Found on Ironman.com and written by Dr. Rick Kattouf
Achieving your goals is about more than eating healthy, it’s about eating right.
Endurance athletes are always looking for ways to get leaner while maximizing their performance and recovery. But, all too often, they also find themselves training more and, at the same time, seeing no improvements in their body composition. This is not the return on the investment that they are looking for. How can an athlete “eat healthy,” put in endless hours of swim-bike-run-strength training, and still not get lighter and leaner? It all comes down to nutrition—but not in the sense that most would think.
If we ask most athletes what it takes to lose weight and get leaner, conventional thinking would drive this response: “Work out more and eat less. Simply burn more calories than you consume.” On the surface it seems pretty simple—calories in versus calories out. However, calories are not the most important factor when it comes to nutrition.
Author and exercise physiologist Dr. Mark Occhipinti says the quality of the calories is more important than the quantity. “Nutrient density is one of the real performance keys,” he says. “Athletes need foods that are high in antioxidants and low on the glycemic index, while providing a range of calories distributed correctly across carbohydrates, fats and proteins.”
But, in order to optimize our nutrition as athletes, we have to do more than just eat quality foods. In fact, with two basic strategies—food frequency/timing and macronutrient balance—our goals are within our grasp. Let’s examine each one of these and the impact it has.
Eat on the clock
If we keep this one nutrition rule in mind, we will be on our way to success: Fuel the body immediately upon awakening and every 2.5 to 3.5 hours after.
Fueling the body approximately every three hours enables us to to stabilize the blood sugar, insulin and serotonin. By doing this we prevent significant blood sugar and insulin swings, keep our energy levels high and maintain stable energy levels throughout the day.
When we skip meals or fail to time our eating right, it causes our serotonin levels to drop. Why is this a bad thing? Because serotonin is the body’s magic stabilizer, that helps minimize our cravings and moderate our appetite. When seratonin decreases, our cravings increase—and most likely, they won’t be for healthy food but for simple sugars and carbohydrates. Food cravings can easily lead to binge eating, which can lead to weight gain.
Balance your macronutrients
The proper balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat is also critical for nutrition, body composition and athletic success. James Loging, M.D. is an orthopedic surgeon and 2:54 marathoner who says that when he was a new runner he thought that, in addition to working out, counting calories was crucial. “It was not until I started to increase my eating frequency, hit the proper nutrient timing and have the right macronutrient balance that I was able to get lean and perform at my best,” he says.
This is where we start to make a big distinction between “eating healthy” and “eating right.” Believe it or not, there is a difference—eating healthy is not the key to success, eating right is.
Eating right means that we set goals to have the proper carbohydrate/protein/fat balance at every meal or snack. As a general rule, aim for 40 to 60 percent of your calories to come from carbohydrates, 15 to 30 percent of your calories to come from protein, and 15 to 30 percent of your calories to come from from fat. When combined with proper timing and frequency, this ratio will help stabilize blood sugar, insulin and serotonin. The exact balance, of course, can be customized to each athlete’s preferences, needs and goals.
Let’s examine a “healthy” meal that still isn’t “right”: one four-ounce chicken breast and a cup of steamed broccoli and cauliflower. This “healthy” meal is comprised of the following calorie ratio: 15.15 percent carbohydrate, 67.39 percent protein and 17.44 percent fat. As you can see, it’s not even close to being “right.”
Now, let’s take this healthy meal and make it “right”: one four-ounce chicken breast, one cup steamed broccoli/cauliflower, 1½ cups brown rice, half a tablespoon olive oil. Now the meal is 45.14 percent carbohydrates, 29.86 percent protein, and 25 percent fat.
As you start to analyze your daily nutrition, it’s okay to calculate how many calories you consume and to have a caloric goal in mind. However, you also need to analyze your nutrition according to how you arrived at your calorie goal. Is your eating frequency, nutrient timing and macronutrient balance at every meal or snack spot-on? When you can say “yes” to all three criteria for a solid nutrition strategy, you’ll get the body composition, performance and recovery you want.