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Innovating Sports Nutrition: 4 Trending diets that perform

Elite athletes have to be particularly conscious of how what they’re eating can affect their strength, endurance and energy levels, and are constantly searching for the diet which will help them perform at their optimum level. When less than a second can determine your career, it makes sense that you want to get the most out of your food, but does one particular diet outperform the rest?

1. The Paleo Athlete

The paleo diet is based on eating real, whole unprocessed foods. It is described as the “caveman” diet because it advocates eating the way that our palaeolithic ancestors supposedly would have eaten in the Stone Age. A paleo diet consists of lean proteins, red meat, eggs, fat (from ghee, nuts, seeds and oils), fruit, vegetables and seafood. It completely eliminates grains, legumes, potatoes, dairy and any processed or packaged food.

Pros: This diet contains a wide variety of lean protein sources which are “ergogenic” (performance enhancing) because of the large amount of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA´s) which are crucial to aid in rapid recovery after hard training. The foods included in the diet are rich in nutrients, phytochemicals and mineral profiles, which can increase the body´s ability to become stronger and healthier, thus improving athletic performance.

Cons: Due to the restriction and almost complete elimination of carbohydrates in their diets, Paleo athletes can struggle to get enough energy, as their cells are not getting the glucose they need. As a result, their body begins to burn fat for energy, which produces “ketones.” Very high ketone levels can be toxic, making the blood more acidic, and damaging the kidneys and liver. The NHS describes “ketosis” as a potentially serious condition.

Professional athletes who adhere to the paleo diet include United States goalkeeper Tim Howard, Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard, Speed skater Apolo Ohno, Professional tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Pro Golfer Brendan Steele, MMA fighter Frank Mir, and the Olympic rower Ursula Grobler.

Ursula Grobler is part of the South Africa Olympic rowing team, who together won their first Olympic gold medal in 2012. Ursula has been paleo since 2006. She initially began the paleo diet to lose weight, as rowing is a weight restricted sport. On the benefits of her switch to the paleo diet, she says: “At first the amount of energy I had was noticeably different. I could hold a larger volume of training and recovery was faster. I also noticed how my nerves and cognitive ability kept sharp and those sluggish lulls in the day were being erased.

The South African team rowing

Ursula’s doctor tried to get her off the paleo diet after her exhaustion at the end of 2010, when she admits that with the paleo diet, “the honeymoon period was over”, but she decided to keep experimenting with it. She began to add more carbs into her diet, this time in the form of pumpkin and sweet potatoes, instead of white bread and pasta.

Dr. Loren Cordain, founder of the paleo diet says: “when it comes to immediately before, during, and directly after workouts, athletes need to bend the rules of the Paleo Diet a bit since we're placing demands on the body that were not normal for our Stone Age ancestors”, meaning that athletes must include more carbohydrates in their diet than the paleo diet advocates, in order to be able to do intense exercise.

Paleo Meal Plan:

  • Pre-training snack: 1 chicken breast with 1 cup of blueberries
  • Post-training: Grilled salmon, sweet potato, olive oil and cinnamon
  • Lunch: Grass fed ground beef with green vegetables
  • Snack: Can of sardines, medium orange and a handful of almonds
  • Dinner: Baked halibut with pesto and a green salad

2. The Vegan Athlete

A vegan diet consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, potatoes, legumes, beans and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocado and oils. The diet seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose, in order to benefit humans, animals and the environment.

Pros: A vegan diet provides athletes with the sufficient vitamins, minerals and fibre which the body needs after intense exercise. When the body is lacking in these vital nutrients, there will be a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream, resulting in less energy. An athlete who goes vegan can enjoy higher energy levels, as plant-based foods are easily digested and absorbed, and consume less of your body´s energy to produce more energy for you to utilise, resulting in a healthier gastrointestinal state in the athlete. Animal products, on the other hand, are very hard to digest, meaning they take more of your energy to digest them.

Cons: The most cited disadvantage of a vegan diet is the potential for deficits. Athletes who switch to a vegan diet often make the following common mistakes: not eating a wide enough variety of colours in whole plant food, not eating enough calories, and not supplementing with vitamin B-12. You have to consume more calories on a vegan diet as you will no longer be consuming dense calorie sources in the form of meat, dairy and eggs.

