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An Holistic Approach to Optimum Sports Nutrition

by June Butlin(more info)

listed in exercise and fitness, originally published in issue 39 - April 1999

Sports nutritionists seem to be involved in a never ending search for the one isolated supplement, food or drug, which will enhance performance. For example the popular sports supplement, Creatine Monohydrate, is being promoted to increase training intensity and recovery. Some sports people taking this supplement have gained benefits, but it causes side effects of oedema, undesirable weight gain, gastrointestinal discomfort, kidney damage and even death in susceptible people. Another example can be seen in the vast amounts of 'Bagels' consumed by athletes, as though they are 'Superfoods'. Bagels contain carbohydrates needed for energy, but are heavily processed, nutrient deficient and contain a high proportion of salt. A diet of bagels could actually cause poor health. However, these examples pose few problems for some sports people who see very little correlation between health and fitness. They will often go to extremes to succeed and win, with little regard for the health of their bodies.

Sports nutrition is also surrounded by a web of misleading information such as taking large amounts of sports supplements to increase performance, advocating very high protein diets to build muscle, very high carbohydrate diets to increase energy, and very low fat diets to reduce body fat. Because of this misinformation few sportspeople follow a quality nutrition programme.

There is no one supplement, food or drug that increases performance. All sportspeople must eat sufficient amounts of all the essential nutrients for health, as well as the extra nutrients needed to achieve a continuous high level of performance.

To understand optimum sports nutrition from an holistic perspective, a definition needs to be established. My definition is:

The scientific study of the optimum nutrient requirements, for the optimum functioning of the body's cells, to achieve and maintain the individual's level of optimum health, and highest level of fitness and performance.

To fulfil this definition, attention needs to be given to the nutritional requirements of the body, which includes the intake of protein, carbohydrate, fats, vitamins, minerals, oxygen and water in the correct quantity, quality and balance. Physiologically the body's systems - digestive, elimination, circulatory, urinary, endocrine and nervous - should be balanced and functioning well. The individual's symptoms, stress levels, emotions and aspirations should also be taken into consideration. These areas can be targeted through nutrition, exercise, bodywork and lifestyle counselling. Much of the above criteria are based on biochemical individuality, however there are some basic guidelines set out below that will enhance energy, endurance and performance.

Carbohydrates are the main sources of fuel for the body. Complex carbohydrates such as potato, rice and pasta supply slow releasing glucose, which will help to maintain a steady blood glucose level. The simple carbohydrates, glucose and fructose (fruit sugar) are absorbed more quickly and supply instant energy for the athlete. These can be advantageous in the five minutes prior to training and during training.

They also help to replace liver and muscle glycogen (stored form of glucose) straight after exercise, which is important for continuous energy output. The effects of glycogen depletion can be seen in marathon runners who 'hit the wall' and start to use their fat stores as fuel. Glycogen stores can be replaced by consuming carbohydrates in the first two hours after exercise.

Proteins are vital components of health and performance and are used for growth, maintenance, and repair of the body's cells, including the muscles. They are used for the production of hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, and for energy production when glycogen levels are depleted. Proteins are made from amino acids and can be obtained from animal sources such as meat, eggs, milk, and fish and from a combination of vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy produce. Both animal and vegetarian proteins will supply all the essential amino acids, the only difference being that animal protein is much higher in fat and vegetarian protein is higher in carbohydrates.

The amino acids that are used first in heavy exercise are the branched chain amino acids isoleucine, leucine and valine. Care is needed to replace these and it is at this point that an amino acid supplement of hydrolysed protein, or a full spectrum amino acid formula, may be useful. It is important to emphasise that excess protein can cause kidney damage and will lay down fat stores in the body.

Fats are needed to provide fuel, protection of organs, absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and to supply the essential fatty acids. These essential fats are important and are found in oily fish, linseeds, cold pressed oils, nuts and seeds. Sportspeople need adequate supplies to improve the functioning of the immune and nervous systems, to reduce inflammation and to regulate water balance.

Maintaining hydration is essential for athletes as it is important to achieve peak performance and recovery after exercise. Body fluids are lost as the glycogen stores are depleted, and in sweat. Guidelines for rehydration are to drink at least 8 x 8oz glasses of pure water each day. During training sessions lasting up to 90 minutes 250mls of water should be taken every 15 minutes, and an isotonic sports drink (carbohydrate plus water) taken during longer sessions.

The ratio of these essential nutrients will vary for each individual taking into account body composition, basal metabolic rate, the type and intensity of training. A reasonable guideline for a physically active person would be a diet consisting of 60% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 20% fat. An endurance athlete would need a diet consisting of 60% carbohydrates, 15% protein and 25% fat; a body builder 55% carbohydrate 30% protein and 15% fat, and a skier 60% carbohydrates 15% protein and 25% fat.

Supplements may be used in addition to a quality diet, but not as a substitute. Useful supplements are those that boost the immune system, a quality multi vitamin and mineral and amino acids. Other sports enhancing supplements may be taken, if desired, once the optimum nutrition guidelines are in place.

* Next month. Case studies on two successful sportsmen.

Reference Books

Dynamic Nutrition for Maximum Performance Daniel Gastelu Dr. Fred Hatfield Avery Publishing Group 1997 ISBN 0 89529 756 6
Optimum Sports Nutrition Dr Michael Colgan Advanced Research Press 1993 ISBN 0 9624840 5 9


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About June Butlin

June M Butlin PhD is a trained teacher, nutritionist, kinesiologist, aromatherapist, fitness trainer and sports therapist. She is a writer, health researcher and lecturer and is committed to helping people achieve their optimum level of health and runs a private practice in Wiltshire. June can be contacted on 01225 869 284;

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