Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Eat this

I've received a few emails lately asking about "Sports Performance Diets." To sum up my philosophy on food for sports: You are what you eat, but the human body is amazing at processing just about anything. Here are some free-form thoughts:

-Unless you are truly "Elite," and by this I mean actually in the top one percent or so of a sport and not just claiming to be elite because you can do a workout that makes you gasp then what you eat is relevant only in that you have enough decent calories in your diet, but not way too many or you'll be too fat. Some body fat is OK; if you've been 12 percent your entire life then it's probably not worth the effort to drop to six percent, nor is it a realistic goal that will actually improve your performance as much as an extra few hours of training a week.

-The classic story about sports nutrition comes from my wife, Kim, who actually was an elite athlete--we know this because she got a scholarship to go to University as a nordic ski racer, along with some Americans and a few Norwegians. The Norwegians would win or place high in the ski race, eat a couple of boxes of Oreos for post-race recovery, have a beer, eat another huge dinner, and sleep 10 hours a night. The Americans would place mid-pack, recover with sports drinks, eat a "Pritikin" (very little fat) dinner, sleep poorly, and not improve. The Americans would also obsess about vitamins, body fat, etc. The Norwegians won races, the Americans worried about their diets... Chris Sharma does not eat Paleo/Zone/WTF. In fact, I can't think of one truly elite athlete that follows any incredibly strict diet. I would bet they are conscious of what they eat because they know their bodies, but not religious about it. Yet there are legions of people out there trying to improve their amateur sports performance through bizzare diets. I would call them idiots, but it's really a form of gullibility brought on by wishful thinking.

-Eat today as you will for the rest of your life. Radical exclusion diets of any kind eventually fail, every single one of them. There are no exceptions unless your diet kills you before you "fail" at it, which in a way anorexia or malnutrition can...

-The "Paleo/Pritikin/Atkins/Zone/Hollywood/Sports/WTF" diet are all doomed to eventual "failure;" I'd guess that optimistically maybe 1 in 10,000 people following them today will be following them in 20 years. That's the history of every diet ever, so why exactly does anyone think the latest "Best Ever For Sports Performance!!!" plans are any different? Diets and Ponzi schemes all end the same: the people who bought in either quit or are taken for a ride. It doesn't matter if it's real estate, investments or diets, it's never truly "different this time."

-Once you realize that the entire "diet" industry, even the "sports" version of it is somewhere between a scam and a religion (many religions have dietary prescriptions come to think of it) then you're on your way to decent nutrition, sports or otherwise.

-Generally eat food that's pretty close to the form it grew or lived in. Eat less when you don't need much energy (sitting at a desk). Eat more calorie-dense foods when you need calories (ski touring, etc.). If you're burning calories like mad ski touring then sugar is great. If you're sitting at a desk then it's not in general.

-Too much of anything for too long is a bad idea. One slice of cheesecake just doesn't matter. One hundred pieces do.

-Read up on insulin, the glycemic index, and listen to your body for what different foods make you feel like. Eat more vegetables for a week. What does that do? Drink less alcohol, drink more alcohol, take some notes, listen. Without the roar of the diet industry in your ears you might be surprised by what you find.

-Exercise hard, regularly. Exercise easily for long periods of time, like walking, regularly. Do sports that require serious effort at least once a week. Set aside one hour every single day to go out and breath hard, outside if at all possible, but at least breathing doing something fun.

-Spend way less time thinking about food than you do enjoying it. If you're spending more time thinking about what to eat than you are eating it then you have an eating disorder. I've seen a lot of athletes spend more time worrying about what they eat than actually training.

-There are no magic bullets, no metabolic master blasters, etc. etc. Sorry, the guy who trains 30 hours a week and eats at McDonalds will destroy the guy who trains five hours a week and eats a perfect Paleo diet. If Paleo boy steps his training up to 30 hours a week then he may be able to compete with McDonald's boy, but even then I'd bet that the skills, quality training time and attitude would still kick Paleo Boy's ass...

-Accept some fluctuation in your body. When you're training really hard and consistently you'll be leaner, stronger and generally "fitter." When you're only training two hours or less a week because of work, family, whatever, your body will change. This is OK, it's normal, either change life or accept it.

