We all want to perform better in life. Whether that means hitting a new squat PR, running your fastest half marathon, or to just having enough energy throughout the day to get your work done. No matter what platform you choose to perform in, there is a factor that influences that performance: nutrition.
Boiling it down, the food you eat is supposed to be the building blocks of what we are made from. For example, the amino acids your muscles are made up of come from products such as meat, dairy, legumes, etc. The glucose that circulates your body and allows your body to function primarily comes from items such as grain and flour. Your cell walls are comprised of triglycerides (fat) and you get those from products such as fish and nuts. Basically, the saying “You are what you eat” is 100% true.
Now, we want to look specifically at hot nutrition impacts optimal performance. If your goal is to compete as your best possible self, it is important that you eat the right kinds of food, in the appropriate quantities, and of the highest quality you can possibly get. I will not delve into which diet is superior (keto vs paleo vs veganism), but I will do my best to remain as objective and factual in what I note. How you decide to read and apply it within your own personal choice is up to you!
First, lets look at protein. A protein is a combination of 21 amino acids (9 of which we cannot create on our own and need from food sources). Almost every food source has an amino acid panel, but all foods can be put into two groups: complete and incomplete proteins. A complete protein will have an abundance of the 9 essential amino acids per gram of protein while an incomplete protein will usually have an insignificant amount of 1 or more of the essential amino acids. For example, a chicken breast is a complete protein while black beans are an incomplete protein. So, when you are having a meal, it is best to have a complete source of protein and ensure, over a 24-hour period, you are getting an adequate amount of protein (on average, 1g/lb of body weight).
One caveat though, for those who do not consume meat, by combining certain foods together in one meal (beans and rice), you can create a complete protein as each food will compliment the other one. Lastly, ensure whatever way you choose to get your protein, you are choosing a quality source that will give you the most protein per ounce.
Next, we will look at fats. While this macronutrient tends to get a bad rap, it is an incredibly important nutrient for your body to run and perform optimally. Fat can be broken into 3 categories: saturated, unsaturated, and trans. There is no reason to ever consume trans fats. They are man-made, our bodies are incapable of truly digesting them, and recent studies have showed their connection to chronic diseases. Personally, I have never seen a positive reason to consume these.
That leaves saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats have usefulness such as creation of HDL (good) cholesterol and cell wall integrity. Sadly, it doesn’t have a long stretch of uses, so most experts only recommend about 10% of your daily fat intake should come from saturated fats. Unsaturated fats are broken into mono and polyunsaturated fats and are the best forms of triglycerides. Some of the most important aspects include reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol, protecting cell membranes, and (not commonly known) the absorption of certain vitamin/minerals. Certain key micronutrients are only fat soluble and to unlock their goodness, it requires a good fat source as a catalyst.
Overall fat is a valuable macronutrient necessary for survival. However, due to its caloric density, limit your overall consumption to primarily unsaturated fats and between 15-30% of your overall caloric needs.
That brings us to carbohydrates at last. Carbohydrates have come under the crosshairs of nutrition zealots over the last few years (previously it was egg yolks and fats). Carbohydrates are primarily everything that is not an animal product. Most people consider carbohydrates as just your grains, flour, breads, and fruits. Actually, it includes your favorite vegetables and legumes: spinach, broccoli, kale, beans, sweet potatoes, and so many more.
While carbs have been basterdized as a cause of our obesity epidemic (that’s for another article), they play a valuable role in our bodies ability to perform, especially at higher intensities. Carbs and fats have many differences on a molecular level, but both are sources of energy for our bodies to use. The biggest difference in this category is how easily accessible the energy is when ingested.
Fat takes a considerable amount of time to break down and turn into a usable source of energy (glucose) while carbohydrates can be broken down at a faster rate. There are also certain types of carbs that require greater digestion time and that is where the glycemic index comes in. The glycemic index was created to show how not all carbs are created equal and when you factor in the fiber content (among other things), higher glycemic carbs like white potatoes digest at a much faster rate compared to lower glycemic carbs such as spinach. With me so far? So, between spinach and white potatoes, one of the largest difference between these two is the amount of fiber per serving. It will take much more time to break down the spinach into usable energy and even then, the usable energy that can come from it will be minimal. A white potato on the other hand has much less fiber and is comprised of mostly starch, a form of carbs, and can be turned into glucose much faster.
How does this tie into performance? Well, does it stand to reason that a big bowl of spinach may not be the best way to “carb load” before exercise? Based on the above information, wouldn’t a carb of the higher glycemic category be a better choice because it breaks down faster and has more accessible energy? I know I would choose a baked potato over steamed spinach! Even extremely high glycemic carbs such as refined/processed sugar or honey has its uses. Think of athletes who are playing long games or a marathon runner. Their body is focused on performing a physical activity at a high level. They can’t afford to spare any energy to try and digest high fibrous foods. They need something that when it hits the stomach, it starts to get absorbed quickly and is ready to be used. That does not mean you should be walking around drinking Gatorade like its going out of style when doing only a brisk 20 minute walk. Your lifestyle and the physical activity within is the largest determinant when it comes to how many high glycemic carbs you need and when you should consume them.
Overall, carbs make up the rest of your daily caloric needs, but ensure you are choosing a plethora of fibrous, colorful types of vegetables for their vitamin and mineral content that keep your body health. When choosing higher glycemic carbs, make sure you have a justifiable reason as to when and how much you are going to consume. Carbs will fuel your workout, so when you use them wisely, they can be your best friend. If you abuse them though, they will come back to haunt you very quickly.