What is Performance Nutrition?
I have something embarrassing to admit. I grew up in the Triangle, an area with a huge population of passionate sports lovers, but I am not into sports myself. I do not have a favorite team or a single piece of fan gear. While I was in college I would constantly be asked, “Oh, so you want to be a sports dietitian? What team do you hope to work for?” And I would begin explaining myself. That was until I began to label my interest as “Performance Nutrition.”
While I no longer get as many questions about which sports team I want to work for, I do find there is still confusion over what services a Registered Dietitian, and more specifically, what a Performance Dietitian has to offer.
First, I want to explain what Performance Nutrition IS NOT:
I can’t tell you how many articles, ads, and emails I run into with titles like, “10 Secret Foods That Will Make You Strong Like a Navy Seal” or “5 Foods That are Destroying Your Gut to Stop Eating Now!” They usually jump right into food choices without any mention of what your caloric intake should be, or what your macronutrient composition should consist of. They just focus on the quality of certain foods when only looking at them in isolation.
Another misconception is that Performance Nutrition is all about supplements, how to stack them in combination, or what to take when. While I do discuss supplements with clients, I consider them the least important thing in regards to modifying your nutrition for performance. Once everything else is dialed in, then there are a handful of supplements that may provide an additional benefit to help you reach your goals.
So, what is Performance Nutrition?
Performance Nutrition is taking everything from your individual mentality, behaviors, lifestyle, energy balance, macro- and micro- nutrient intake, the timing of when you fuel, and your adherence into consideration to create a plan that will help you reach your goals. Eating to perform means consuming the proper blend of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All food can be subcategorized under these three macronutrients and to neglect any of the three is to deprive your body of the tools it needs to perform at its best. I get questions about these three macronutrients all of the time, and below I have provided a brief background on each, their function, and recommendations about how they should be consumed.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are considered our primary fuel source. They provide energy for muscle function and they are also the main fuel for our brain. Not all carbs are created equal though and it is best to avoid carbs such as white bread, pasta, and baked goods loaded with refined sugars. Instead, choose carbohydrate sources with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving because fiber will stabilize energy levels, keep you full, and help protect your heart and digestive tract.
Think “brown and close to the ground” when choosing your carbs for the week. Several good choices include: steel cut oats, sweet potatoes, 100% whole wheat products, quinoa, and legumes. To maintain performance, you should consume at least 2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight daily and this requirement can be met by consuming 1-2 cupped handfuls worth of carbs at every meal.
Proteins play many different roles in our body, specifically in stabilizing our energy levels, providing nutrients for recovery and repair, and protecting our immune function. When you are in the meat aisle of the grocery store think, “the less legs, the better” when choosing protein sources. For example, Fish > Poultry > Pork > Beef.
When choosing how your meat is prepared, always choose grilled, poached, roasted, or sautéed over fried, and try to stick to white meat over dark. With the rise in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, there are more affordable plant-based protein sources available than ever before, including high protein noodles made from different types of beans, tofu, quinoa, and hemp seeds.
There are also a lot of different opinions about how much protein should be consumed. Most recreational to elite level athletes are told to consume upward of 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, but they rarely actually need more than 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. To meet this protein requirement, you should consume 1-2 palm sized servings of lean protein at each meal. For individuals looking to lose weight, a slightly higher protein intake may be beneficial for the preservation of lean body mass while reducing fat mass.
Fats get such a bad rap and it could not be more misplaced. The right types of fats are actually powerful protectors of the body. Fats are needed in the body for the absorption of certain vitamins (A, D, E, K). They are also a slow burning source of energy that helps keep the body satiated, regulate blood sugar, and maintain the makeup of cell membranes. Healthy, unsaturated fats also provide the nutrients necessary for cellular repair of the joints, organs, skin, and hair.
