In part 2 of this 6-part series, Brent Steepe, personal trainer of 22 years, exposes common misconceptions about nutrition and hydration and provides better processes and answers.
As we learned in Part 1, the process you use to achieve true fitness is critical for sustainable development and evaluating progress. Before jumping into a conditioning plan or workout series, we must consider and apply this mindset to the foundation of fitness: nutrition. We literally are everything we eat. If we want to be the best, we have to eat the best. So what’s truly best for our bodies? It is important to remember that nutrition is a younger science, first gaining popularity in the 70’s. Anyone with a decent physique suddenly became a nutritional expert, so a number of zany products and dieting ideas were unleashed on the world. A market was born, and it is important to understand that information within a market is always at risk of being tainted. We’ve allowed this industry to go too far; we’re long overdue for an intervention.
The Fitness Industry Isn’t Your Friend, the Mainstream Isn’t an Expert
Think about it: products must convince you to buy them in order to stay afloat. The same goes for our food sources, but not all products are created equal. Some offer convenience, flavor, large portions with artificial ingredients, and excess sodium or sugar, for example. But how does mass-produced “food” make it into our diet? From a young age, we experience trips to the grocery store and the infinite wonders of flavor it contains. Eat more than our fair share of candy bars, though, and we won’t be going home happy. As we grow up, we are never criticized for indulging; products reward you for it with super sizes, limited-time flavors and even collectibles. The industry is an expert in making a profit on our short-term pleasure-seeking. To make matters worse, the labeling standards for foods are confusing and bland to anyone trying to learn about what they’re eating. Even for those who know how to read them, the numbers can be misleading as concepts become “stretched” to accommodate marketing trends and initiatives.
The plague of the fitness world has been “monkey see, monkey do,” with a combination of groupthink and buzz-word driven trends at the forefront of misinformation. You find yourself on the fields, looking to duplicate abilities you see from the highest-level ultimate players. You change your lifestyle and eating habits without asking the core question: What nutrition and hydration elements does MY body need to be successful? For example, let’s take everyone’s fad protein go-to, known as the egg white. However, yolks contain the lion’s share of an egg’s nutrients, including many common nutrients people use or are prescribed supplements for. That’s right, 41% of your daily value for Riboflavin, 25% of Vitamin B12, 15% of folate, and important Omega 3 fatty acids all just hit your garbage disposal. Then you run to the vitamin store and purchase top-dollar supplements for the things you just threw away. Why are choices like this made again and again? Because someone told us it helps build muscle faster? What about keeping our essential chemistry in check?
While some will scoff at the notion, the same principles apply to protein powders and other engineered nutrition. It doesn’t matter if it was the fitness industry, the media, a coach, or your favorite player who told you what to do, when it comes to your body you have to take ownership in your research when making nutritional decisions. As a personal trainer, I am frustrated that people will spend up to 3+ years researching, waiting, timing, and saving to purchase a car that will last them perhaps a decade, but take less than 30 seconds to order something off a menu that will affect their health for the next 7 years. You have to know what is in your food, how it works, and how it affects you in order to make a good decision.
The preparation for any athletic activity is a science; creating a strong and capable body is much like growing a plant in a garden. At each stage of the food chain, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are absorbed, and then transferred to the next organism when consumed. Thus, what your food is eating is just as important to you as the selection of the food itself. Similarly, we must understand what is added in any process for mixture or packaging.
Moderation and “a balanced diet” have been the only actual trends to show lasting results over a lifespan. Nature has spent years in development perfecting amounts, identifying cofactors for absorption, adjusting the quality of contents, and improving delivery systems inside of readily available, naturally grown foods. Why must we keep trying to perfect something that has already been proven to have a solid foundation? The answer is as difficult to digest as some of the engineered nutrition. There is little profit to be found in teaching people how their body actually works and, more importantly, how to make it healthy.
This brings us to the critical formation of healthy dietary habits. In the late teens and early twenties, the peak time for most people to be involved in ultimate, new ways of eating and drinking are reinforced. My least favorite: three meals a day based on the cafeteria plan. Combine that with large amounts of processed food, refined sugars, stress, alcohol use, and a dessert table, and it becomes clear that we are being set up for failure. Yet for most athletes, these unhealthy systems go relatively unnoticed until a person’s activity patterns change and their eating does not, usually a few years later. Then the trouble really starts, as high intake and low output wreak havoc on the energy delivery systems, processing, and storage. While the majority of options may seem to offer instant gratification, it is important to gain foresight and target options that will make you feel good in the long term. Never quit soda or junk food altogether? Give it a try and experience a new state of energy, focus, and ability.
Water: nothing is better for your muscles and body. You are a water-based system, and your metabolism depends on proper hydration. Without sufficient water, nutrient exchange cannot take place and your body systems, ranging from circulation and respiration to digestion, will come to a screeching halt. No sports drinks, water additives, juices, teas, or even coffee will hydrate the body better than H2O. Also, importantly, you need time to absorb water and properly hydrate your body. The process of rehydrating the body takes days to optimize. Yet the additives included in these drinks make us “feel better,” so our friends and coaches may support their use and we keep on using them.
Luckily, if water is unappealing for you, all is not lost. Food sources account for up to 30% or higher of our hydration intake, depending on diet. Water rich foods include cucumbers, celery, high volume lettuce (e.g. iceberg, spinach), radishes, tomatoes, and other vegetables. These sources make excellent snacks on the sidelines. However, you should take into account all nutrients, including those that nullify any hydration benefits. Because each person is different and each food provides various levels of nutrients, it is important to experiment and refine to discover what works best for you.
To sum it up, here is a 3-step approach to developing an ideal mindset for healthy dietary choices.
For both nutrition and hydration, sourcing is important. Where does the substance come from? Is it natural or man-made? Are there additives or processing leftovers? The longer something can sit on a shelf without spoiling, the fewer natural components and more artificial ones are in it. Remember, the word “supplement” means “in addition to,” not “substitute for,” regardless of fancy packaging or “infallible” certification. Eat more naturally, avoid processed and refined foods, and understand your unique needs as an athlete for greater success.
Building a body takes more than fats, carbs and proteins. There are a multitude of vitamins and minerals that are essential, and ideally they should be received from nature. A simple way to achieve diversity is to eat a variety of colors of fruits and veggies, not just your favorites. The color indicates nutrient value, and the method challenges you to experience more. Too much protein as your go-to caloric intake makes the system work harder, not smarter. It creates large quantities of urea and other waste if the body cannot break down what you are consuming.
Hydrate until your urine is clear, primarily with water. Constant sips of water throughout the day and more hydration pre/post activity will create the surplus needed to speed recovery (and keep you away from the ibuprofen you have been using to combat muscle soreness or injury). Be wary of additives for “rehydration” and seek out natural alternatives to sports drinks, pills, and powders which bear the promise of faster and better methods. There is always a tradeoff with potentially negative consequences when you use the body as a chemistry set, and you are not a chemist.
While you might have expected some specific tips here on calories, recipes, or snacks, having the right mindset is more important than any tip. Adopting the right mindset is critical to questioning the status quo and not being influenced by industry misinformation or misguided common practice. Get hungry for true nutrition and information, make improvements over time, and you will discover a richer state of health.