A healthy, balanced diet is essential for all athletes. It forms the basis of all good training regimes and helps improve performance.
A healthy, balanced diet is essential for athletes as it forms the basis of all good training regimes and helps improve performance. Some seemingly healthy foods are, in fact, junk food in disguise and not suitable for athletes. We've drawn up a list for you!
As their name implies, fake health foods are foods that we wrongly think are good for our health and therefore beneficial for our athletic performance. But this isn't necessarily the case. Géraldine Mourier, a state-registered dietician has drawn up a non-exhaustive list for us. In addition, these foods all have one thing in common: they are all industrially processed.
The first of these are the so-called "zero" foods. For example, products labelled "0% fat" are certainly low in fat but this is often offset by a high sugar content or the addition of additives or chemical thickening agents. As for "zero sugar" foods, the lack of sugar is offset by synthetic sweeteners or, possibly, flavourings.
The result is a blend of ingredients with no real nutritional value for athletes. "What's more, you lose the product's satiogenic effect, which means you will tend to want to eat more of it," warns Géraldine before offering her advice: "It's much better to opt for a yoghurt with a moderate fat content and then, if you like sugar, add a little jam or fresh fruit."
Rice cakes are another fake health food not to be trusted. They are often described as low calorie and as an appetite suppressant. That is why they are labelled as a healthy snack (in fact, they are generally sold in the health food section of supermarkets.)
"Actually, rice cakes have the same glycemic index rating as refined sugar," observes Géraldine. The extrusion cooking of the rice, which produces the puffed effect, is to blame, converting the starch in the rice to simple sugars. "On average, they contain 85% carbohydrates and just 0.5% fibre," explains the dietician, illustrating the low nutritional value offered by this type of food.
Eating rice cakes causes an insulin spike which makes you want to eat more and promotes fat storage. Instead, you should opt for fresh fruit, unsalted crispbreads or wholemeal bread.
Vegetable crisps, which are made from carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, black radishes or even beetroot, would, at first glance, appear to be better for your health than traditional potato crisps. But are vegetable crisps really compatible with an athlete's diet?
Here again, Géraldine responds in the negative. "The problem is that although they're made from vegetables, they're cooked in oil like traditional crisps." So they're just as greasy, and too high in sugars and salt. In fact, 100 grams of vegetable crisps contain, on average, 35 grams of fat, 35 grams of sugar and 2 grams of salt.
Roughly speaking, a portion of these crisps is equivalent to one tablespoon of oil! So if you don't want to do without, think about making them at home, without fat but with added spices for flavour. Alternatively, opt for more athlete-friendly, plain vegetables as a pre-dinner snack: cherry tomatoes or carrot sticks.
To this list of fake health foods for athletes, Géraldine also adds so-called "lite" or "slimming" cereals. A label that doesn't really correspond to the product, according to the dietician: "They also have a very high glycemic index rating, with a high sugar content. And, again, they don't fill you up."
They are as high in sugar as children's cereals and sometimes they have a higher fat content. Nor do these commercially produced "slimming" cereals offer much in the way of nutritional benefits when it comes to sporting performance.
If you love breakfast cereals, don't panic; there are alternatives. It's best to opt for wholegrain cereals, like rolled oats. And then just add some sliced fruit for a healthy, balanced breakfast.
Otherwise, you could try home-made granola which has the advantage of being healthy and keeps for a long time.
Géraldine's recipe? "Rolled oats, a few whole almonds or cashew nuts, a handful of dried fruit and then a little honey, agave syrup or another binding agent. Once you've mixed all the ingredients together, you just need to bake it!"
Although fresh fruit is widely recommended for athletes, is fruit juice just as beneficial? "First of all it's important to differentiate between different types of fruit juice", "warns Géraldine. "Fruit juice made from concentrate or commercially produced nectars can contain as much sugar as fizzy drinks. That's like drinking a glass of coke for breakfast," explains the dietician.
