Even though athletes can typically get away with not eating healthy and stay at a healthy weight, we should all admit to ourselves that bad foods still harm the body and can decrease performance. If you typically eat healthy, and every once and a while at a tournament you gorge on fruit snacks, you are probably not going to suffer any harmful consequences longterm. But even during a tournament, the body will perform better when the foods we are consuming are working for us and not against us.
Foods that are bad for you are typically bad because they require more processing than the calories are worth, overwhelming the body with stress hormones (i.e. cortisol) and free radicals (particles that can damage cells) and eventually inflaming the body. This is not only detrimental to your health, but can lead to serious health consequences (e.g. having a heart attack during marathon even though at a healthy weight). Below are the top 5 things you should know to help decrease inflammation and increase performance. Incorporating this knowledge will also increase your overall health. See Tables 1 and 2 for lists of the healthiest, mostly healthy, not very healthy, and foods to avoid in each nutrient group on a regular basis.
Even though every athlete is different and has a variety of other health factors to consider at one time, diet is one aspect of our performance we can control to a certain degree. The knowledge that exercise and training is inflammatory should translate to engaging in behaviors and eating foods that reduce inflammation. This will in turn increase performance and overall health, and could be the edge you need for the championship.
Tip #5 – Avoid Dyes
Dyes are not always harmful when derived from natural sources (e.g. betacarotene, paprika, beet juice, turmeric), but many companies find cheaper, brighter, and more stable sources by deriving them from petroleum (they were originally derived from coal tar when first developed). There are dyes in many foods, including everything from gatorade, to candy, cereals, fruit snacks, cosmetics, and dog food. Although dyes are tested by the FDA for levels determined to be safe, there are many studies that show links between dyes and kidney, thyroid, and bladder tumors, and cancers in mice or rats, and ADHD in some children. Limit or avoid US these dyes if possible due to their lack of need in the diet and potential harmful effects.
Tip #4 – Avoid Sugar and Fake Sweeteners
Sugar spikes glucose levels in the blood and is highly inflammatory. Sugar also feeds unhealthy bacteria in the gut, further contributing to inflammation. A small amount of organic sugar on some grapefruit every once and while or honey in your tea is not necessarily harmful, but regular consumption of sugar in breads, cereals, dairy products, salad dressings, jellies, etc., can elevate the blood sugar too much on a regular basis, leading to higher than normal levels of sugar in the bloodstream, leading to insulin-resistance and eventually diabetes. Fake sweeteners are two to seven times sweeter than table sugar and can also interfere with the normal blood sugar response6 . In addition, if the body is always full from sugar and then is not getting needed nutrients from whole foods, protein, fruit and vegetables, etc. that help decrease inflammation. There are many healthier ways to get a sweet taste after a meal, such as dark chocolate, coconut ice cream, and fruit with natural chocolate syrup, that are not full of sugar (also desserts made with nut flour, eggs, and smaller amounts of sugar). Look at your food labels, and if sugar is in the first three ingredients, that food should be avoided or eaten as little as possible. You will gradually lessen your taste for sweet foods, and you will naturally eat more of the foods you need like protein, fruits and veggies, and good fat.
Tip #3 – Avoid Partially-hydrogenated Oils
These oils are other highly processed oils that are added to foods to make them less perishable (e.g. margarine, baked goods, potato chips). They have an extra bond between the molecules, making them very difficult breakdown, both on the shelf and in the body. They sit in the fat cells of the body and increase the LDL (bad) and decrease the HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as increase inflammation, and they are associated with insulin resistance and obesity. Light-colored oils that are processed and unstable to begin with are high in free radicals, and avoiding consuming foods fried in these oils and will help decrease inflammation.
Tip #2 – Limit Dairy and Wheat
Dairy and gluten may be included in the diet as a useful sources of calories if desired, but they are best used as condiments to meals and not the main course. Athletes should be aware of the inflammatory properties in both the lactose (milk) and casein (cheese) in dairy. Wheat proteins, including gluten, can be inflammatory to the gut, as they mimic certain foreign substances and can cause an immune response (i.e. inflammation). Gluten is found in much higher concentrations now than in the past, leading to more frequent gluten allergies (called Celiac’s disease).
As for dairy, most of us lose the ability to digest lactose after weaning, so it can be slightly inflammatory for everyone. Greek yogurt contains bacteria that have already digested the lactose for you, making it less inflammatory and easier to digest. Many dairy products also contain hormones and added sugars and have had the fat removed (the healthy part from an organic source). Lactose-free milk, coconut milk, and full fat almond milk are good alternatives. Full-fat dairy sources from organic and grass-fed cows, e.g. cottage cheese, sour cream, and cream cheese, and butter are also healthier choices.
Tip #1 – Eat Up!
The foods we should be eating more of to fight inflammation include fruits and vegetables, probiotics for the gut (available in pills or formulated dairy-like drinks), and more Omega 3 fatty acids from olive oils, fish, shellfish, walnuts, and avocados. The type of fat in olive oil (monounsaturated) turns into anti-inflammatory molecules that help prevent asthma, arthritis, and protect the heart. Other spices like ginger, turmeric, rosemary, and basil, can be anti-inflammatory. Ginger acts like an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aleve), suppressing inflammatory molecules, but with no side effects. Turmeric, the yellow colored spice in curry, contains curcumen, which blocks inflammatory chemicals in the body. Fruits and veggies specifically known for their anti-inflammatory properties include broccoli (vitamins C and K, beta-carotene, and calcium), pineapple (contains bromelain that helps break down proteins, aid in digestion, reduce swelling, and aid in circulation), and sweet potato (contains lots of vitamins B6 and C, manganese, beta-carotene, and fiber).