Yeah! Now I gotta go train, it's been a lousy two months due to all kinds of great stuff. I traded some fitness for some life stuff for a while, now the stoke is high again, time to get after it!

35 comments:

___ said...

Great post! I loved every bit of it.

Kat

Anonymous said...

you mean that taurine, glucuronolactone, caffeine, b-group vitamins, and sucrose won't increase my performance, concentration, reaction speed, vigilance, emotional status, and metabolism?

Will Gadd said...

Anon 1:40--In the short run, yes, it will. Long run, you'd better train and eat some real food too, ha ha! Good one.

Anonymous said...

"Sorry, the guy who trains 30 hours a week and eats at McDonalds will destroy the guy who trains five hours a week and eats a perfect Paleo diet. If Paleo boy steps his training up to 30 hours a week then he may be able to compete with McDonald's boy, but even then I'd bet that the skills, quality training time and attitude would still kick Paleo Boy's ass..."

It sounds like you're contradicting yourself here. I find it extremely hard to believe that having two guys with the exact same training and sleep routine, the McDonalds guy will be in the same condition than someone eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet.

Disclaimer: this is no Paleo defense. I don't even know what the hell the Paleo diet is.

Will Gadd said...

Anon--If everything else were perfectly identical then McDs will lose to Paleo. But anyone obsession over food and putting energy there will be wasting energy that could be put toward training.

Paleo is actually better than a lot of the nonsense out there, it's just the fad of the week. It does seem to have some science behind it, but so did Pritikin, Hass, Bailey, etc... Few will recognize those names, but those of us who survived thought we were eating the best possible diet. We were wrong. Don't get fooled again!

Jeff Sutherland said...

Will, your perspective is appreciated, sounds like you've been around the block a time or two! Thanks for sharing.

d said...

Obsessing about training is equally dysfunctional as obsessing about food.

I used to do both, and perhaps I was 10% faster than I am now, but I certainly was 10% less healthy at the same time. Both mentally and physically.

Mental health is underestimated.

Suburbanwankster said...

Good post! I enjoyed it!

pFranzen said...

"Generally eat food that's pretty close to the form it grew or lived in."

I've thought for a long time that this simple bit of advice would solve most people's diet issues. It's increasingly more difficult to do in middle-class America because of our love for highly-processed and inexpensive foods, but this is really the first advice that anyone should get when changing how they eat.

Great post Will.

Ralph S. said...

First the Telemarkers and now the Paleo-ites!?! This should be good. So I guess my 400 calorie faux apple pie before ski-touring was okay? Guilt-be-gone!

andyp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
andyp said...

Great post, Will. I preach / teach this all the time... but you have a great way of putting it into context in regard to sports and elite athletes. Your same advice goes for regular people... obsession over anything is not healthy - even if the obsession is running (seemingly healthy) vs. drinking alcohol (definitely unhealthy).

Andy

Laurel Fan said...

It seems to be way more common to hear the opposite -- that diet is 90% and exercise (not training...) is 10%. I think I've realized that this is true if and only if your sport is standing around looking skinny, because I tried that and that is what happened...

Kim Graves said...

"Generally eat food that's pretty close to the form it grew or lived in."

Beautiful, Will. I've been on a diabetic diet now for 10 years and it really is that simple.

Anyone who is not yet red Gary Taubes article - "Is Sugar Toxic?" - in the NY Times magazine, it will be one of those seminal articles. There is a growing body of research that sugar is an actual poison with long-term health consequences. We're sort of at the same point with sugar as the nicotine research was in the 50's.

Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?scp=2&sq=gary%20taubes&st=cse

Brent Kearney said...

"Paleo is actually better than a lot of the nonsense out there, it's just the fad of the week."

LOL

A 5 million year old fad - good one!

Theron said...

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing! Really good thoughts!

Hatchett said...

Great commentary, Will! Spot on. Want to do well? Train harder!! Tough recipe to swallow for those who haven't evolved to Quaternary times ;)

akalpinist said...

