NUTRITION: THE LINK TO HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE
Many facets of health, ranging from physical fitness and stress control to our individual genetic makeups, have been cited as the keys to health and performance. Even though each of these factors plays a major role in total health, a considerable amount of scientific evidence indicates that nutrition is the main environmental factor within our control that affects our health. As a society Americans are bombarded with advertising and fad diets that promise to make us younger, sexier, faster, trimmer, and stronger. Our choices run the gamut from high-protein diets that promise trim bodies or big muscles to vegetarian diets that separate foods into "yin" and "yang," implying that certain foods yield beneficial powers and that some are adverse to good health. Recently, diet has even become the cause for alarm as we hear that almost everything we eat causes either cancer, heart disease, or some equally debilitating disease. We might wonder how we survived over the centuries without the aid of special diets, vitamin and mineral supplements, and all the "wonder foods" we have today. With all this conflicting information it is no wonder that most Americans are totally confused about what to eat.
Our Changing Diet
Our diet, like the rest of the environment, has undergone considerable change since primitive times. Primitive people didn't have the luxury (or distraction) of all the food choices we are offered today. If they wanted meat on the table it meant hunting for wild game rather than dropping in at a hamburger stand. When their sweet tooth increased their desire for sugar, they didn't have the convenience of a soft drink or a candy bar. They had to make do with fresh fruit or some other natural carbohydrate. Simply put, it was difficult for people to make poor nutritional choices since the food selection available to them was natural, wholesome, and sufficient for their physiological needs.
The problem is much different today. The natural foods that we have survived on for millions of years are still available to us but, because of food technology, our choices have changed. In a sense, we have been taken out of our natural food environment and placed in an environment that allows us to make many different food choices. Our choices are no longer based on natural instinct but, rather on advertising, convenience, and taste. Take sweets as an example. If you are hungry your body encourages you to eat. If you are at work and only have a ten-minute break, it's convenient to get a cola and pastry from the vending machine. It also tastes good. Advertising plays a role because we subconsciously remember ads telling us that sugar foods give us quick energy. Our primitive friend had to settle for a nutritious apple! We make other, less conspicuous, selections, too. Take, for example, eggs. We have heard that they are high in cholesterol and that cholesterol is associated with heart disease. We have also heard that eggs are a very nutritious food, and we know that people have been eating eggs for hundreds of years. That's true, but look how easy it is for us to go to the market and buy two dozen eggs. Our primitive friends had to chase down wild game or raid nests to collect their eggs. Who do you think ends up eating too many eggs? We hear that cereal is a good alternative to bacon and eggs for breakfast every day, but if we don't know the good ones from the bad ones we end up making some poor selections. Many of the cereals available have too much added refined sugar, and in excess that can be bad for your health. A final example: When was the last time you sat down to dinner with the family and ate a meal cooked from scratch? A long time ago, right? In fact, the last meal you all ate together was probably a "Chicken Delight" take-out dinner for six at the convenient price of $3.99 each.
The problem is obvious. There are so many poor food choices available that are convenient and cheap that it seems burdensome to take the time to select food that is more nutritious and takes more of our precious time to prepare. But all is not lost. With some basic understanding of nutrition we can easily swing the pendulum to a more nutritious diet and increase our state of health and performance.
Nutrition and Disease
A common misconception about nutrition is that people who attempt to improve their diets are "health freaks" seeking a utopia of well-being, whereas the rest-of us maintain perfectly good health with little or no concern about what we eat. Nutritionists may not know for sure what the ideal diet is, but there is little disagreement among them that the American diet is not conducive to good health. There is an old American saying: "Eat all your food, people are starving all over the world." The maxim in today's underdeveloped countries might be "Eat all your rice, Americans are starving on junk food."
People become ill, suffer disability, and even die prematurely simply because of the way they live. There is mounting scientific evidence that the way we live our lives is the major determinant not only of how long but of how well we live. The new era in health will take us beyond traditional medical care and stop illness before it occurs through personal prevention and the promotion of healthy life-styles.
