My experience and research over the past thirty years or so, have led me to the conclusion that optimum sports performance is hugely influenced by nutrition. Unfortunately, most people who are engaged in sporting activities, including advanced level athletes, are either oblivious to the importance of good nutrition, or possess an incomplete understanding of the basic laws of nature, and how these laws influence performance.
Being on the cutting edge of nutrition and performance requires athletes to eat the highest quality food. In essence, this means adhering to a natural diet that comprises largely of nutrient dense foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. If animal products, such as meats, eggs and fish are consumed, they should be kept to a minimum compared to the plant based foods. Dairy foods with the exception of a little raw goats milk or goats milk yoghurt, should be excluded from the diet. This may come as a big surprise to many people, especially sports coaches who have a nutritional background; however, there are compelling reasons for adopting a predominately plant-based diet, as will be evident from the ensuing information.
Acid and Alkaline – getting the balance right
In health, the blood is slightly alkaline, with a pH of around 7.4. The majority of alkaline-forming foods on the planet are fruits and vegetables, which is why it’s crucial that the bulk of what we eat should comprise of these foods. Other foods, such as most grains, fish, meats and dairy products, are acid-forming, and should be consumed in lesser amounts compared to the fruits and vegetables. The ideal ratio should be 80% alkaline-forming foods and 20% acid-forming foods. I refer to this as the 80-20 rule.
Unfortunately, athletes are no different from the general population in terms of eating too many acid-forming foods. An over acidic body may lead to the following adverse effects:
- More susceptible to infections due to immune deficiency
- Encourages inflammation, which in turn increases vulnerability to injuries, and slows recovery rate
- Increases the risk of osteoporosis due to the body attempting to neutralise the excess acids by leaching alkalising minerals such as magnesium and calcium from the bones
- Joint pain and lactic acid build-up
- Low energy and excessive fatigue
- Premature ageing
- Yeast overgrowth
- Hormonal imbalance
- Impaired digestion and slow elimination
- Bladder and kidney conditions
- Poor absorption of vitamins and minerals from food
Recommended reading: ‘Alkalize or Die’ Dr Theodore A Baroody
“The countless names of illnesses do not really matter. What does matter is that they all come from the same root cause…too much tissue acid waste in the body!”—Theodore A. Baroody, N.D., D.C., Ph.D.
Alkalinity and Athletic Performance – Benefits
- Faster recovery from injuries
- Increased resistance to inflammation and injury
- Increased resistance to infections and chronic disease
- Boosts energy and endurance levels
- Strengthens the musculo-skeletal system
- Aids the efficiency of the cardiovascular system
Protein – Avoiding the Pitfalls
There is a common perception amongst athletes and the general populous that we must consume lots of protein in order to maintain or increase strength, endurance and athletic performance. Moreover, proteins derived from plants are perceived to be inferior to proteins derived from animal sources. It does appear to be true that animal derived proteins, such as those from meats, fish, dairy and eggs do help to increase size and strength; however, there is now plenty of documented evidence that strongly suggests that there is a price to pay for such reliance upon animal sources of protein; namely an increase in heart disease, strokes, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. This is particularly true when the amount of animal protein consumed, increases. In fact, the major issue associated with protein consumption, is having too much and not too little.
World renowned scientist, T. Colin Campbell PHD, and Thomas Campbell II, MD, conducted the most comprehensive study in history, comparing the diets of thousands of Chinese people across sixty five counties in China with the average diet in the USA. (The China Study – BenBella Books, Inc, 2006). The results of the study provided irrefutable evidence that the modern American diet, with its emphasis upon high animal protein, high fat and processed carbohydrates, markedly increased the incidence of chronic disease. The key conclusions were as follows:
- The higher the consumption of animal derived protein the higher the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer
- Plant derived proteins did not result in the same detrimental effects
- A plant based diet provides the greatest protection against chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer
So what has this to do with improving athletic performance? Quite simply, a diet that helps to increase resistance to chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, will, conversely, help to promote a state of health and wellbeing, and this is reflected in athletic performance.
“Some world- class athletes, such as ironman Dave Scott, track stars Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses, tennis great Martina Navratilova, world champion wrestler Chris Campbell and sixty- year- old marathoner Ruth Heidrich, have discovered that consuming a low fat plant-based diet gives them a significant edge in performance.”
The China Study; Benbella Books 2006
Leading nutrition expert, Dr Douglas Graham, who was hugely influential in helping tennis great Martina Navratilova with her nutrition, along with many other prominent athletes, is also of the opinion that a plant based diet is key to achieving optimum performance in sport. In his fascinating book, ‘Nutrition and Athletic Performance’, he has this to say about vegetarian athlete:
“Vegetarian, vegan and raw food athletes are becoming more common in today’s sports world. They have broken into sports where people said it was impossible. Baseball, basketball and football have always had the odd vegetarian player, but now, vegans and raw food athletes participate in these sports too, at the highest professional level. Someday they will be the norm, for they tend to outperform their meat-eating counterparts in a variety of ways. One of the most important ways is their reduced incidence of injury.”
