Sound Bites! Vol 3 #1
January–again. Junior rowing officially started yesterday, though unofficially I don’t think it ever stopped during the holidays. Despite the still-dark mornings, it seems that the spring rowing season is truly underway–in rowing, spring is spelled j-a-n-u-a-r-y.
So, what’s on your mind post-holiday/resolution-season? If you’re like a lot of people, you’ve decided to eat healthier and exercise more–even rowers who work out a lot no doubt have areas that could use a little polishing around the edges. This morning when I offered a boatmate some of the big pile of leftover crumbs from the gluten-free brownies I brought for the juniors yesterday, she said she was swearing off sweets after a trip to New Orleans (obviously, eating was involved there). And I am aware that at least one other rowing buddy is participating in the re-start class of the hugely popular to-quiet-inflammation diet.
Despite the many diets people choose to follow (see the recent diet rankings by U.S. News & World Report), there are some basic principals that are helpful when an athlete attempts to evaluate what eating plan is best for him or herself.
First, let’s think about nutrition–not necessarily a primary reason for the food choices many people make but hopefully as an active person, this is high on your list. There are 6 nutrients found in food–carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Volumes have been written about these nutrients, but from an athletic standpoint, it’s important to know that each plays an important role in the diet of the athlete wishing to perform with vitality, focus, and success. A shortage (or excess) of any of these nutrients can result in feeling and functioning at a less than optimal level, whether in a recreational or competitive environment.
Research has show that a sports nutrition plan containing a balanced array of the 6 nutrients produces the best results overall. Carbohydrate provides energy for activity, allowing the body to use protein to build muscle, enzymes, hormones, and other important body components. Inadequate carb leads to degradation of muscle through a process called gluconeogenesis to provide energy (calories) when carb is in short supply. Vitamins and minerals are essential to many bodily functions, including respiration, oxygenation, elimination, and metabolism. Water is key to all the other elements working optimally–without water, whether due to inadequate intake or excessive elimination, the chemical reactions in the body will not happen–fluid is essential!
A second consideration when selecting an optimal nutrition plan is palatability, which affects long-term adherence and ultimately ability to maintain improved body composition (weight loss and/or fat reduction, increased muscle mass, etc) and performance. In other words, a very restrictive, hard-to-follow, or yucky dietary regime is one that may get short-term results but is a long-term loser. Including foods that are not only healthy but enjoyable is key to success both now and later.
Third, you of course need to pay attention to your individual needs and tolerances. For people who have a chronic condition like celiac disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, or allergies, food is medicine as well as pleasure. It is important to identify any specific conditions you may have so that you can eat appropriately, perhaps including dietary interventions that go beyond the recommendations for a balanced meal–1/2 of your plate fruits and vegetables, 1/4 plate of whole grains, 1/4 plate lean protein, 1 serving low-fat dairy, with unsaturated fats in moderation.
Limiting your food choices unnecessarily is unlikely to have positive effects and could result in negative side effects such as reduced energy, vitamins/minerals (very low carbohydrate diet) or excessive fat intake (high protein/fat diet) and cost (high protein diet). Although some reports suggest that a low carbohydrate, higher fat and protein diet may help with weight/fat loss, the majority of nutrition experts and dietitians recommend a more balanced approach, especially for athletes.
Research over the past few years indicates that inflammation within the body definitely is related to risk of many of the chronic diseases in society today. Recently I completed a live, on-line professional education program, Expert Perspectives on Obesity Management. The bottom line, according to one of the presenters, was that any low-calorie diet which results in fat loss will promote a reduction in inflammation. The type of diet–low carb, high protein, vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, etc–is not as important as the low calorie aspect. The good news is that there is no one best diet–you need not feel guilty if you aren’t following the popular diet of the day.
Your nutrition plan can and should reflect your food preferences, individual needs/conditions, and, of course, the fact that you are an active person with nutritional requirements that will differ from more sedentary people. To me, the best long-term food plan is well-balanced, palatable, available, and affordable.
Debby Jackson is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of Vashon Island Rowing Club.