This is a really good question but one which I think could be even better. You see, nutrition is one of the core elements not just for performance but long term health.
Good nutrition helps us to avoid certain diseases (T2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, to name two big ones), as well as fuel and recover our training and racing.
Good nutrition is a life long practice and requires attention and discipline on a daily basis. That said, it isn’t that difficult and in the next few points I hope to be able to give some simple pointers in response to the question.
Before commenting on what athletes would be eating, let’s focus on what they could really benefit from removing from their diet – refined sugars and processed carbohydrates. It is common for athletes who have low body fat and workout 1 or more hours per day, to behave as if they can get away with wanton consumption of cakes, biscuits, chocolate and other junk food as if it seemingly doesn’t affect them. This is simply not true. These foods are sometimes referred to as “inflammatory”, meaning that they contribute to inflammation not just of the intestines and vital organs but also to muscle and connective tissue. The former will clearly impact long term health, the latter will impair good recovery and may contribute to injury.
There is also the effect on the blood sugar via the insulin response to such consumption, and in the long term this can lead to athletes becoming pre- or even fully diabetic.
So, let’s try to avoid these foods in order to maximise training results.
OK, on to more positive comments.
Smart Carbohydrate Choices – Contrary to current popular thinking, carbs are not the enemy. They are a vital part of the energy system and if you are engaged in high intensity activity (which triathletes should be for part of their training) then you will need to include them as part of your daily food intake. How much will depend on your training load and your style of eating (e.g. low carb is <100g/day) but regardless of this, the ideal choices are smart carbs. These are slow-digesting, high-fibre, nutrient-rich and include such foods as:
- whole grains (e.g. brown or wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat, etc.)
- beans and legumes
- fruits and starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas and plantains, etc.)
A good starting point is to highlight what carbs you currently consume and try to swap them out for a “smarter” option. For example, at breakfast try home made muesli instead of granola and eventually switch to porridge. If bread is your weakness you could swap wholemeal for sourdough or pumpernickel. When it comes to your main meals you could ditch white rice for brown or wild rice, or better still quinoa (also contains protein!!)
Eating more colourful fruits and vegetables:
Think about eating the rainbow, as this is an easy way to improve the nutritional quality of your meals and help you to get a variety of vitamins and mineral. By eating more vegetables you will feel more satisfied with your food because of the fibre and nutrient content. I don’t think anyone will ever argue about the value of eating more vegetables. All you have to do is make it happen every day. 5 is not your maximum, rather it’s your minimum requirement.
Make it one of your weekly rituals to prepare your veg so that it’s at hand and easily available. To start with it doesn’t really matter what specific foods you choose as long as you get into the habit of “eating the rainbow” each day. Fruit is also good but due to the sugar content it is probably a good idea to consume 4 portions of veggies for every portion of fruit you eat.
This week – Eat lean protein with every meal
We all (even triathletes) need protein for almost every metabolic process in the body. Making sure to get enough protein will help preserve lean mass (i.e. bone and muscle), as well as help you feel fuller, longer. Most people don’t eat reasonable portions of protein with every meal. For example, a breakfast of cereal and milk contains very little protein. This isn’t a huge problem but it does mean that to achieve your daily intake, you will need to consume more in subsequent meals. The best option is to spread your intake through all of your meals in a given day.
Good examples are ground beef, chicken, oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring), eggs, quinoa (a smart carbohydrate choice as well), cottage cheese, greek yoghurt, tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts.
Eat healthy fats
This is another food group which is often demonised. In fact, fats are a vitally important part of our daily nutrition.
- hormone synthesis, recovery, and other key metabolic tasks
- regulate appetite and satiety
- make food taste good
Healthy fats are best found in whole, minimally processed foods and we need a balance of healthy fats to feel and function best. So, a better definition of “healthy fat” might be “relatively unprocessed fats from whole foods”. Unhealthy fats are typically those that are industrially produced and designed to be nonperishable, such as:
- trans- fatty acids that appear in processed foods
- hydrogenated fats such as margarine (hydrogen is added to the fat chain to make a normally liquid and perishable fat into a solid and shelf-stable fat)
- most shelf-stable cooking oils (e.g. safflower, soybean, corn oil, etc.)
Good choices for healthy fats include many of the protein items listed above as well as avocados and of course olives and olive oil
Hopefully that has given you some guidance on how to eat for health, longevity and performance (in that order). Just keep it simple: eat fresh foods and cook your own meals. You won’t go far wrong with that recipe.