Want to lose weight? Eat less do more. I work at a mine 12 hours a day for 28 strait days then have 14 days to "get after it!" My training time cuts into my recovery time which breaks down my constitution when it comes to diet. I gave up and decided to say screw the diet, rest more and make better use of my training sessions. With less training, more treats and more sleep I've made massive gains. I think treads have driven people to want to look like elite athletes rather than become elite athletes. Great post. I'm glad to hear someone talking some sense.

Josefine said...

Awesome post. I quote it on my Swedish blog, hope it was OK?

Scott said...

I stopped tinkering with my diet because it started causing issues with my hypoglycemia. When I stopped changing what I was eating and ate what my body was telling me it needed, things evened out. I started having more energy to train harder and it's paid off. Eating "clean" doesn't work for me. I have to have a full nutritional profile in order for my endocrine system to function normally. This means fats, simple carbs, and complex carbs. LOTS of them. My body plows through sugar like a crack addict.

I used to weigh almost 300lbs when I was in high school. I'm down to 170 now. And no matter what I do, I keep coming back to calories in/calories out and putting in what my body is craving. Which is usually tons of carbs. Not what I've thought it should get. Which was lots of protein.

Great post Will! Nutrition is something so simple that people think they need to complicate to get right. If they'd stop and listen to their bodies it'd be so much easier.

mrjling said...

This article mixes some good insights with complete ignorance, bordering on insanity. I know its nice to get some provoking done, but the contradictions you make are ridiculous.

Greg said...

Hey mrjling!
Will would never provoke anything!

Here is my take on food:
http://bit.ly/lvvFmS

Anonymous said...

you make valid points but i agree with mrjling.

I'm not sure using Sharma is a very convincing point - as he's one hell of a phenomenon. Many sports have extreme cases (Caio Terra in jiujitsu eats candies and mcdonalds exclusively, Herschell Walker and his one meal a day and 1000 pushups/situps, etc).

Most people wouldnt function well following the path of those one of a kind athletes.

most really strong climbers are skinny as hell (ever seen a 180lbs+ V10 climber?) so optimizing nutrition it's not much of an issue in climbing - maybe talk to football players, bodybuilder or any sport where you need to be muscular and strong - you might get a different reaction.

any way, very provocative..im sure you had a blast waiting for reactions.

Punjabi Mountain Man said...

Great post. However, as an American I have to say diets do have their place. Many of us are ridiculously overweight, to the point that being overweight is the norm, and skinny kids are looked at like anorexic oddities. Common sense eating and listening to your body is not something Americans are very good at. Diets help with that. And, where an elite athlete can eat junk food and not worry (because it's all burned off the next day), most of us sit at a computer for 8 hours and only burn fat for 20-30 min 4 times a week. I might offer, that for those of us that are NOT elite athletes, we actually need to watch what we meat more than an elite simply because we don't have a lifestyle that will let us get away with downing a carton of Oreos for dinner. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

This rambling blog post seems like it's tailored to send people down the wrong path.

Yes, it's true that fad/gimmicky diets are a good way to ensure eventual failure and sabotage your efforts, but eating healthy does not consume massive amounts of time like you seem to claim, and it will ALWAYS make someone perform better.

You identify two polar extremes, eating oreos and beer or eating the atkins diet, and say that the atkins diet is worse. Well, that MAY be true for some (though I doubt it), but the middle ground, that eating healthy is better for performance and general well-being, is proven scientifically as well as anecdotally.

Since the majority of people who read your blog will probably rely on your perceived "expertise," you should act a little more responsibly in your advice.

Will Gadd said...

First off, I'm not advocating eating a McDonald's level diet on a regular basis. There are repeated references to eating a good basic diet; to a point, the less junk you eat the better you'll feel and perform. But it's only to a point, after that you're entering the realm of rapidly diminishing returns, and worrying about diet becomes detrimental. We all only have so much energy to spend. It's better to put more thought and energy into high-quality training than to obsess over what to eat or not.

