Sustaining Excellence Through Diet

What if I told you there is a supplement that would maximize your ability to gain muscle, lose anything extra, improve your sleep, help you feel better, reduce your soreness, improve your focus and mental clarity, and reduce your risk of illness.  This supplement would probably help you to be more successful on the court, in the classroom, and allow you to develop closer to your fullest potential in each area of your life. How much would you pay for a supplement that not only promised these results, but also delivered them? What if it was possible to achieve all these things and more? What if it was quite simple and not expensive? In fact, it might save you money. You would probably say that this sounds too good to be true. 

Just remember, I said it would be fairly simple, but simple does not mean easy. 

There is one way that you can make improvements in all the areas that I mentioned above and that is through your diet. Your diet is the combination of what you eat and what you do not eat. Both are extremely important to finding the next level of performance in athletics (and performance in life). Understanding what to eat and what not to eat can help you make food choices that are going to improve your performance, maximize your training, increase the speed of your recovery, and eliminate the foods that are quite literally holding you back. 

Knowing what to eat and how to eat are important to your success, but knowing WHY to eat something (or not eat it) is the most important aspect of desiring to change your diet. Without a WHY it is too easy to quit, change course, and cheat. 

In order to find the motivation to meaningfully change your diet, you have to see food differently. You have to see food in two categories, medicine and poison. I know that sounds dramatic, and it is, but until you can separate the good from the bad there will never be enough conviction needed to make the change. 

Three years ago, my brother-in-law was in the final stages of battling a brain tumor. I coincidentally listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast where he interviewed Dr. Dominic D’Agustino. I am sure it was not only a combination of my brother-in-law’s illness, my own steady weight gain, and other factors that drove my interest, but Dr. D’Agustino’s message about nutrition being the most important factor in our health and physical performance resonated with me. I searched for other podcasts with Dr. D’Agustino and I started down my own educational path and began to make many changes to my diet and my families diet.

For me to change what I was eating, it took someone very close to me to become ill and to lose his life at 36 years old. It took me being fearful of leaving my wife and children behind, or even worse, increasing their risk of disease or poor health. My WHY for changing what I eat is because I now see food as medicine in the way that what I eat will promote health, combat some of preventable illnesses and diseases, and reduce the risk of many others. What I gained as a pleasant side effect was improved weight management, health, and athletic performance. In fact, I would say that at nearly 37 years old, I am now in the best shape of my life.  

You are correct to say that we do not control very many aspects of our life and our health. I would never suggest that my brother-in-law’s illness was preventable, or that the amazing doctors did not do everything in their power to correct his plight. But, if by changing what I eat, I could reduce that risk by 1% or avoid other illnesses, that change would be worth the effort. I am now committed to controlling the part of the equation that I can, and living with the rest. 

While we do not control our genetics, we do have the ability to maximize them by providing the best possible environment for ourselves. An environment where our minds and bodies can thrive and reach our fullest potential is essential to our health and performance. Factors such as stress, sleep, fresh clean air, sunlight, in addition to our nutrition, each play an important role in our health and athletic success. 

What each of us eat is personal, and can be guided by and influenced by our societal or religious beliefs. I do not discount these, and understand that these recommendations are my own, based on the research and experimenting that I have done in my personal life. 

What we need to eat:

The foundation of the best human diet is protein. Protein must be the center of each meal, prioritized each day to ensure that you as an athlete are providing yourself the building blocks to grow and recover from the training that you are doing. The very best proteins come from meat and if possible from meat on the bone. Dr. Cate Shannahan, former director of the Los Angeles Lakes PRO nutrition program, emphasizes the importance of meat on the bone in her book – Deep Nutrition. Dr. Shannahan explains that meat cooked on the bone will have not only the protein necessary to rebuild your muscles, brain, bones, and organs, but it will also contain the nutrients necessary to maintain your connective tissue health. Plant proteins have been popularized in recent years, and while they are a viable option, most plant proteins are not as bio-available to humans as animal proteins. Our bodies cannot absorb and utilize plant proteins with the same efficiency as their meat and dairy counterparts. 

The conclusion of numerus experts is that each of us should be consuming around one gram of protein per day for each ideal pound of lean body weight. For example, when I started changing my diet, I weighed around 240 pounds, but wanted to be closer to 210 pounds. I focused on prioritizing that I would get around 200 grams of protein per day, with the vast majority coming from meat, and some being cooked on the bone. In addition, I would embrace the fat that came with that protein as an excellent source of fuel and satiety (feeling of satisfaction and being full). If you are growing or would like to gain weight, aim for around 10 grams of protein greater than your current weight. 