Sources of Plant Derived Proteins
Raw nuts and seeds
A variety of fruits and vegetables provide amino acids, especially green vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
Spirulina is a form of algae which has been used as a rich food source for hundreds of years. It is a great source of vegetable protein – around 60% protein, which is 3-4 times higher than beef of fish.
In the USA, NASA has chosen to use it as food for astronauts in space and are considering the possibility of growing and harvesting it in space stations in the future.
Sprouted seeds, nuts and grains – examples included aduki beans, sunflower sprouts, alfalfa, chick-pea and lentil sprouts. These are nutrient dense ‘living’ foods which are also a great source of enzymes, which makes them more digestible.
A toxin can be described as any substance that interferes with the normal function of a cell. Today, we are exposed to a wide range of toxins on a daily basis. Many of these toxins are relatively new, and the liver, which is the body’s main organ responsible for detoxifying potentially harmful substances that enter the body, often cannot deal with them .In an attempt to protect itself, the body’s response is to store them in tissues, such as fat cells.
We should also consider that each cell of the human body, of which there are estimated to be trillions, relies upon a good supply of oxygen and nutrients in order to function properly. Not only this, each cell needs to be able to get rid of waste products such as carbon dioxide, otherwise it would be destroyed by internal poisoning. Having said this, the delicate balance between ingesting oxygen and nutrients and expelling waste products can be disrupted by internal pollution. For example, heavy metals such as mercury and lead can cause damage to the cell’s internal environment, causing it to malfunction and could ultimately lead to premature cell death, otherwise known as necrosis. Looking at the bigger picture, it stands to reason that such damage on a cellular level will ultimately lead to premature ageing and bodily deterioration that is reflected in the body’s capacity to perform at an optimum level. Furthermore, exposure to toxicity will increase the amount of the destructive free radicals in the body, which are implicated in premature ageing and diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular conditions, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis.
The problem that we have to contend with in this modern age is that we are exposed to a myriad of toxins that did not exist even one hundred years ago. The principle sources of these toxins arise from eating too many so-called junk foods, agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, fluoride, chlorine and other toxins in mains water, air pollution from the likes of vehicle exhaust fumes, radioactivity from depleted uranium and medical x-rays, heavy metals such as mercury, from dental amalgam, vaccinations and food sources such as tuna. Add to this our daily exposure to chemical compounds found in cosmetics and household cleaning products, and we begin to realize that the body needs some help to reduce its toxic load.
The overall effects of this toxicity at a cellular level will undoubtedly influence the health of the body. The problem is compounded if nutritional deficiencies exist as a result of poor eating habits, as illustrated in the following simple equation:
TOXICITY + NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCIES = IMPAIRED PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE
Conversely, visualize the following equation:
LOW TOXICITY + OPTIMUM NUTRITION = HEIGHTENED PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE
The Low Toxicity Strategy
In terms of improving optimum sporting performance, it seems obvious tha t we need to create the conditions that allow the body to function to its maximum potential. Therefore, it makes sense that our number one priority is to eat the highest quality food. Or, as Dr Douglas Graham states in his book: ‘Nutrition and Athletic Performance’:
‘To maximize nutrition and minimize the negative effects of toxic matter upon the body, the athlete does well to design his or her diet to include as much whole, fresh, ripe, raw, organic fruits and vegetables as possible’.
In terms of lowering your body’s toxic load, it’s clear that a plant based diet has a double benefit; firstly, it reduces the intake of toxins into the body; secondly, it aids the body in its attempts to detoxify itself because of the cleansing nature of fruits and vegetables. This is the reason why fruits and vegetables have been used for centuries to cleanse and rejuvenate the body, and by so doing, provide the conditions which encourage self-healing.
What to Eat for Optimum Performance?
The Benefits of Raw and Living Foods
This programme is based upon a diet that comprises of an abundance of raw vegetables with the addition of so-called living foods. Living foods are chlorophyll and enzyme rich raw plant foods. They comprise of the likes of sprouted seeds (e.g. alfalfa), fruit, vegetables, salad leaves and herbs. I would also include certain freshly-made juices, especially so-called green juices made with the likes of celery, cabbage, cucumber, spinach, kale, watercress, etc. Wheatgrass juice is a particularly powerful healing juice and often forms the basis of healing programmes. The high chlorophyll content of such green drinks both detoxifies the body, oxygenates the blood, whilst helping to rejuvenate the cells.