Some well-known athletes following the vegan diet include Tennis Grand Slam winners Serena and Venus Williams, American football player David Carter, strongman Patrik Baboumian, ultramarathon champion Brendan Brazier, ironman champion Hilary Biscay, Olympic marathoner Dylan Wykes, swimmer Murray Rose and 9-time Gold-medal Olympian Carl Lewis.

David Carter is an NFL defensive lineman player from Los Angeles. He switched to veganism because his consumption of dairy was making his tendonitis worse, and after watching documentaries such as Forks Over Knives. Two months after his switch to veganism, all of his pain had disappeared. In regards to his fitness, David says, “I can honestly say that being vegan is not only the most efficient way to be full-body strong, it’s also the most humane; everyone wins.

With regards to protein, David says “People always ask me where I get my protein from. It´s funny because my protein sources are endless. When I used to eat meat it was only chicken, beef, fish or pork. Not only is it easier now, but it also costs less.” It is worth noting that David gets about 300-500g of protein a day, which is way more than non-athletes need. Most of us require 50 to 175g of our calories to come from protein, which works out at about 10-35% of our daily calories.

Carl Lewis long jump

Carl Lewis is also a vegan, and continued competing well into his 30's. Carl said "I've found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.

Vegan Meal Plan:

  • Breakfast: A fruit smoothie containing banana, coconut cream, mango, a few scoops of vegan protein powder and ground chia seeds, followed by porridge with coconut, a variety of berries, turbinado raw cane sugar and nut butter
  • Pre-workout: A fruit and vegetable smoothie containing beans or sprouted lentils
  • Lunch: A sweet potato and black bean burger with a side of rice and guacamole
  • Snacks: Dried dates and bananas
  • Dinner: A butternut squash curry or Pad Thai

3. The Vegetarian Athlete

The Vegetarian diet is generally based on a diet of grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and dairy, but there are four main types of vegetarians: Lacto-vegetarians who consume dairy products, but not eggs, Ovo-vegetarians, who consume eggs, but not dairy, Lacto-ovo-vegetarians who consume both dairy and eggs, and Pescatarians, who consume fish and dairy products, but not meat. A common misconception is that vegetarians cannot get enough protein without eating meat. In fact, the Mayo Clinic recommends that athletes and non-athletes alike should emphasize plant sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, soy products and unsalted nuts, as these high-protein foods have the added bonus of being higher in health-enhancing nutrients than animal sources of protein.

Lizzie Armitstead cycling for Great Britain
Source Surreynews

Pros: Some research suggests that the stress of strenuous training at an elite level can make athletes more susceptible to colds and the flu. If you´re eating a plant-based diet, you´re getting a lot of extra antioxidants from all of the vegetables and fruit which you naturally consume more of when you eliminate meat from your diet. These extra antioxidants act as an immune booster, meaning you can train more regularly.

Cons: Athletes, particularly women, have a greater risk for non-anaemic iron deficiency when consuming a vegetarian diet. They therefore need to be careful to include lots of iron-rich foods into their daily diet, such as dark leafy greens, beans, dried fruit, lentils and butternut squash.

Athletes who follow a vegetarian diet include cyclist Lizzie Armistead, Olympic runner Emil Voigt, wrestler Christopher Campbell, Olympic Figure Skater Charlene Wong, Olympic Snowboarder Hannah Teter, and Wimbledon title holder Martina Navratilova.

Lizzie Armitstead is a British Olympian cyclist. She clinched Britain´s first medal in the London Olympics with a silver in women´s cycling. She has also been a vegetarian since the age of 10. Lizzie believes that she owes her success to her rigorous training schedule and specially planned vegetarian diet.

When asked about her diet, Lizzie says “I make sure that I have three main meals a day. I never skip a meal... and then it’s about being consistently healthy. You have to be prepared to take weight off in a long, gradual way instead of really quickly.

