Nutrition can be very confusing to athletes of all abilities. Much like equipment reviews; different products and manufacturers make claims about what is best and why you should listen to them. While there are some amazing sources of information out there on sport nutrition and some great recipe books to help people be more creative with their cooking and food preparation, one thing that can help you make better day-to-day decisions is having a little more understanding about what it is we get from food, and how to make sure we get the right amounts.
Macronutrients are the three main nutrient groups that make up all food. They are protein, fats and carbohydrates. Most foods tend to have one dominant macronutrient, e.g. we think of meat being protein, potatoes as being carbs, and nuts and being fats. However, all these foods have small to moderate amounts of the other two macros in them. So, when looking at how much of each nutrient you’re looking to consume daily, it’s work taking this into account.
Protein is often touted around the industry is the must-have supplement for gym goers, and with good reason. Protein is the key nutrient in growth and repair of all the tissues in the body. When we’re training, we put the body under much great stress, breaking down muscle and connective tissue which needs to recover. While much of the association with protein supplementation is with resistance training and power based sports, where there is a demand to build muscles, endurance athletes can’t be complacent when it comes to protein intake.
Training volume is usually a lot larger with endurance athletes, so while building muscle may not be the priority, recovering and repairing the existing muscle is key to improvements in performance. Protein supplements are useful at filling in gaps in the diet, making up deficits, particularly when people are pressed for time, training around work and family life. However, supplements are just that; they should be used to ‘supplement’ existing good eating habits, and not used in place of one. While it can be useful to use a shake after a workout, if heading straight to work, if you’ve got time to prep and have a proper breakfast, then that’s a much better choice. The place where protein can be useful is to boost the content of lower protein meals like porridge and muesli.
Fats are the body’s preferred fuel source at rest, and lower intensity exercise. With over double the energy content of protein and carbohydrate, they are a brilliant fuel source. However, this can make it easy to over consume kcal if you don’t keep tabs on what you’re eating. Endurance training will increase our body’s ability to utilise fats as a fuel source at higher intensities of exercise, however our bodies require oxygen to breakdown and use fats, so during harder sessions, and shorter races where more time is spent nearer threshold, they will take a back seat to carbohydrate as your primary fuel source. Fats release energy much more slowly than carbohydrates, so during the day your energy levels may be more consistent.
Fats play a key role in the transport of vitamins and minerals within the body, which are essential for optimal health and function, especially for athletes with the increased strain they put on the body. In addition to this many fat based foods contain these key vitamins and minerals that we need. This can pose a problem when people follow diets that promote ‘low-fat’, not meeting their nutrient requirements. Fats, like any food come in many varieties, with more natural sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish being great sources of nutrients while more refined sources like butter and oils found in processed foods; pastries, sweets etc. are more linked to health issues.
Carbohydrates provide energy more readily to the body, since it’s more quickly broken down into glycogen. Because of this, it’s the body’s preferred fuel source during higher intensity exercise. Carbohydrates are where we get a lot of our vitamins, and most of our fibre, so are key in health and immune function as well as digestions.
Carbohydrates have had a bit of a bad press with sugar, in particular, being the centre of the blame for western world’s expanding waistlines. However, it’s important to make the distinction between more naturally occurring sources of carbohydrate and the man-made, processed ones. Root vegetables, pulses and fruits in their natural form will fuel the body well and are ‘nutrient rich’ which means as well as the kcal they contain, they also are high in vitamins & minerals. However more processed forms of carbohydrate; white breads, pasta, cereals, white rice, crisps, sweets lose a lot of the nutrients and just retain the energy. This is why they’re often termed as empty kcal. People whose diets consist of predominantly processed foods can often be overweight, yet still be relatively malnourished since they’re not getting those essential nutrients that support their health.
How much of each?
In terms of how much of each macronutrient we need, a few basic rules might be; ensure 3-4 portions of protein throughout the day to allow better absorption, since we cannot break a lot down at once. Fruits and veg are a cornerstone of good health and immunity, so 5-a-day is really the minimum. Fats are an amazing fuel source, so don’t be afraid to use them, but as with any food keep an eye on portion control. For more information about diet tracking and detail on how much you should be eating of eat macronutrient, see our previous blog on diet tracking here.
People obsess over macronutrients, with different corners arguing the low-carb/high-fat or super high carb debate. Arguments over control of body weight, better performance etc are thrown around and ultimately, if you look hard enough you can find support online for any diet type. The fact is, that for someone to lose weight, they need to be in a kcal deficit; simply put, the energy going in needs to be less than the energy going out. No amount of ‘clean eating’ in the world will make you slim, if you’re eating 500 kcal a day more than you use. While the science behind nutrition may be complicated, the application of good eating needn’t be. Take time to find out what foods work for you, leave you feeling good, without bloating or energy slumps. Enjoy cooking and prepping food, take charge of your meals and plan ahead in conjunction with your planned training sessions so that you have the energy to perform well and recover optimally.