In addition to sprouting seeds, you can also sprout nuts, pulses and grains. These sprouted foods are very rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and live enzymes.
Chlorophyll’s special action on the blood detoxes and rejuvenates at the same time.
This is the most gentle and thorough way to encourage and support natural healing and optimum performance in sport.
Another food group I would recommend is sea-greens, which includes the likes of seaweeds, such as kelp, wakame and nori. These are rich in trace minerals and iodine, which some people may be short of in their diets. I would suggest that you try to source sea-greens from areas that are relatively free from pollution, such as Norway. Personally, I would avoid produce from Japan and the surrounding areas due to possible radioactive contamination in the wake of the Fukishima accident.
What to Eat
The bulk of your diet should revolve around the following vegetables:
|Bok choy||Radish||Bell peppers|
|Watercress||Mung bean sprouts||Cucumbers|
|Turnip greens||Cress||Summer squashes|
|Roots and Tubers||Sea Vegetables||Herbs (not dried)|
The principle that underpins the programme is to base the majority of your diet upon vegetables with the addition of around 15-20 % of fresh fruits. This is because it’s important to keep the level of sugars from fruits within certain limits, as too much sugar, even from natural sources,are believed to be detrimental to health. For this reason, dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, figs, dates, should be eaten only as a rare treat The best fruits include the following:
|Good Choice||Eat in Moderation||Eat Occasionally|
|Grapes (red and white)||Avocado||Dried fruits|
*Avocadoes are a great source of healthy fats, but eat in moderation since too much fat will lower energy levels and slow down the healing process. Ideally, the fat content of your diet should be around 10% of your food intake.
Choose from pumpkin, sunflower, hemp (shelled) and sesame. They should be eaten in their raw state, and not roasted and/or salted. You can also sprout them, which increases their digestibility and nutritional value. Whether sprouted or not, it is always best to soak them for around 6 hours prior to eating in order to rid them of any enzyme inhibitors.
Choose from almonds, green coconuts, filberts, pecans and walnuts. Again, eat them raw after soaking for at least six hours; or ideally in sprouted form.
Grains, seeds and beans contain natural compounds that act as enzyme inhibitors to preserve them until the right growing conditions initiate them to begin sprouting. Therefore, if these foods are eaten without being soaked or sprouted, the enzyme inhibitors may interfere with their digestion and absorption of the nutrients that they contain.
Legumes (peas and beans) are a valuable source of minerals, carbohydrates and proteins. You can sprout the likes of aduki beans, chick-peas, mung beans and lentils. Whilst the bulk of your diet should comprise of low starchy vegetables; legumes are a valuable addition, but use them in moderation.
If grains are included in your diet, it’s best to avoid all refined grains and their products, such as white rice and white wheat flour. The best grains are the likes of whole grain rice (all varieties, e.g. whole grain basmati, wild rice); quinoa, millet, buckwheat, rye and corn. Wheat is best avoided whilst on a therapeutic programme. Ideally, grains should be sprouted to maximise their nutritional value and digestibility. Always opt for organically grown grains whenever possible.
For useful advice on sprouting, I suggest you purchase The Sprouter’s Handbook, which is available from good bookshops and Amazon.
Juicing can be a great addition to the diet because freshly made juices are rich in nutrients and live enzymes. Moreover, green juices are high in chlorophyll, which is thought to play a key role in the healing process.
Although freshly made fruit juices do have some value as they’re a valuable source of antioxidants and nutrients, they are also high in sugars, which will result in blood sugar peaks. Also, there is some evidence to suggest that too much sugar, albeit the natural sugars found in fruits and some vegetables, may impede the healing process. The best solution is to consume mainly so-called green juices, whilst keeping the fruit juices to a minimum. It’s also worth remembering that fruit juices such as apple and orange, should be diluted 50:50 with pure water (not tap water).
A good example of a green juice would be the following:
2 sticks of celery, 1/3 of a cucumber, 2 handfuls of spinach and a small piece of fresh ginger (optional).
Other greens can be used instead of the spinach; for example, kale, green cabbage and even lettuce.
I also suggest that you purchase a good book on green juices. Anne Wigmore’s book on wheatgrass, is also highly recommended.