While shopping be sure to read the labels and look for foods low in saturated fats, and aim to completely avoid trans fats, partially-hydrogenated, and fully-hydrogenated oils. These types of fats have been taken from liquid form to solid form to make them more stable to heat and increase their shelf-life. Trans, partially-, and fully-hydrogenated are similar to saturates in that they raise cholesterol levels.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the most important fats to consume and the one that most people don’t get nearly enough of. Omega-3 fatty acids improve cognition, decrease inflammation, and enhance heart health. They can be found in fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp, walnuts, and avocados. You should aim to consume at least one food rich in Omega-3 fatty acids per day. If you are tracking your nutrition, about 15-30% of your daily calories should come from healthy fats. This recommendation can be met by consuming 1-3 servings of healthy fats at each meal. Examples of a serving of fat include: 1/4 of an avocado, about 12 nuts, a thumb sized serving of nut butter, ½ tbsp of oil, etc.
Who can benefit from a Performance Nutrition approach to eating?
Scenario 1: You are a college athlete and your alarm goes off at 6am. It’s still pitch-black outside but you throw on your clothes, grab your bag, and head out to training. The workout goes well and you did everything your coach told you to do. You then grab a quick breakfast and head to your 8am lecture. Classes run until the afternoon, right up to practice. You drill for a few hours and then grab dinner on your way to the library to study for a test later this week. It’s a late night, you get home and relax. Rest. Repeat.
Scenario 2: You’re up at 6am, you get yourself ready and take care of the kids: make breakfast, get them dressed, pack lunches, and get them to the bus stop or drop them off at school on your way to work. You work a full day, in and out of meetings, organizing events or projects, doing your best at what you do best. On your way home from work you manage to get in a workout session before grabbing the kids. You get them home for dinner and then head back out for whatever evening activities they have: dance, martial arts, practice, etc. You then get everyone settled into bed, and finally unwind yourself before setting the alarm and laying down.
I could continue writing scenarios for different individuals for hours, because the truth is, everyone is fueling to perform. It does not matter if you are an athlete, student, teacher, firefighter, project manager, data analyst, small business owner, or CEO. You are asking your body to perform at its best every day, so that you can provide your best in all that you do. How you fuel, what you choose to consume in order to make it happen, that is Performance Nutrition.
Every time you eat, you have the opportunity to provide your mind and body with the fuel that it needs to thrive. The correct balance of energy – carbohydrates, protein, and fats – can keep your body running like a high-performance vehicle.
Why should I see a Performance Dietitian when there is SO MUCH information about nutrition already out there?
It is true, we live in an age of free information, and that is both a blessing and a curse. With all the information out there these days, it can be overwhelming to figure out what is right for you. I, like many others, have fallen victim to this and spent months, years even, hopping from training routine to training routine or diet plan to diet plan, spending most of my time spinning my wheels and making little to no forward progress. This approach leaves many of us feeling frustrated, defeated, and potentially, right back where we started or worse.
We are constantly searching for the BEST piece of technology: BEST car, BEST product, or BEST diet plan. Advertisers are not unaware of this. It seems like every article consists of a “best of” list, or claims to have discovered the fountain of youth when it comes to nutrition and training. If you’ve been around the block, as many of us have, you know that the world is not so black and white as these claims make it out to be. Maybe the scale of worst to best isn’t the right approach? Maybe we need to stop asking, “What is the best diet plan?” and start asking, “What is the best diet plan for ME?”
In reality, you would likely never say to yourself, “My car has been stuttering and stalling randomly for months, but maybe this article online will tell me what’s wrong with it.” You would take it into the mechanic the first time something scary happened and get it fixed before it became a life-threatening issue.
Yet, we take this approach of troubleshooting all the time with our health. You hear coworkers, family members, friends, and sometimes overhear strangers venting about how lousy they feel, how their guts are in constant distress, they aren’t performing their best because they crash in the afternoon, or how much weight they need to lose. There shouldn’t be anything holding you back from taking control of your health! Working with a Registered Dietitian can help you treat that feeling of lethargy, that constantly upset stomach, and help you perform your best and maintain a healthy body composition.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Let’s build wellness, rather than treat disease.” In other words, let’s shift from a reactive approach to a proactive approach with our health. Once we have a cold, we know what to take for the symptoms and what to do to get better, but how much nicer would it feel to prevent the cold from happening in the first place?
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read my post. I hope you enjoyed it and if you would like to continue a conversation about Performance Nutrition, please reach out to me at Eddie.firstname.lastname@example.org!
By Eddie Fitzgerald, RD, LDN, Performance Dietitian