AFYA’s Scott Pearson is passionate about the importance of good nutrition for children and young athletes.
As a Strength & Conditioning Coach for British Cycling, he knows how important getting the right diet is for both the able bodied and Paralympian athletes from novices up to Olympic standard who he works with.
Here, Scott gives AFYA readers some of his nutritional tips and advice:
Why a healthy diet is important
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for everyone, whether you are aiming to be a professional athlete or simply want to enjoy a life free of illness. No matter how fit you think you are now, and how much work you think you can do, it is critical that you think about what you are putting in your body.
A good diet gives you the energy you need to think, train and play and helps you recover properly from all that work. No matter what you do, you can’t out train a poor diet.
The following tips are the starting point to beginning a healthier lifestyle, so work through them one by one, taking time to let the effects of each stage take hold before moving on to the next.
It is a stage by stage process; if you don’t have a great diet and you try and change everything all at once, it is less likely to succeed. To make healthy eating a good habit, it needs to be a gradual lifestyle change rather than a revolution.
If you are still lucky enough to get most of your meals cooked for you, talk with the rest of your family about how you can do this together. It is far more likely to work if everyone is going through the same things together.
Ready? Here we go….
Cut out the obvious junk
It doesn’t take a dietitian to realise that eating McDonalds and drinking Coke all the time isn’t good for anyone, let alone an aspiring athlete, so simply removing them from your diet can go a long way to improving your overall health. In general, try to cut out anything with excess levels of:
Excess sugar in our diet can play havoc with your body’s metabolism, leading to peaks and troughs of energy throughout the day. This roller coaster pattern has been implicated in the increase in Type II diabetes as the continual wear and tear on your pancreas eventually causes it to stop working effectively.
In addition, your body can only store limited amounts of sugar in the blood and liver (in the form of glycogen), so any excess is converted to body fat.
Foods such as soft drinks, sweets, chocolates, cakes and biscuits are all high in added sugar.
Contrary to the popular belief, not all fat is bad for you. In fact, many vitamins are only soluble in fat and some fat in your diet is necessary for many bodily functions. However, fat comes in different forms, the main two being saturated and unsaturated.
In general, saturated fat is seen as an unhealthy fat and can be easily identified because it tends to be solid at room temperature. Therefore, many prepared foods, such as pizza, dairy desserts, burgers and sausage are high in saturated fat.
A diet high in saturated fat increases the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which can increase your risk of developing coronary heart disease. Remember that you do not need to be overweight to have high cholesterol.
Cut out the not-so obvious junk
Once you have managed to get by on a diet without the obvious junk in it, and realised you can still survive, it’s time to take it to the next stage by cutting out many of the foods with hidden problems. These are less obvious to spot, but can be pretty easy to find once you understand what you’re looking for…
By offering all the taste without the calories, artificial sweeteners seem like a no-brainer when it comes to effective weight loss and healthy living. Unfortunately though, the much touted “health benefits” of these products are not all they’ve cracked up to be.
Bad for your health
There have been many health risks associated to artificial sweeteners, not least various forms of cancer. “Diet” drinks have also been linked to metabolic syndrome and Type II diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners mess with the body’s system for taking in calories. Normally, taste receptors on the tongue detect sweetness and tell the brain that calories are on their way. The brain then sends signals to the pancreas to prepare release of insulin, but if no calories arrive, the body’s natural mechanism gets confused. In turn, this leads to poor health, illness and disease.
Don’t make poor Choices
Continual over-stimulation of taste receptors from artificial sweeteners literally change the way we taste food. Meaning that people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less sweet foods (such as fruit) less appealing and unsweet foods (such as vegetables) downright disgusting.
In other words, use of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavoured foods with less nutritional value.
There’s been a boom in low-fat alternatives since the 1980’s, when the message got out that foods high in fat were bad for your health (see above). While it’s true that fat supplies more than twice the energy per gram than either carbohydrates or protein, and (saturated fat) is responsible for increasing cholesterol levels and clogging our arteries, the processes used to create low (or no) fat foods may be even worse.
The fat in many foods provide much of the flavour and consistency (think of a thick, creamy yoghurt), so removing the fat also removes the taste and texture. To make up for this, food manufacturers use processes (called hydrogenation) to alter the structure of liquid vegetable oil to create a semi-solid fat suitable for their processing needs.
Ingestion of hydrogenated fats dramatically increase the levels of trans-fats in our bodies. Trans-fats have been linked with heart disease and increased levels of cholesterol, so it seems that low-fat alternatives are a major contributor to the very problems they are said to be helping against!
Because removing the natural fat from products also removed much of the flavour, manufacturers found that it was necessary to add huge amounts of sugar simply to make them taste better.
As well as contributing to the taste and texture of a product, fat can also contribute to how full you feel after eating something. So, with removed fat and added refined carbohydrates you typically feel less full for a shorter amount of time. In turn this leads to blood sugar swings and foods cravings making the job of eating sensibly even harder than it already is. The food now provides the same health risks as overtly sugary foods mentioned above.
Watch your salt intake
Salt, or more correctly, the compounds that make up salt are required in the diet for your body to function properly. For example, chloride aids in digestion, while sodium regulates blood flow and helps transmit neural messages between your brain and muscle fibres. Also, there’s no denying it; salt also makes your food taste better!
Because of this, restaurants and food manufacturers add salt to their products to make them taste better. Unfortunately though, too much salt is very bad for you.
Dangers of salt
You probably already know that you feel thirsty after eating something very salty (such as a packet of crisps). This is because your kidneys need to maintain a balance between electrolytes (such as magnesium and potassium) and water so they can do their job of filtering the waste products from your blood.
More salt (therefore more electrolytes) means you need to drink more water to balance the system. More fluid in your body can lead to high blood pressure or other problems such as edema (swelling in places like the hands, arms, feet, ankles, and legs). Your body needs to maintain the balance, so if you decide not to drink extra fluid, your body will draw water from other cells, leading to dehydration.
In addition, regularly eating too much salt makes you urinate more often (because of the excess water). Every time this happens, your body loses calcium, the mineral that strengthens bones and teeth; urinate too often and you increase the risk of making your bones much more breakable.
Coming up soon: How to replace the junk with good stuff.