Published in NZ Adventure Magazine, Dec 2018
There is a common theme happening in the realm of nutrition: clean eating. What exactly does this mean? I cannot give an accurate description myself, and as a nutrition professional this causes me concern. Generally when we do diet assessments and meal plans, the recommendations are based on evidence-based science and specific recommendations should be outlined to the client in order to provide clarity around macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat and protein) as well as micronutrients (dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals), and how to structure these dietary targets around meals and snacks.
Some of the clean eating principles and terms that get thrown around include:
- Cutting out refined sugars
- Cutting out fruit and vegetable sugars
- Avoiding gluten
- Increasing protein intake
- Increasing fat intake, particularly coconut fat and animal fat
- Reducing or eliminating carbohydrate staples such as bread, rice, pasta, potatoes
- Filling up on salads and greens which contain little caloric value
- Vilification of Registered Dietitians’ advice and surrounding it with conspiracy theories that big food funds the evidence-based research than underpins healthy eating recommendations
- Just eating “real food”
While some of these ideas may carry validity, such as eating “real food” and reducing free sugars, making sweeping statements against a particular food or food group is not healthy because it can cause confusion, as well as a destructive love/hate relationship with food. This can lead to serious problems and disordered eating namely orthorexia, or the excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food. I support any move towards eating less processed food containing added fat, oil and sugar which aligns with dietary guidelines. However this is where the clean eating ethos should end, especially for athletes and active people.
In my experience working with athletes who have been following a clean eating diet, they are extremely diligent and informed about healthy eating. They are like well-oiled machines with their meticulously planned foods, training, and the results show in their lean, honed bodies. However they are also vulnerable. The fear of eating a particular food group, and the most relevant one here is carbohydrates, creates an Achilles heel scenario; they unwittingly end up shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to performance.
Several clients I’ve had are at the front of my mind as they suffered from orthorexia. The one that particularly stands out for me and that inspired me to write this article is an elite multisporter. This person is a stand-out athlete and top Coast to Coast contender. In the 2 days leading up to the event I observed the athlete consume a diet of raw food, soaked and sprouted and seeds, nuts, and copious amounts of salad. When I questioned the diet and made some suggestions to carbohydrate-load with foods that would be gentler on the stomach and decrease the fibre, the athlete showed fear of taking on this advice because they felt their diet had worked for them in the past for other (shorter) races, and insisted on sticking with what they felt worked. This person had a very strong belief system that I did not want to interfere with in the last hours before such an important event. Sometimes it is best to let things be, but I did confiscate the salad when they went for a second mountain helping…
The Coast to Coast is an unforgiving litmus test for resilience
If you try to compete in such a gruelling race with even the tiniest chink in your armour, she will find it, exploit it and mercilessly spit you out. Part of preparing for endurance events is ensuring that:
- Training nutrition is ample for fuelling workouts, recovery and supporting the immune system
- Tapering training in the final couple weeks
- Carbohydrate-loading in the final couple days
All of the above prepares the body for the main event, and tapering and carb-loading in particular bolsters the body’s stored glycogen to maximise levels for use during the event.
The athlete I was working with was operating under an ideology that the extremely healthy food being consumed would trump any standard carb-loading plan because 1) they were familiar with the diet and 2) they felt the nutrient benefits of the sprouts and nuts would be a secret weapon. It seemed they had a mindset that clean eating was their saviour they could rely upon.
What happened on race day was exactly what I expected: lack of energy, mental battles, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. Fortunately this athlete is extremely tough and managed to salvage their race. Sadly, the clean eating approach and lack of resilience may have cost this person a much better result.
Coaches, parents and mentors need to ensure that athletes who wish to follow a clean eating diet are receiving sound nutrition advice from a qualified professional that can help guide the individual to understand the difference between eating healthy while not compromising training and overall health, including mental health.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an elite athlete or a recreational adventurer, the obsession with clean eating has wide-reaching effects and does not discriminate. If you like to stay active and need an energy boost before exercise, or a meal on-the-go, it is OK to eat something that is quick and easy, such as a muesli bar or energy bar with a balance of healthy carbs for sustained energy and added sugars for palatability and digestion. The main thing is that you eat something that will give you energy and help you to feel good during your workout and recovery. The rest of the time eat real food and try not to be too neurotic about it. Life is short, food is good. Enjoy.