Athletes who want results must give themselves the very best chance for success. For optimal results, training alone is simply not enough. Along with a solid off-season training plan, a customized nutrition program is essential for taking performance training to the next level. From fueling to recovery, muscle building to endurance, optimal nutrition ensures success for training and thus success in your sport, at whatever level you compete.
It’s refreshing to see that more people are becoming aware that better nutrition leads to better outcomes. It is finally becoming accepted that proper nutrition is incredibly important in disease prevention and for reaching optimal health. As an athlete, nutrition is not only critical for health, but for success as well, and nutrient requirements for performance athletes are higher than for the general populations.
Most elite athletes are told that a healthy diet is important in order to fuel their bodies. But a healthy diet is also critical for proper recovery, regeneration, injury prevention, and keeping the immune system strong to ward off illness.
But what is a healthy diet? Some trainers believe a healthy diet involves eating “low-fat and low-carb” or “high-fat and high protein”. They often advise their athletes to exclude whole grains and legumes and restrict fruits and vegetables, yet endorse loads of chemically laden bacon, processed meats and man-made “sports” products. Other trainers believe it’s simply about calories in and calories out and it doesn’t matter what quality of food is consumed. No doubt, there are a lot of mixed messages aimed at athletes, especially youth athletes – just take a look at what types of products popular star athletes are promoting.
As a Holistic Nutritionist, my approach is to integrate the concept of traditional sports nutrition with the concept of functional nutrition and focus on training, performance and recovery. Functional nutrition recognizes that every athlete responds differently to diet, training, recovery, and environmental factors and therefore requires an individualized approach.
This comprehensive approach addresses the specific needs of each athlete tailored to their individual lifestyle, training and recovery requirements allowing for maximum benefits while promoting long-term health.
So, what should an athlete actually eat? And, how much? How often? That’s where a solid nutrition program comes in. I am a firm believer that the quality of foods, along with quantity and nutrient timing, plays a tremendous role in whether an athlete achieves their goals (or not!). Nutrition is also a critical component when healing from a sports injury or surgery. There are also other aspects to consider along with diet. Rest, recovery and regeneration cannot be left out of the mix.
A well-designed nutrition program will guide and educate the athlete so that they are able to make proper food and lifestyle choices that helps them achieve the health, body composition and performance goals they desire.
What are the key factors that come into play for performance success; is it training, practice, rest? You bet! All of these are important factors and provide true benefits. But don’t overlook the vital importance of nutrition; it is a crucial component to an athlete’s success.
Proper nutrition is imperative during heightened competition like tournaments, playoffs and during the elevated stressful time of tryouts. Unfortunately, these events bring about even greater nutritional challenges for players (and their families!). That’s why for optimal performance during these times, it’s vital players nourish their bodies properly so they have sustained energy, strength and stamina while also consuming adequate nutrients to support the recovery process. Focusing on proper nutrition (not just calories!) will ensure players are physically and mentally ready for every challenge.
You certainly can’t count on arena food to deliver the nutrition required – hot dogs, chicken fingers, pizza, fries/poutine and candy bars are absolutely not the types of food that will support a player’s optimum performance. If fact, they do the very opposite causing energy spikes and crashes, which in turn drain energy and make for a sluggish performance.
Also, high levels of sodium in these foods often cause dehydration leading to muscle and stomach cramps, and loss of mental focus. Again, the focus should be on fueling with nutrients NOT just calories. So, what can you do? Plan and Prepare to succeed.
During Playoffs or On the Road
With a little planning and effort, a healthy diet is simple to maintain during playoffs, tryouts and even for away games and tourneys. Here are some tips to ensure a steady supply of tasty and nutritious food is always available:
• Make and bring your own mini-meals whenever possible– sandwiches, wraps, hummus and veggies, thermos oatmeal, stews and whole-grain pasta (packed in a thermos) etc.
• Pack homemade energy bars/snacks, trail mix, whole fruit (apples, bananas, oranges) veggies, whole grain crackers, nuts and seeds – these foods are extremely easy and convenient to travel with.
• When traveling, hit a grocery store – stock up on fresh whole foods, leafy green salads, fresh roasted chicken, nut and seed butters and whole grains etc.
• Avoid dairy and sugar especially before and in between games
• Stay hydrated! Maintain and increase water intake. Keep the cooler stocked with water and always have a refillable bottle on hand to fill up at the arena. Avoid sugary drinks like juice and sports drinks, and caffeinated beverages; they are completely void of nutrients and they actually cause more dehydration.