Advice for Non-vegetarian’s
For reasons already stated, if animal products are part of your diet, it is best to limit their intake; furthermore, just as important as quantity, is the choice of meats. Here’s an easy to follow check-list:
|Red meats such as beef||Choose white meats such as|
|chicken and turkey; lamb and|
|venison are also allowed|
|Processed meats e.g. ham,||Opt for meats free from additives|
|bacon, hot-dogs, salami||and those that are not smoked|
|corned beef, etc.|
|Avoid pork as it is quite toxic|
|Smoked fish||Choose fresh fish, such as wild|
|salmon. Good choices include;|
|sardines, mackerel, salmon and|
|pilchard;, all of which are high|
|in healthy fats|
|Eggs that come from battery hens||Choose free-range, organic eggs|
NB Wherever possible, opt for free-range organic meats and avoid farmed fish such as farmed salmon as they are routinely exposed to antibiotics.
Health and Disease Diet Spectrum
I have created the following diet – disease spectrum in order to give you an insight into where you are placed with your current diet. It is only a rough guide; however, when you have selected the section that is the closest match to your diet, you will then be able to make positive changes.
Reavely Diet Spectrum
<< DISEASE ……………………………………………………………………………………………………..HEALTH >>
|Refined carbs, high||Refined carbs,||Refined||Some refined||Mostly||Whole||Sprouted|
|sugar/salt, dairy, fresh||high||carbs, high||carbs, some||wholegrains,||grains,||nuts/seeds/pulses/grains|
|and processed||sugar/salt,||sugar/salt,||whole grains,||nuts/seeds||(e.g. sunflower, snow|
|dairy, meats,||dairy, eggs,||nuts/seeds,||Nuts/seeds,||high||pea, alfalfa);|
|Meats; high saturated||fish; high||meats,||white meats,||fruits,||vegetable|
|fats and trans fats;||saturated fats||high||healthy fats,||healthy fats,||intake||chlorophyll rich foods; high|
|processed foods (e.g.||and trans fats,||saturated||fruits,||high||(50% raw);||vegetable intake|
|ready meals; some||processed||fats and||approx.. 5-6||vegetable||fruits, low|
|starchy vegetables||foods; starchy||trans fats,||vegetable||intake, dairy;||salt,||(80-100% raw); very|
|(e.g potatoes)||vegetables;||fish, fruits,||portions||moderate||limited||low salt; minimal|
|fish, pulses,||natural||use of natural sugars;|
|some||moderate||sugars||‘superfoods’ such as|
|vegetables||sugar and||from||spirulina, reishi mushrooms;|
|salt intake,||honey,||freshly prepared juices,|
|dairy; fish;||etc, pulses;||including green juices (e.g.|
|white meats;||sprouted||wheatgrass, kale);|
|healthy fats||mung||(e.g. omega 3 and 6|
|beans).||from cold pressed|
|flaxseed oil); chia|
The health and disease diet spectrum has been devised so that you can evaluate how close your current diet is in relation to the holistic view of foods that either, increase your chances of developing disease; or conversely, those foods that enhance your chances of achieving optimum health. As you will observe, the closer that your diet aligns with the categories towards the right of the table, the better in terms of increasing the chances of achieving a healthy state.
Having said this, the type of diet encompassed within each category may not necessarily exactly match your own; for example, your diet may closely align with category F, but with the addition of fish. This doesn’t matter too much, as long as you are eating the majority of other foods in that category. Similarly, some people may be following a vegetarian or vegan diet; and again, it is just a case of ascertaining which diet category is more closely aligned with your own in terms of the predominance of foods within that category.
NB. These conclusions are supported by the results of recent studies on human nutrition, including the China Study, which, to date, is the largest study on human nutrition.
The key factors involved in achieving health, wellbeing and optimum performance in sport are;
- Adhere to a plant based or predominately plant-based diet which encompasses mostly vegetables, fruits and other wholefoods
- Choose only healthy fats such as those derived from flaxseeds, chia seeds, and if you are a non-vegetarian, oily fish from unpolluted areas
- Include superfoods such as chlorella, spirulina and sea-greens
- Incorporate sprouts in your diet. Choose the likes of sunflower, aduki, snow peas, alfalfa, broccoli, radish, etc
- Include as many high chlorophyll foods in your diet as possible. These might include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage, kale, spinach and watercress.
- Try to make your own fresh juices on a daily basis. Green juices are especially beneficial, as they are rich in chlorophyll and provide easily assimilated nutrients and enzymes
Recommended Reading and Contacts
Alkalize or Die, Dr Theodore A Baroody; Holographic Health Inc. (Dec 1991)
Lifeforce; Clement, B, R, PhD; HLP, 2007
The Wheatgrass Book, Wigmore, Anne (Avery Books, 1985) :
Nutrition and Athletic Performance ;Dr Graham, N, Douglas. Website: www.foodnsport.com
The Natural Athlete; Reavely, D. Diviniti Press, 2003 Website: www.fooddetective.co.uk
The China Study; Campbell, Colin, T; PhD; Campbell, Thomas, M. II; MD; Benbella Books Inc. 2006