For context: 

  • One ounce of Beef has around seven grams of protein (1/4 pound burger patty = 24 grams of protein).
  • One ounce of Pork has around six grams of protein.
  • One ounce of Chicken has around eight grams of protein.
  • One ounce of Salmon has six grams of protein (and is loaded with great Omega 3 fatty acids)
  • One hard-boiled egg has six grams of protein.

Something that I have noticed, when I prioritize protein, there is not a lot of room left for all the other things that may take up my plates or grocery cart. 

After protein, the foods an athlete should be eating should start with vegetables and fruit. It is recommended that to get a full profile of micronutrients, you should eat all colors of veg and fruit while paying attention to how your body feels with each. Each of us have different tolerances to the different foods, including vegetables and fruits. 

Prioritize protein, embrace the fat that comes with it, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and fill in the rest with real foods, including sources of carbohydrate like sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, etc. 

What not to eat: 

The list of things to avoid is short, but unfortunately, in our food culture it is found in almost all packaged foods. My switch from eating a very “Standard American Diet” to a more efficient and healthy diet took time and was a gradual progression. It is hard to go “Cold Turkey” on things like sugar and bread, so I worked to slowly to reduce and then remove each of the following from my diet. Kudos to you if you are able to make the changes more quickly and at once.

Things you should first reduce, then, remove from your diet: 

  • Excess Sugar (not from fruit, vegetables or other whole foods) including High Fructose Corn Syrup.
  • Vegetable oils – (soy, sunflower, safflower, canola, corn, cottonseed, hydrogenated, refined palm).
  • Ultra Processed foods – (cereal, bread, fries, pizza, cookies, goldfish, crackers, soda, sports drinks).

Sugar: 

On a hot summer day, have you ever had a sweet and sugary drink such as a pop or a Gatorade? Within 15 minutes your mouth is dry and you are craving another? Let me try to describe what is happening in that short cycle. One 20 ounce Gatorade has around 36 grams of sugar, which is 100% of the daily recommended amount of sugar you should be having per day. Because you are drinking the sugar in liquid form, no digestion is required and the sugar is quickly sent into the blood.  Your muscles will absorb whatever they can, and your body is forced to store or discard the rest. Due to the rise in blood sugar, your body secretes insulin which is designed to help regulate your blood sugar levels. If you know someone with Type 1 Diabetes (the pancreas does not produce insulin) or Type 2 Diabetes (the body is unable to regulate blood sugar or insulin production) then you are familiar with insulin and its role in the body. Because you experienced such a sharp rise in blood sugar (hyperglycemia) from the very sugary drink, your body will typically produce and release more insulin than is needed at that moment. The sugar is cleared from the blood, either stored as fat or discarded, but the insulin surge most likely brought your blood sugar below normal (hypoglycemia) and leaves you suddenly craving something sweet and sugary. That cycle can repeat itself all day if you are not careful. Over time, this can cause serious damage to the insulin production system, your metabolism, and can be a precursor to metabolic disorders like Diabetes. 

Sugar is not inherently a bad thing. Humans have had access to it throughout our history, but we have never had the level of access and delivery as we do in today’s food and drink. My recommendation is to completely remove all sugary drinks from the diet. The only time you might need a little Gatorade would be AFTER 90 minutes of intense workout when your glycogen (sugars stored in your muscles that are used for intense activity) levels have been depleted. 

Sugar in its natural form eaten in a grape is not the same thing as drinking grape juice. Fruit juices allow the sugar to quickly move into the blood stream, and bottled fruit juices are usually spiked with additional sugar. One glass of Welch’s grape juice has a much sugar as a 12 ounce can of Coke. Candy, ice cream, and donuts all give massive amounts of sugar in small packages that will cause a similar surge. 

According to Dr. Marc Bubbs, in his book – Peak, the single best way to improve your athletic performance, health, and longevity, is to have healthy control of your blood glucose. The best way to control your blood glucose it to control the large surges of sugar you get from sugary drinks and treats.

Excess sugar consumption is also a source of inflammation in the body, which can cause slow recovery from training and exercise, can weaken the immune system, and expose you to the possibility of contracting and not fighting off common viruses and infections.

Vegetable Oils: 

In almost every packaged food in a store, or nearly every food you will get from a drive through, you will find a common ingredient… vegetable oil. Vegetable oils have been cleverly marketed to sound healthy; they are chemically derived from plants and used to replace healthy fats as well as to preserve foods for extended periods. Vegetable oils are cheap and increase profits for food companies, but they are not good for your athletic success, because they are not good for your health. Dr. Shannahan dedicated an entire chapter in her book – Deep Nutrition – to Seed Oils and named it “Brain Killer… why vegetable oil is your brain’s worst enemy” and she has since created a list of the most harmful oils, naming the group the “Hateful 8”.

