By Candace Chemtob, B.S. and M.S. in Human Nutrition
Time and time again, we are bombarded with misinformation about nutrition. Facts are slanted to sell products or books. Eat berries from the Amazon or indulge in dark chocolate may be alluring answers, but are only half truths at best. Misleading information leaves most Americans unsure of the answer to this simple, basic question. For an athlete, eating a healthy diet is fundamental to improving performance. Your nutritional status cannot be optimized in only the days or hours leading up to a match. Instead, improving your performance through nutrition takes weeks or months before you step foot onto the court.
Eating healthy may not be so simple, but the concepts are. In this article, my goal is to present this information so that it is easy to understand, instead of being unnecessarily complicated.
Ten Rules for Healthy Eating:
1. You should eat to maintain a healthy weight. For most squash players, weight management is not a significant problem, as our sport burns calories at an astonishing rate. Even so, it would be hard to overstate the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. This was clearly demonstrated in an analysis of multiple studies (1.46 million subjects) published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010. This study found that overweight, non smoking adults (BMI*=27.5 to 30) increased their risk of mortality by approximately 20% as compared to adults with BMIs of 20 to 25.
2. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Experts recommend from 7 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and some cancers. In fact, a recent European study quantified this protective effect. Eight servings of fruits and vegetables lowered the risk of fatal heart disease by 22% when compared to a baseline of three servings (Eur Heart J, 2011) per day.
3. Nutritional supplements do not compensate for an unhealthy diet. Nutrients in a pill do not have the same health benefits when compared to eating the “whole” version of the food (NEJM April 1994, May 1996, January 2000). The same is true for newly “discovered” super foods. Eating gogi berries or drinking coconut water will not protect your health either. There is no substitute for eating healthy foods. Rule of thumb: If someone is selling something, be skeptical, and don’t seek nutritional information in a health food store.
4. Eat whole foods. Avoid processed foods. Processing foods strips food of essential nutrients. Eat the whole, fresh version of foods, these are always the richest in nutrients. Rule of thumb: If a food label takes a Ph.D. in chemistry to read, don’t eat it.
5. Eat a high fiber diet. Fiber is a part of plants that humans cannot digest or absorb. High fiber diets, defined as 30g fiber or more per day, are associated with improved lipid profiles (total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL) and a decrease in some cancers. If you achieve the goal of 7 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and eat minimally processed grains, you should meet your target fiber intake.
6. Pick lean protein sources. Saturated fats increase “bad” cholesterol (LDLs) and subsequently increase your risk for heart disease. Saturated fats are found predominantly in foods from animal sources with the exception of some vegetable fats (coconut and palm oils). Pick the leanest versions of these foods such as fat free (skim) or 1% dairy products, and lean meats (less than 3g/oz). Vegetarian options can be fantastic sources of protein such as beans, tofu, textured protein, and edamame.
7. A healthy diet is not only about what foods you eat, but your eating habits (how you eat) matters as well.
8. Do not skip breakfast! Would you like to be in a good mood, have a better working memory, and be calmer? If the answer is yes, then eat breakfast (Physiology and Behavior, 1999). As the name of this crucial meal implies, every morning we wake up in a fasted state. While fasting, the body struggles to maintain blood glucose (sugar) levels. Muscle glycogen stores are mobilized and will no longer be available to fuel your performance later. Even worse, if starvation is prolonged, muscle mass itself will be broken down and converted into sugar to maintain blood glucose levels. So, the bottom line is eat breakfast, don’t stay in a fasted state, or your performance will suffer.
9. Eat slow, and appreciate food. Food deserves to be respected. Food is a rare resource. From your perspective this may not seem accurate, but did you know that 50 million Americans have “food insecurity” meaning that they do not have enough money for food? Take the time to appreciate your food. Eat slowly and savor every bite. A shift in attitude can have a meaningful impact on positively changing your eating habits and can lead you to a healthier diet.
10. All foods are part of a healthy diet, moderation is key. Eating healthy is not an “all or none” proposal. If you set out to improve your diet, but are very rigid, how will you handle a digression? Finding yourself eating fast food means that you move on and your next meal is a new opportunity to make healthier choices. Living healthy means accepting that we are not “perfect” all the time. But as long as we make healthy choices most of the time, or more than we have in the past, we are living a healthy or healthier life, which is the goal.