Mailbag: General nutrition advice

Quite often our athletes come to us for advice about nutrition and body composition. While none of our staff are nutritionists (and we don't pretend to be!) there are some basic guidelines that can go a long way to getting your nutrition game on point. Nutrition does not have to be as complicated as a lot of people think, with the ridiculous fads and conflicting information in the media it isn't surprising when athletes and parents come to us in a state of confusion as to what is the 'best' way to eat.  

A while ago I received a typical email from an athlete, with an all too typical food diary. They train a lot, were sleeping OK (another topic for another time), and hitting their active recovery work consistently, but still they feel tired often, and while they were by no means overweight, their body composition was not reflective of the amount of training they were doing. This is where a food diary comes in, the old saying that body composition is 30% training 70% nutrition is pretty accurate, you simply cannot out train a bad diet.  

The trends in a young athletes food diary is so consistent and predictable I thought I would share my four best tips for getting your nutrition on point. Whether you are an athlete or not the below tips and advise are a pretty good starting point to help improve your body composition, increase your fitness and explosive power, and help improve general energy levels.

Hey [Athlete],

Thanks for the food diary. A couple of things stick out:

  1. Nearly every meal is dominated by high GI carbohydrates (white starchy food like bread, potato, battered foods, white rice, cereal)
  2. Your snacks are overloaded with sugar! ('natural' sugar in fruit totally counts)
  3. Protein intake is pretty random throughout both the days and weeks
  4. Healthy fat intake isn't as high as it could be (fat is not the devil, you just have to pick the better sources)

There are a few things I think you could try, and they are pretty simple. No need to go crazy and try to do it all in one week, just pick one easy change and go from there, then you can build gradually on top of that.  

Change your breakfast of cereal and fruit, to something slower digesting and higher in protein.

Getting an easy win at breakfast is 80% of the nutrition battle, picking a turbo-breakfast sets you up for a better eating day right out of the gate. A high sugar breakfast gives you a short energy spike but doesn't leave much in the tank come 10 am. That's why you have sugar cravings around mid-morning. A breakfast high in refined carbs and sugar can shut off your fat burning process, and switch your body straight to fat storage mode. Try some of these lower GI, high protein suggestions:

Sub out some of the fruit for lower sugar snack options.

Fruit has a lot of health benefits, but it's not as innocent as it seems. While fruit contain a decent vitamin dose and a bit of fibre (mostly in the skin), the rest is just sugar suspended in water. That doesn't mean you should ditch fruit completely, but cut back to 1-2 pieces per day, and preferably around training when your body needs and will use the energy. For the rest of the time, give these lower sugar snacks a go:

  • A handful of nuts (a small handful mind you, they are better for metabolism and contain protein, but they are still high energy due to the fat content).
  • One or two slices of peanut butter toast, again with a dark/wholemeal bread. This has a good combo of fats, protein, and low GI carbs.
  • Two boiled eggs. This is boring but effective, they are incredibly filling, and handily portable!
  • Plain yoghurt with a teaspoon of honey (or peanut butter) and some cinnamon. This is not as sweet as you are used to, but it does grow on you and yoghurt is super filling.
  • Protein bars. I hesitate to recommend this, but because you often eat muesli bars (often full of sugar) it might be easy to switch to a protein rich, low sugar bar. They can be expensive though, look for a medium sized bar that is lower in sugar content.
  • Better muesli bars. There are some lower sugar versions out there, but you will need to look at the actual sugar content. Don't be fooled by "No Added Sugar" on the box, that doesn't actually mean anything!
  • Celery and carrots with peanut butter. This seems lame but actually gets you a tonne of good fibre, vitamins, protein, and fats.

I will admit I have a large bias towards peanut butter as a snack, while it is nutritionally far from perfect, it is cheap, tasty, convenient and stacks up OK for protein, fibre and healthy fats so it doesn't take much to get a flavour hit and a good satiety effect. Oh, and crunchy is the only way to have it.

Try to get 3 serves of 20 grams or more of protein minimum per day.

You are currently only getting around 1.5 serves per day. None at breakfast, dinner is ok, but lunch is hit and miss. Protein builds muscle, strips fat, accelerates recovery, and sharpens the brain. I've already given options for fixing your breakfast and snacks, but here are some options for lunch:

  • Replace processed meats at lunch with real meat. The processed stuff is high in trans-fats (bad) and has less protein per gram. You can grab sliced roast beef or shredded chicken from the deli that is just as easy to throw in a sandwich, wrap or a salad as the processed stuff.
  • Protein shakes. __I'm not a huge fan of most flavoured protein because they can be full of chemicals, but they are convenient. Make sure they are not high in sugar. The "mass gainer" shakes are terrible both for sugar content and $ per gram of protein!  

Healthy fats for the win.

Your sources of fat are not great. Fat plays an important role in nutrition, so shouldn't be excluded, but you typically eat deep fried food and processed meat which are high in trans and saturated fats (bad) instead of polyunsaturated fats (good). Getting in some more healthy fats will help you stay full for longer and reduce sugar cravings.

The best sources I have found are:

  • Avocado. On toast, with eggs, with steaks, with chicken in a sandwich, on a salad, in tacos. They are pretty great in every situation.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Eggs. Yes they contain some saturated fat, but overall they are phenomenal and a great source of protein and minerals as well.
  • Olive oil and butter. If frying use one of these (or both!) If you use margarine - stop it. That stuff comes out of the machine grey before they dye it back to yellow... not good.

A final note on fat, I'm not suggesting go crazy, fry everything and smother all your food in butter, but don't be allergic and fat fearing either, with everything the answer is balance, fat is a vital part of a functioning body (your brain is around 60% fat!) but it is still quite energy dense so a little goes a long way.

Ok so some final warnings. Your energy levels might suffer initially as your body acclimatises. This is normal. You will probably experience 3-7 days of cravings or sluggishness each time your swap out a high sugar option for a low sugar option. It may also make you cranky! Thats why changing one thing at a time is the way to go. If you try to do everything at once it will seem impossible and will leave you more frustrated than had you not tried anything.

_The good news is that once you've formed new habits you will have more energy be more focussed and will probably be sleeping better to boot. _

_Being perfect all the time is nearly impossible. People who obsess about perfection every meal struggle to improve because one "mistake" seems like the end of the world. The goal here is not to do a full nutritional backflip, it's about shifting your habits over time so that your eating is really good in general. _

Good luck, and email or text if you want any more advice.