Seed oils cause inflammatory in every system of the body and inhibit recovery from training, cognitive function, immune system effectiveness, and have dramatic effects on our short-term performance and long-term health. Seed oils decrease your ability to use the fat stored in your body for energy, keeping you reliant on constant sugar feedings to feel energetic. Metabolically healthy athletes can shift back and forth between burning glycogen and fat for fuel where unhealthy athletes crash as soon as they run out of stored glycogen in their muscles. The best athletes are now focusing on becoming “fat adapted” and making sure they can efficiently burn both sources of fuel in their bodies. 

The hard thing is, seed oils are everywhere. They are the number one ingredient in most salad dressings. The buffalo wings and French fries at your favorite restaurant or drive through are deep fried in seed oils. In fact, it is hard to find very many foods at your grocery store, convenience store, or out to eat that do not contain some amount of seed oils. 

Look for these “Hateful 8” on the list of ingredients on any food you buy: Soy Oil, Sunflower Oil, Safflower Oil, Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Cottonseed Oil, Hydrogenated Oil, Refined Palm Oil, and actively avoid them in your diet. 

Ultra Processed Foods: 

Almost every ultra-processed food contains too much sugar (or refined carbohydrates that act like sugar in the blood), seed oils, or both. In his book – Peak – Dr. Bubbs defines ultra-processed foods as formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives. These include cereal, bread, fries, pizza, cookies, goldfish, crackers, soda, sports drinks and much more. 

It is estimated that nearly 50% of the American diet is made up of ultra processed foods. These foods contain just the right mix of salt, sugar, fat and flavor additives that drive our brains crazy and make us want more of them! Have you ever had a couple Doritos and before you know it, you have eaten half the party size bag? These foods are designed for us to eat them, and eat a lot of them. Great business model, terrible for our health and performance. 

Go through the McDonalds drive through and order a Quarter Pounder “value meal” and here is what you get: 

  • Around 24 grams of protein from the beef patty – (this is the best thing from the entire meal).
  • Ultra processed bun, ultra-processed fries.
  • Fries that are prepared with and cooked in seed oils.
  • Large Coke that has 86 grams of sugar.
  • Fast food is the perfect combination of high sugar, ultra-processed, and seed oils that taste great but is damaging to our health and performance.

How to Eat:

So, how can you structure you day to make sure you are getting the foods you need to improve or protect your health, and your performance? 

Creating a new habit or replacing an old one takes will power. We have most our will power early in the day and it essential that the first meal we eat after we wake up is one that will set the tone for the rest of the day. Creating that habit takes around 60 days of consistent action, and then it becomes mostly routine! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because it will set the tone for the way you will eat the remainder of the day. Replace a bowl of cereal or bagel, or pop-tarts, with bacon, sausage, eggs. Replace orange juice with fresh fruit. Replace 1% skim milk with whole, Vitamin D, milk. Avoid bottled “Chocolate Milk” that is typically loaded with sugar. You will feel full, satisfied, and not have the typical mid-morning cravings. 

Throughout the day, replace the sugary, sweet drinks with water. Yes, I know, very boring. Dr. Stu Phillips, one of the world’s leading authorities on protein and muscle science, recommends that we do not drink our energy! After all, those sugary drinks are loaded with empty energy, which is sugar. Get your energy from your food and drink water!

Next, pack your lunch if you can. Prioritize protein, hard-boiled eggs, sandwich meats, fruits, and vegetables. If you cannot pack a great lunch, a good lunch is better than what you will find at your school lunchroom or in the drive thru.  My own children take sandwiches to school and even a cookie. We try to make sure that there is balance while still prioritizing good nutrition first. 

Dinner is a great time to get a big meal that will leave you satisfied and full through the night and into the morning. Try to make sure that the main dish is a great source of protein and complement it with fresh vegies! 

The best snacks are hard-boiled eggs, sandwich meat, fruit and vegetables. 

It sounds intimidating and maybe even impossible to make these changes. Most will not even try. Some may try and then give up.  Start where you are, with what you have, and do the best you can. After you get started, just look for small ways to make 1% improvement to the way you eat and before you know it, you will be on the right track. Your nutrition will affect the way you feel and think, the way you feel and think will affect how you train, how you train will affect how you play! 

I firmly believe that if you focus on eating well the majority of the time, you can still enjoy treats in moderation. Our kids and I still have the occasional ice cream, cookie, or other treat.  We just try not to have too many per day! We have cake for birthdays; we have pizza and get carry out on occassion. However, our focus is on eating really well, most of the time.

Here are some of my favorite resources that have shaped my thinking about nutrition and performance. 

  • Peak Human Podcast
  • Deep Nutrition – Dr. Cate Shannahan
  • Peak – Dr. Marc Bubbs
  • The P.E. Diet – Dr. Ted Naiman

Any Thoughts, Coach?