a turkey or chicken sandwich on whole-grain bread, and an apple. Reaves also emphasizes the importance of whey protein, which helps fend off the onset of muscle soreness. An easy way to consume whey protein is to add it to a homemade smoothie, along with dark berries and milk or juice.
Heart-healthy fats are another substance that gets far too little attention, in her view. Omega-3s—which are found in salmon, walnuts, and flax oil and seeds—can increase performance and reduce joint pain. An easy way to incorporate omega-3s into your diet, Reaves says, is to add one to two tablespoons of flax oil to a salad or a bowl of oatmeal and to eat fish, preferably salmon, once or twice a week.
Reaves advises reading books on nutrition rather than only content on Web sites, many of which have outdated, conflicting, or biased information.