Vegetarian Meal Plan:

  • Breakfast: Porridge with berries, cinnamon and almonds with an espresso
  • Mid-training snack: Bananas with homemade flapjacks
  • Lunch: A feta, pecan and tomato salad followed by a Greek yoghurt, and then salmon, vegetables and rice with beans
  • Snack: Recovery smoothie made from whey protein powder, oats, kale, spinach, berries and banana
  • Dinner: Lentil and Goats Cheese Salad

4. The Gluten Free Athlete

A gluten-free diet specifically excludes gluten-containing foods. Gluten can be found in breads, pasta, rye bread, couscous and flours. There´s also many foods which contain gluten which you´d never think of, such as ketchup, sausages, meatballs and some French fries! Research suggests that if you are not a sufferer of celiac disease, giving up gluten is entirely unnecessary if you are an athlete. This study tested 13 non-celiac trained cyclists, and found that taking gluten out of an athlete’s diet makes no difference to their performance. In fact, it had no significant effect on endurance performance, well-being, inflammatory markers or gastro-intestinal injury markers. However, research also suggests that as many as 1 in 10 people are gluten sensitive or intolerant, so if you suspect that you may be better off skipping the bread basket, check out the 10 Signs You´re Gluten Intolerant, and see your doctor if you´re concerned.

Pros: Going gluten free forces athletes to eliminate many inflammatory junk foods from their diets such as bread, cookies, cereals, crackers and deep-fried foods, and instead replace them with healthy carbohydrate sources such as quinoa, amaranth, hummus and sweet potato. Whereas foods such as quinoa have many proven health benefits (check out these 5 surprising benefits of quinoa), deep-fried foods are inflammatory, can create problems with your joints, and can increase blood pressure.

Cons: When athletes eliminate gluten from their diets, they may replace these foods with the gluten-free alternative. Many of these gluten-free foods are not fortified with iron or folic acid, and have added sugars, sodium and unhealthy fats, in order to make up for the missing gluten. The refined gluten-free flour which is often used in these products lacks the much-needed fibre which you can find in other grains. In addition, one study found that a gluten-free diet may decrease the count of beneficial gut bacteria in a person’s stomach. Gut bacteria is a critical part of us and is essential to our health. It helps our bodies to digest food, makes vital vitamins, sends signals to the immune system, and makes small molecules that can help your brain work.

Some examples of gluten-free athletes include long-jumper Greg Rutherford, triathlete Barbara Davis, marathoner Anna Medaris Miller, Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer, ultra-marathon trail runner Peter Bronski, and tennis player Novak Djokovic. These athletes either have a gluten sensitivity of intolerance, but do not suffer from celiac disease.

Greg Rutherford recently won gold in the long jump at the World Championships in Beijing, and believes that his switch to a gluten-free diet played a big part in his success. Greg suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and has done since his teenage years.

Novak Djokovic playing tennis

Greg says, “Since switching to gluten-free I’ve felt better overall and my digestion is much better. I’m sure it has helped me improve my athletics performance as I generally feel so much better in myself. I have had an allergy test which showed I was reacting to gluten so it makes sense to avoid it.” Novak Djokovic, who ranked world No.1 in men’s singles tennis, also adheres to a gluten-free diet.

When Djokovic switched to a gluten-free diet, he claimed that it led to him becoming world No 1 just 12 months later. His diet is based around vegetables, fruits, beans, oily fish, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, and lentils. Djokovic only buys organic food, and tries to stay only in hotels which will let him use their kitchen to cook. He says “Your body needs sugar. In particular, it needs fructose, the sugar found in fruits, some vegetables, and honey.” He starts his morning with a bowl of muesli with fruits, and “treats each meal as a communication with his body.

Gluten-free Meal Plan:

  • Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, cottage cheese, avocado and a mixed salad
  • Post work-out meal: A 3 egg omelette with greens, pine nuts and a tin of tuna
  • Lunch: A salad with nuts, seeds and fruit such as strawberries and tangerine segments
  • Snack: High protein oat cookies, made with gluten free oats, raisins, protein powder, nuts and banana
  • Dinner: Lean protein such as fish or chicken with vegetables and sweet potato

It´s typical for both athletes and the health-conscious to wonder; “is there a diet which is better than any other?” And the truth is that this search for the “perfect diet” varies from person to person. The best diet is dependent on the individual. In fact, new research suggests that our genes affect how our bodies respond to certain nutrients.

A diet which allows one athlete to excel to the top of the game, may not work for another. Rather than constantly setting one diet against another, it´s time that we celebrate our differences. Vegan, Vegetarian, Paleo, and Gluten Free, all have their benefits, and these benefits depend entirely on the individual. Experiment with whichever of these healthy diets appeals to you most, and if that doesn´t work for you, adapt it slightly.

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