Tips for Restaurant Ordering
There is no reason not to maintain healthy eating habits when eating out. Most restaurants are very accommodating and have no problem with substitution requests. When ordering:
• Ask for water with lemon/lime instead of pop, juice or other sugary drinks (especially chocolate milk! – I will address the myth that “Chocolate Milk is the Perfect Recovery Drink” in a future article)
• Steer clear of deep-fried and greasy or heavy foods
• Avoid apps loaded with cheese and creamy dressings (ranch/caesar dressings have no nutritional value and are loaded with artificial flavours and preservatives)
• Steer clear of “battered”, “crispy” or “coated” items and opt for “grilled”, “broiled” or “baked” instead
• Skip the fries and order a mixed green salad instead – ask for oil and vinegar (or lemon wedges) and dress the salad yourself
• Ask for brown rice instead of white rice
• Ask for double veggies instead of fries or garlic bread
• Pasta dishes – opt for tomato sauce instead of cream sauce or for whole grain pasta instead of regular pasta
Train, Practice, Rest AND Nourish your body to ensure it can compete at its highest potential.
Incorporate the above tips for the best opportunity to rise up and perform optimally!
“Everyone has a doctor in him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each of us is the greatest force in getting well. Our food should be or medicine. Our medicine our food.”
~Hippocrates 460 – 370 B.C.
There are four seasons – and Cold & Flu is not one of them! Just because it’s winter does not mean that you are bound to get sick! There are many ways to protect yourself from illness. Our best defense against disease and illness is our immune system. Concentrating on immune-enhancing whole foods and a balanced health promoting lifestyle will rev up your immune system and keep it vigorous.
Here are just a few tips to keep your immune system healthy and strong:
Increase Vitamin C Intake
Vitamin C is a key antioxidant; it also increases activity of white blood cells. Luckily this vitamin is found in a variety of whole foods such as bell peppers, cauliflower, oranges, lemons, dark leafy greens, strawberries, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Consume Anti-viral, Anti-inflammatory and Anti-bacterial Foods
Onion and garlic are very potent immune boosters. Garlic is anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. It contains a special compound called allicin which helps to protect us against infection. Onions help fight inflammation, contain sulfurous anti-bacterial compounds, and are also a good source of vitamin C.
Zero in on Zinc
Zinc is a very important mineral which supports the immune system (and healing in general). Good sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, quinoa, lentils, cashews, beef and lamb.
Grab Some Ginger
This is truly a potent herb for so many health benefits but it does wonders to boost our immune system. Add ginger to everything! – make teas, add to stews, soups, stir fries, sauces, dressings etc.
Mushrooms are Magic
Mushrooms are terrific immunity boosters because they have immunomodulating properties – meaning they help increase our immune fighting power when needed but can also temper an over-active immune system if necessary. Great varieties of mushrooms to incorporate into meals include shiitake, cremini, portabello, chanterelle and oyster. You could also try tea made from chaga and reishi mushrooms.
Water is a Weapon
Keeping well hydrated allows the body to flush out toxins, reduces aches, pains and headaches, supports the digestive process and aids in transporting hormones throughout the body. Without sufficient water, your immune system will be challenged. Aim for a minimum of 2 -3 litres daily.
Perhaps easier said than done but stress management is critical for a healthy immune system. There is no greater hindrance to our health than stress. That’s where stress reduction activities come in. Go for a walk, work-out, sit in a sauna, stretch and breathe deeply; these all help boost your immune function. Mindfulness meditation has been shown in studies to increase circulating antibodies. A variety of adaptogenic herbs may also be used to aid in restoring a weakened immune system caused by stress.
You’re Sweet Enough! - Besides making our bodies acidic (an acidic body is a great host for disease!) and feeding our “bad” bacteria, sugar competes with Vitamin C for uptake. The more sugar we eat, the less we are able to absorb Vitamin C.
Get your ZZZ’s
Sleep is crucial to our healing process and is one of the greatest natural immune system boosters. Long term sleep debt can lead to a host of serious diseases and even general malaise. Make it a priority to get adequate sleep every night. The hours between 10 pm and 4 am are the most beneficial for restoration and regeneration.