It's best to choose a 100% pure fruit juice with no added sugar "which you can find in the refrigerated section of shops (so it needs to be used quickly). The best thing is to have it with a bit of fruit pulp which adds a small amount of fibre that can be beneficial," adds Géraldine.
If you like fruit juice because it gives you a small pre-exercise boost, then the best thing is to make it yourself. "A few, freshly-squeezed oranges will provide you with vitamins, a bit of fibre and the right kind of sugar," concludes the dietician.
Just like the "zero" foods, low sugar chocolate bars are a fake health food for athletes. Although they contain less sugar, substitutes such as aspartame and artificial sweeteners have inevitably been added. In addition, the lack of sugar is offset by more fat...
The ultimate guilty-pleasure snack, should you ban chocolate from your diet? "No," replies Géraldine who recommends choosing dark chocolate, with a minimum 70% cocoa, and eating in moderation. "It's still a high-fat food so we recommend a maximum of squares per day," she explains.
Our last fake health food, which is very much in vogue is: sushi. "It's not really a super food" volunteers Géraldine immediately. The problem is the glutinous rice which has been overcooked in a sweet vinegar. "Essentially, it's the same as eating sugar cubes," warns the dietician.
And the end result? An insulin spike that makes you want to eat more and promotes fat storage. In addition, sushi is often made from food that already has a high fat content like avocados and salmon. Although it's good fat, it's being added to a food that is already very rich," she observes.
Especially as it's usually eaten with (overly) sweet or salty soy sauce. In sum, it's not a very filling food and is not really compatible with exercise, so should only be eaten occasionally, in moderation.
This is particularly the case with oleaginous fruits such as almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Although they are recommended to athletes for their satiating and fatigue-fighting properties, they should be eaten in moderation. "They're good for your health but they are high in calories. So a dozen almonds eaten throughout the day, is really the maximum" says Anne.
Another preconceived idea refuted by Anne: You need to eat a lot of pasta to produce energy."It's not true. Just because you're going to exercise, it doesn't mean you have to eat a lot; you need to gauge your needs and listen to your body," suggests the behavioural heath dietician. Her advice: pay attention to the quantity and cooking time (al dente, preferably) and alternate with other starchy foods. And what about meat? Anne makes the same observation here: you need to eat in moderation and make sure you alternate with plant protein such as lentils, chickpeas, dried beans and even quinoa.
Finally, the dietician advises against energy drinks in the context of exercise. They have an adverse effect on sporting performance. "If you have this kind of drink before exercising, your heart rate will immediately increase and you'll reach your peak capacity much earlier than if you hadn't had it!
It is, in fact, a minimally processed food, renowned for being a natural stimulant and for its energizing effect. And it has many benefits: "It elevates the heart rate, boosts muscle contraction, enhances reflexes and improves reaction time, decreases perception of pain and fatigue, has a fat-burning effect and helps stimulate the cardiac and respiratory systems," lists Géraldine.
However, an excess of caffeine can cause several adverse effects, such as insomnia and heart palpitations, an increase in blood pressure, heart rate as well as heartburn. Too high a dose increases dehydration which increases the risk of muscle strain or cramp.
So, as you'll have realised, coffee is excellent for boosting your sporting performance provided you moderate your consumption. But what constitutes moderate coffee consumption? "Three cups a day is really the limit, more than that is too much," suggests Anne, the behavioural health dietician, before adding: "For moderate physical activity, you can have your morning cup of coffee before you go training, to test your digestive tolerance!"
And Géraldine explains: "As far as I'm concerned, coffee is particularly useful for short distance endurance sports, if drunk one hour before exercising." In fact, coffee enters the bloodstream quickly so having coffee one hour before you exercise will help boost your performance. Finally, for long distance exercise, it can still be useful to have a coffee when combined with a carbohydrate source (such as a piece of fruit, stewed fruit, home-make granola etc) to delay the onset of breathlessness and fatigue!