Nutrition is one of those topics that is always going to be controversial. Like politics, everyone has an opinion and there is often no definitive answer. Dietician and Sports Nutritionist Renee McGregor outlines some of the mistakes to avoid making when planning your diet.
While nutrition is a science and an evolving one at that, it is not absolute. How can it be when we are looking at the impact it has on the human body? While the general anatomy and physiology of a human being is understood, there are huge variations between us all due to genetics, lifestyle, ethnicity, and gender, which is why advice tends to be ballpark and relevant to the individual.
The problem with nutritional science
Nutritional science, particularly when it is sports specific, is complex. It is a huge area of research and while nutritional practice needs to be evidenced based, this is not always possible if the right questions are not asked.
Furthermore, even when the right questions are asked, sample sizes, population groups and study designs all have to be taken into account. Many studies simply look at the impact of one particular nutrient or approach on performance. This completely ignores the fact that the human body is run on an intricate system of endocrine, biochemical, immunological, physiological, and psychological pathways that all work collectively, so while you may be fixated on a particular outcome, how do you know it’s not impacting elsewhere within the body? I like to think of the human body as being a series of chemical reactions with very sophisticated engineering.
Think of the human body as being a series of chemical reactions with very sophisticated engineering.
Never before has there been so much information readily available about nutrition and training, with many of us getting sucked into the promise that a certain way will pay off. This is particularly the case if a practice is being promoted by someone that fits a certain performance and fitness ideal, regardless of their experience or expertise in the area. In fact, the most common nutrition mistakes I see are always based on popular science and ‘in the moment’ trends.
Why do nutrition trends gain momentum?
As a society we have become very fixated on instant gratification.
This has resulted in a lack of trust in our body’s ability. Instead, we are always looking towards external cues for information on how to eat, train and live.
With the rise in technology and the ability to measure pretty much every aspect of our life, we no longer seem to tap into our internal cues. And yet, the body probably has the most sophisticated form of monitoring available - homeostatic control. This is the body working on a number of feedback loops that help to ensure that our temperature stays stable and our levels of key nutrients such as sodium, calcium and potassium remain within appropriate limits for optimal performance.
Let’s take Calcium as an example. Calcium is important for a number of functions within the body from bone health to muscle contraction. If blood calcium levels drop, the body identifies this and sends a signal; this then causes calcium ions to be released from our bones in order to maintain blood levels. However, if you do not provide your body with sufficient dietary calcium, then you do not replace this in the bone, running the risk of the bone becoming weak and putting you at risk of injury.
This is also why food tracking apps are notoriously inaccurate.
How can an app truly track something as complex and brilliant as the human body? How can it know whether the body needs more energy today to make red blood cells? Or repair tissue damage? Or even respond to a change in hormone levels in women during their menstrual cycle? It is this lack of ability that means those who fixate on such numbers generally grossly underestimate how much fuel they truly need.
How to avoid common nutrition mistakes
So how do you navigate your way through the abundance of information available on nutrition and ensure that you don’t fall victim to common fuelling mistakes that can not only be detrimental to your performance, but also your long-term health?
Don’t be drawn to the latest fad: Many athletes will try almost anything to improve their performance. But if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true! Focus on training, sufficient rest and getting the building blocks of your diet correct first.
Be mindful of social media: Social media is flooded with pretty pictures of food, enticing us to eat in a particular way, creating identities around how a “healthy diet” is perceived. We buy into it, because it suggests a “false gold” of success and achievement, but what if this is not what our body actually needs? Make sure you ask yourself: is this relevant to me, my lifestyle, and my goals?
Don’t get sucked into “Move more, eat less”: Physiological studies have shown us that in order to achieve progression and improve performance, we should be following, “Move more, eat more”. Training is a costly process and if we don’t provide our body with sufficient energy, we run the risk of reducing the amount of energy available for biological function, repair, and adaptation from training.
Work out what is right for you: Just because your training partner swears by a bowl of porridge every morning, this does not necessarily mean this is the right fuel choice for you.
You don’t have to eat less on your rest day: For most this will fall between two training days, so it is the perfect opportunity to recover and then refuel. By being consistent with your nutrition, you will also allow for consistency with your training which allows for progression.
Don’t ditch the carbs: Contrary to what we are told, carbs are not the enemy. Scientific studies have demonstrated that carbohydrate availability is critical for optimal performance. If we train in a carbohydrate-depleted state for too long (>3 weeks) this can result in a depressed immune system, a down regulation of our hormones, have negative consequences to our bone health and stagnate our performance.
Avoid falling into the trap of “lighter makes you faster”: This is only true if you can maintain muscle mass, energy availability and power. By fixating on a weight over performance, you are more likely to create too big a deficit which will actually have the opposite effect on your performance.