Can you feel it? There is little doubt summer is fading fast and the breezy winds of autumn are signaling the shift in seasons. Although September is the ninth month on the calendar, for many, it signals the beginning of a new year. A new school year, need for a new wardrobe, onset of new activities, a new hockey/sport season and, back to regular work schedules.
The autumn equinox makes its official arrival here in the northern hemisphere on September 22nd at 4:02 p.m. This is the day when both daytime and nighttime are of the same length – the world is in balance. Indeed, Autumn is the season of balance - so we too crave balance. Autumn is also the season of harvest and celebration. It’s a time to gather everything together and a time to focus on readying for the winter ahead. All of these things make Autumn a perfect time to restore a healthful balance to you and your family’s lives by establishing new family routines. Routines set everyone up for success; a calmer mindset, healthier choices, increased productivity with more focused energy, and this of course leads to happier and healthier families.
Winning Strategies to
Establish Healthy Habits
• Eat a nutritious breakfast at home
• Build in extra time and establish a morning routine – it sets the tone for the day. It’s not ideal to start the day bolting out of bed, skipping breakfast and rushing everyone out the door – that’s a recipe for disaster! Instead:
• Plan breakfast the night before and have ingredients prepped and ready to go
• If your running behind, take breakfast with you but keep it nutritious – a thermos of oatmeal, homemade energy bar, fruit with nuts and seeds, or a smoothie are great options (I’ve included a sample of my recipes below)
Plan the week ahead
and alleviate stress
• Plan not only your dinners for the week, but breakfast and lunches too!
• Simply start with a weekly grocery list based on meals for the week
• Buy unprocessed food ingredients and make your own meals instead of buying ready-to-eat processed foods
• Make sure to include 10–12 seasonal fruits and vegetables and commit to buying (and eating!) them.
Schedule weekly food prep
• Wash and chop vegetables, fruits and leafy greens and store in airtight containers in the fridge
• Hard-boil eggs and roast meats and vegetables so it’s a snap to make sandwiches, wraps, stir-fries and salads
• Prepare soups and stews and freeze in portioned containers
• Batch cook grains such as steel cut oats, brown rice and quinoa so whipping up a nutritious meal is quick and easy
• Get the family involved; assign age-related duties
Introduce a Family Challenge
“NO FAST FOOD” or “NO FOOD DELIVERED THROUGH A CAR WINDOW” challenge
• Reduce the number of times a week you frequent restaurants, or order take-out/delivery
• Make healthier homemade versions of your favourite take-out foods
• When you decide to eat-out or order- in, make healthier choices
• Do not use food as a reward or punishment. Instead of ice-cream or pizza after a good game, school report card or when someone had a bad day, consider an outing or activity instead.
• With the money saved through this challenge, treat the family to a weekend getaway, a vacation or special experience!
(Speak with a nutritionist to learn about upgrading food choices, revamping your favorite recipes, and tips and suggestions on healthier restaurant/take-out choices to help you with this challenge.)
Make time to “Break Bread” together
Of course we all lead very busy lives but it’s vital to maintain a connection with family. There is no better way to nourish our bodies and souls than by sharing a meal and our stories. So carefully consider everyone’s activities and determine times to schedule “mandatory family meals”.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
It’s estimated more than 75% of people are chronically dehydrated…yikes! Every cell in the body needs to be hydrated to function properly. Don’t let dehydration steal your mental and physical energy.
Some hydration tips
• Pure water is the best hydrator! Ensure everyone has their own refillable water bottle (a quality stainless steel or glass bottle with a protective sleeve is best – it’s well worth the small investment) and encourage consuming 1.5 to 3 liters daily (depending on weight, activity level and climate).
• Try adding lemon, lime or other fruit or herbs to jazz up your H20
• Eliminate pop (regular and diet), sugary drinks like juice and sports drinks, and caffeinated beverages. Not only are they unhealthy and completely void of nutrients, but they actually cause more dehydration!
Get plenty of sleep
Adequate restful sleep is one of the most important factors contributing to not only a good day but to long-term health. The detrimental effects of sleep debt are real…make sleep a priority!
• Stick to a stable bedtime routine; the hours between 10 pm and 4 am are optimal for cellular repair and regeneration and resetting hormones
• Dim the lights in your living area after 8:30 pm
• Create a proper sleep environment; this includes removing all electronics from the bedroom, keeping the room completely dark, quiet and comfortably cool.