An active lifestyle is a great way to maintain good health but it needs to be accompanied by appropriate nutrition. Proper nutrition not only improves your performance and fitness goals, it also helps reduce the risk of chronic disease and cancer. There is no “one size fits all” diet however, and even popular dietary trends have a large degree of variety. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are fueling for your favourite activity.
The quality of your food is of utmost importance. Choosing foods from different food groups and in a variety of colours will ensure that you are getting enough vitamins and minerals that help convert food into useable energy at the cellular level. Common nutrient deficiencies in athletes include B vitamins, B12, iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamin D. A thorough assessment of your diet, along with blood testing, can help identify these deficiencies.
Protein can get a bad rap. Decades of studies have shown that athletes need more than the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight currently recommended for the average adult, and that an increased protein intake does not cause any harm to healthy people. The appropriate amount of protein depends on your type of sport, your activity level, and your fitness goals.
Another element that is often overlooked is the health of your digestive tract. Everyone has heard the adage “you are what you eat.” While true to an extent, it is only half the battle. As food passes through our digestive tract, it is still a part of the exterior environment. In order for it to have any benefit to our body and our performance, nutrients need to be absorbed and transported across the gastrointestinal barrier. This vital function can be hindered by poor food choices, a history of antibiotic use, stress, infection, food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, and certain medications, along with an array of other factors.
Kids & Adolescents
Kids and adolescents don’t get thirsty when they are dehydrated so ensuring they get enough fluids can improve overall energy levels and reduce the risk of heat-related illness. Young athletes that are exercising for around an hour don’t need to worry about carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement, so they can skip the sports drinks. Anything longer than 90 minutes might benefit from some carbohydrates. Young athletes also need to ensure an adequate intake of calcium, vitamin D and iron, and overall caloric intake needs to be increased during periods of growth.
Those training more than 15 hours a week need to be aware of their overall caloric intake. Often, these athletes underestimate their needs, and it can be confusing when their lunches are significantly larger than their less active friends. Combine that with balancing school, sports and part-time jobs, adequate fueling can be quite a challenge. Some simple fixes include packing lots of nutrient-dense foods and shelf-stable high protein snacks. Teen athletes also overlook hydration. Recent studies have shown that most teens start the day dehydrated, and do not recover adequate hydration status by the end of the day. Engaged parents can help support their athlete in meal preparation.
Most sport nutrition research trials are done on adult men so the results are more easily applied. In the sport nutrition world, it is important to understand the magnitude of effect expected by supplementation. Studies can be done on either trained or untrained men, and the study population definitely affects the outcomes. It is also important to be weary of “Bro” science and unsubstantiated benefit claims that sound too good to be true. There are a lot of ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst, supplements and strategies circling around gyms. Your fitness goals can determine the ideal breakdown of macronutrients. Lastly, if you decide to supplement, watch out for iron content. Men tend to have higher iron stores than women, and iron overload can have significant medical consequences. If you’re concerned, you can always have your levels tested.
Female athletes need to be savvy with their intake of calcium, iron and vitamin D. Studies have shown that severely restricting carbohydrates along with excessive exercise can reduce thyroid function, while low fat intake can increase the risk of stress fractures in runners. Iron and vitamin D can be easily tested in the blood and can accurately assess nutrient levels. Intake of carbohydrates, proteins and fats can be assessed through dietary tracking. Protein needs in females should not be ignored either. Keep in mind that nutritional strategies to build lean body mass and reduce fat mass won’t make you look bulky.
Protein intake tends to decrease as we age, but it’s important to maintain adequate intake, especially if you are active. It helps with recovery and repair of tissue, and it also helps to maintain lean body mass, which can become more difficult as we age. In those with healthy kidney function, creatine can also help maintain lean body mass. Lastly, hydration must also be adequate, as fluid intake tends to be reduced in older athletes.
Dr. Tracey Teasdale, ND is a naturopathic doctor who practices in Barrie, ON. She has a special interest in sports medicine, sports nutrition and pain management.She is an assistant professor at Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and supervises the sports medicine focus at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic. For more information please visit www.rsnc.ca or call 416-498-9763.