Training trumps nutrition. Skills trump nutrition. Headspace trumps nutrition. The extreme examples of world-class athletes (real, "elite" athletes, not wanna-bes) kicking ass on horrendous diets prove that point. That said, most people eat way too much junk and don't exercise enough; the solution is less junk and more exercise, not guaranteed to fail diets. I am amazed at how complicated people want this to be; hell, I spent ten years thinking that I would perform better if I could just eat the right foods. No.

Exclusion and portion control diets invariably fail. Some of the posters on here don't want to believe that. I know that eventually they will. The basic tenets of Paleo are decent, and it's a better "diet" than most I think. But strictly following it or any diet is doomed to "failure" as always. How complicated is this???

mrjing: I'd rather be ignorant than do headstand back arches or WTF those are on youtube, sheesh. And get your damn chin over the bar if you're going to claim weighted pullups, those are pathetic. Nice L-sit pulls though. If you eat a perfect Paleo diet than you're a classic example of someone thinking more about their diet when they should be thinking about how to TRAIN more effectively. Thanks for posting.

Anon 7:10:

What "wrong" path am I sending people down? I'm saying ignore the diet hype and eat basic, good foods, exercise hard, have fun, approach life as a lifetime sport. What's your prescription?

Anonymous said...

http://selkirk.ca/research/faculty-research/tree-planting/

Will

Dr. Delia Roberts at Selkirk College here has some excellent advice on nutrition. It is directed at tree planters, and granted they are dirty-dope-smoking-hippies and not "elite athletes" it applies to any strenuous activity.
See the power eating guide.

Ivan

Anonymous said...

Great Post! I live mostly by the Paleo diet but I don't not eat something because it may not follow paleo guidelines. I lost weight on it and was able to find out what I eat that makes my body function better or worse. When I am training harder I follow it closer without trying because I know what my body wants/needs to feel good, but would I miss a night out with the girls at cheesecake factory? Not a chance! It is good to know that it is ok. Most other stuff out there says all or nothing one way only!!!

Anton said...

Will - you nailed it and this whole issue reminds me of the very funny MAD TV episode: "Eat Less, Move More".
Every time I hear of someone doing some new diet I ask them if its sustainable for the rest of their life. Most often the answer is 'no', which as you note is the key problem... it must be a lifestyle change, not a temporary fad.

Toby Gadd said...

I don't understand why people are getting so riled up about Will's dietary advice. It's pretty darn simple really, and mostly common sense. Although he elaborates in greater depth, the basics are very clear: focus on training--and try not to eat too much stuff that's highly refined (with the notable exception of Red Bull, ha). Seems to work for a lot of elite athletes, and it even works for regular guys like me. Hardly controversial. As our mother used to say: "Eat your veggies and go outside to play."

Anonymous said...

Amen Will!!! how great it is to stuff yer face when you are skitouring or cllimbing to try to keep up witht the calories burned!!! hahaha!!! if only i was fit enough to carry it to the hut so that i could be in total gluttony when i get there instead of that dehydrated stuff!!!! oh how i would have killed for chocolate, cheese, and a good splash of redwine when i was at bowhut on newyears!!!! screw the gorby food and eat what tastes great!!!!!!

Will Gadd said...

Sugar:
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/how-sugar-affects-the-body-in-motion/

Ben said...

Good post Will. I too have tried various diets/exercise plans, and have found the best way, to lose weight, stay in shape, be strong, and feel great is to eat a balanced died of foods I like, with a total caloric intake that suits my activity level, and to stay active doing things that I love. So simple.

Jorgen said...

On the other hand. I think MOST of the food industry, not just the "diet" one, is somewhere between a scam and a religion.

Great post!
I've already riled up a few of my LCHF friends with it! :D :D

Edible Nutrition said...

Love this post! As a registered dietitian who works with athletes, laymen individuals, and musicians I could not agree more! I see the gamete of diets come and go throughout the years, and I always stand strong on a non-dieting approach. My husband, a SEAL sent this along because he knew I would love to read this, and he is right. I wish more people saw it this way; however, vanity takes over more so than performance. I work mostly with mountain bikers, BMX, and supercross athletes who I just encourage to eat closer to the Earth. When asked if they can still Taco Bell, I say "of course!" How often and how much is key, along with adding in good foods along the way.