In the first of our year-long Build a Better Athlete series, University of Virginia director of sports nutrition Randy Bird has the lowdown on what nutrition guidelines you should take with you into the New Year. Check back on the third Wednesday of every month for a new training video and on the first Wednesday of every month moving forward for a new nutrition article.
ESPNHS: What types of foods can help kick start you toward a healthy lifestyle in 2012?
Bird: Water, nonfat milk and produce are the most important. With water, hydration affects all areas of the body. Brain and muscle function are affected by hydration status. Dehydration can lead to headaches and fatigue and can also slow your metabolism. Nonfat milk hydrates as well as water and provides very high quality protein and calcium.
And most people don't eat adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables. Eating produce has many benefits. Fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that help your body function optimally, fight inflammation, and ward off illness. Athletes are under tremendous stress. You not only endure physical stress from training and environmental conditions but also emotional stress. By eating a fruit or vegetable at every meal or snack, you are helping to protect your body from the effects of stress. It is essential to get a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet daily. The more "colors" you eat, the more nutrients you are providing your body.
So get plenty of red (apples, cherries, red bell peppers, tomatoes and strawberries), yellows/orange (butternut squash, carrots, oranges and sweet potatoes), white (bananas, onions and cauliflower), green (asparagus, broccoli, spinach and kale) and blue/purple (blueberries, plums, raisins and purple grapes) in your diet.
ESPNHS: What are the foods that every athlete should be eating that they aren't?
Bird: Almonds and walnuts would be my top two choices. But any nut would be beneficial. They contain protein, fiber, healthy fat, antioxidants, polyphenols, magnesium and phosphorus. These nutrients are vital for optimal wellness. They help in recovery by controlling levels of hormones, improving blood flow and reducing inflammation.
ESPNHS: What are some of the worst foods/beverages for an athlete?
Bird: Based on the limited data regarding safety, it is not recommended that children or adolescents consume energy drinks. There are more than 500 varieties of unregulated energy drinks available worldwide. Because they are unregulated, the quantities of caffeine and other stimulants are not known.
There are excessive amounts of sugar in soft drinks. One can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. Constant exposure to high levels of sugar can lead to insulin resistance. This will increase body fat, which can decrease speed, endurance and explosiveness and increases risk for injury. Most colas also contain phosphoric acid. This ingredient may lead to weakened bones.
Athletes should also avoid fast food, specifically french fries, fried chicken patties, fried chicken nuggets and hamburgers. These are poor choices for multiple reasons. Some types of fat are very beneficial, while others can be harmful. These do not contain the beneficial fat. There are foods that help your body fight inflammation, while these foods promote inflammation. Increased inflammation slows down recovery from exercise. Generally the quality of ingredients at these restaurants is poor. You won't get the lean protein or quality carbohydrates that athletes need to fuel their bodies.
ESPNHS: Is there a food that gets a bad rap that's actually beneficial?
Bird: Eggs have definitely gotten a bad rap. It is no secret that high-quality protein may help active individuals build muscle strength. One egg provides 6 grams of protein. Eggs provide the highest quality protein found in any food because they provide all of the essential amino acids our bodies need in a near-perfect pattern. While many people think the egg white has all the protein, the yolk actually provides nearly half of it.
Consuming eggs following exercise is a great way to get the most benefits from exercise by encouraging muscle tissue repair and growth. Decades ago, researchers found that the cholesterol we eat really has no effect on the levels of cholesterol in the blood of most people. Yet, you will still hear people say that we should limit how many eggs we eat because of the level of cholesterol in them. Even if you are closely watching the amount of cholesterol you eat, one large egg only has 185mg of cholesterol. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people should eat less than 300mg of cholesterol daily.
The two main nutrients that impact blood levels of cholesterol are Saturated and Trans Fat. It's recommended that we eat less than 2 grams of trans fat and less than 10 percent of our calories from saturated fat daily. For most people, this averages to be less than 18 grams of saturated fat daily. The good news is one large egg only has 1.8 grams of saturated fat. Bottom line: You can safely enjoy an egg a day without worrying about your cholesterol.