Let’s be real, there’s mixed messaging in the nutrition world. The spheres of influence surrounding us can make it unclear what to believe in terms of fueling for performance as an athlete. I am going to keep it simple and to the point. Here are five reasons you, as an active individual, should care about the quality and quantity of food you are consuming:
1. Health for Longevity
When going all in on training, it is easy to forget that we need to maintain our health as humans to excel as athletes. Let’s consider this your “baseline health.” Covering all your bases from a nutrition standpoint allows your body to react to the demands of sport and keep up with our physiological needs.
Nutrition Science has discovered a great deal about how food and the body impact our performance and overall health. However, there is no proven “perfect athlete diet.” The perfect athlete diet is the eating pattern that works for you, sustains your health, and supports your performance in the short term and long term. Think of it this way: if you are building a house, you do not want to build it on a flimsy foundation that will not be able to hold up your dwelling for a long period of time. We want a strong foundation for our houses and for our performance as humans and athletes. Our daily eating pattern should contribute positively to our daily performance and build a strong foundation of health that will last far beyond our years of competing.
All stress on the body manifests as physical stress. If you have stress in other areas of your life, your body cannot tell the difference between stress from a deadline and stress from your most recent interval set. In order for our bodies to process and manage all of the stress we put on it, we need proper fuel. Exercise depletes our fuel stores which is why the refueling process is critical for recovery and stress management. Your performance will be impacted if your body is consistently under-recovered and under-fueled.
Exercise also puts significant strain on your muscles. Once they are broken down, we want to see improvements as they build back up. Without proper nutrients and calories, our muscles continue to break down without being able to recover. Muscle protein synthesis cannot happen without adequate fuel and protein in the body, which is why our nutrition choices play a major role in our training. This is why Gnarly Whey and Vegan Protein are recommended for post-workout recovery. They supply the amino acids to help the muscles rebuild and recover. For maximal Muscle Protein Synthesis, recommendations point to eating protein in every meal and to have evenly spaced protein intake throughout the day. This is for the recovery and rebuilding process. Our muscles cannot complete these processes without sufficient caloric intake which is another reason to make sure you are eating enough in terms of quality and quantity.
3. immune system
Eating high quality foods in sufficient quantities helps our immune system to function properly. One sign of low energy availability is getting sick relatively easily. Low energy availability is when your body doesn’t have the energy needed to meet the physical demands you are placing on it. If there is consistently not enough fuel in the tank, our bodies have to compensate by deriving fuel for its processes from other sources. When this happens, our body is essentially scraping by to power systems like the immune system. This decreases our ability to fight off infections and viruses at their onset.
Getting sick interrupts training. Training through sickness makes recovering from an illness much more difficult. As an athlete, you probably do not want to take days or weeks away from training and making strides toward your goals. Optimizing your energy availability contributes to your immune system function, which is another major reason to eat enough.
Supplements like Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and Zinc have demonstrated immune-boosting properties. Although these are marketed as all you need to fight off the common cold, they are not nearly as effective without sufficient energy intake. Eating enough to fuel your training and immune system will help your body take preventive measures against getting sick and recover quickly if it does pick something up.
4. For your brain
Our brain can do many things, but it lacks the ability to store fuel. The brain is roughly 2 percent of our total body weight, but it needs consistent glucose deliveries from the body in order to function. This amounts to roughly 20 percent of our glucose-derived energy, which means the brain is the main glucose consumer in the body. If you are under-fueled and your brain is demanding fuel, then another reservoir is going to have to give. This is where a cascade of other issues begins. If you are trying to work smarter and not harder, meeting your energy and carbohydrate needs is a no-brainer, especially when we talk about brain function and its impact on the rest of the body!
5. Bone Health
It is important to know that after age 30 your bone mass stops increasing. This may not seem significant in the short term, but if your bones are declining throughout adulthood, then it is hard to maintain bone health and slow the decline if you do not have sufficient bone health to begin with. Nutrition plays a role in your accumulation of bone mass and your ability to maintain bone health after age 30. Eating enough and incorporating nutrient-dense foods at every meal allows you to cover your bases for your bones as you are accumulating bone density and maintaining bone mass throughout your life.
Stress fractures and osteoporosis seem to happen to many athletes at all stages of life past puberty. These fall into the original diagnosis of the Female Athlete Triad, which was an irregular menstrual cycle, presence of disordered eating, and low bone mineral density. The updated diagnosis of Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S) also includes bone mineral density and frequent injuries, but it exposes the root of these issues being insufficient energy intake for the amount of energy an athlete is expending. RED-S impacts the entire body from a hormonal and physiological standpoint. A significant energy deficit can influence our performance, training adaptation, recovery, immune system, brain function, bone health, and longevity.
Staying on top of fueling, eating nutrient dense foods, and enjoying the process of eating enough will help you create a sustainable relationship with fueling. These are the prerequisites for supporting overall health and your active lifestyle!