Diet, the major element of life-style, is strongly linked to the incidence of degenerative diseases in this country. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, is most commonly associated with diet. Vascular diseases account for over half the deaths in the United States, a fact directly related to our typical high-fat diet. Obesity, a disease that is the underlying cause of many other diseases such as hypertension and age-onset diabetes, starts with the problem of weight control. The constant battle to control weight, which seems to occupy many Americans, is rooted in our excessive intake of processed foods high in fat, refined sugar, and empty calories. Other diseases, such as breast cancer, colon cancer, osteoporosis, hypoglycemia, and tooth decay, are all significantly more prevalent in people who eat the typical American diet.
Nutrition and Performance
Humans are creatures of habit. One of our worst habits -- always looking for an easier way -- causes dieters to use diet pills to shed unwanted weight and often spurs athletes to look at special foods or supplements to make them champions. In the following chapters there will be no mention of a "wonder food" that will propel the athlete into the championships. Instead, I will show that negative nutrition prevents athletes from reaching their potential and that positive nutrition enhances that potential. Nutrition is an important link to success and should be treated as such. Great athletes in any sport must start with great talent. Given that basic gift, they must have the desire and dedication to excel in their particular sport. From there, it is hard training, drilling, and self-discipline that produces champions. Positive nutrition will enhance total training and performance, while negative nutrition will probably prevent the athlete from reaching his or her ultimate goal. Athletes and coaches often miss this important link. They frequently feel that training is the only factor and that nutrition has little effect. That is a logical assumption, especially when athletes appear to perform successfully on a "normal" diet. There is no question that highly gifted athletes can, on certain occasions, perform well in spite of a poor diet. But they will never reach their maximum potential.
A Champion or an Also-Ran
We constantly hear that athletes should eat just like everyone else except for consuming more calories, which are required for their increased energy expenditures. That view is not totally correct because it is based on the assumption that everyone else eats a good diet, and we know that's not the case. If, in fact, athletes are eating like everyone else, then we can assume we can really increase our performance if we break away from the group, so to speak, and eat a more nutritious diet. In fact, that's exactly what can happen.
I have witnessed an amazing number of athletes fail in their final effort because of poor nutrition. They seem to forget that if the average person can fall victim to illness and fail to perform at an optimum level, the same thing can happen to them. If you're going to demand an optimum performance, then you're going to have to supply optimum fuel, and you're not going to get that on the typical diet, which has been shown to be unhealthy. Neither will it come from the haphazard use of supplements, strength pills, endurance pills, or some other miracle food that you simply add to your already poor diet. Optimum performance will result from a total balancing of your nutritional requirements, and it will take as much thought and concern as you put into the other aspects of your training program.
Many coaches and athletes have a hard time seeing this relationship between nutrition and winning. It's obvious to them that increased strength is related to increased performance, so weight training is needed. An athlete would scoff at anyone who suggested that it's not important to train at a high level or to perfect his or her techniques. What isn't so obvious is that positive nutrition enhances every factor essential to winning! Athletes may be seriously damaging their performance by ignoring this fact. They fail to change their diets because the benefits of good nutrition are not as tangible as the results of conditioning and training. It is simply not obvious that nutrition plays a major role in condition and affects both physical and psychological responses.
Although we often see athletes defeat themselves through poor dietary habits, we seldom see this occur in the training of racehorses. Their diet, just like their training, is controlled. Their trainers make sure that the animals eat a balance of the correct nutrients in the form of grains, alfalfa, and vitamin and mineral preparations.
It's very obvious to most people that animals must receive highly nutritious food. Yet these same people think that they can survive quite well on junk! No one would feed a dog soda, potato chips, hot dogs, or ice cream. When athletes start thinking of themselves and feeding themselves as thoroughbreds, they will see an improvement in total performance that will extend over a lifetime.
Nutrition can be our weak link, or it can enhance every aspect of training. With proper nutrition our energy level and enthusiasm will increase and our overall ability to perform will improve. A good diet helps make champion athletes and improves performance.
THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE NUTRITION ON ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Increased energy level
Increased energy reserves
Increased mental alertness
Ability to train at higher levels
Increased fitness level
Ability to handle higher levels of stress
Increased available training time due to a decrease in time lost from colds, infection, and illness
Rapid rehabilitation from injuries and illness
Maintenance of ideal weight
Decrease in excess body fat
Increase in muscle mass
Positive psychological attitude toward training and competition
A Better Diet for Health
Research into the effects of diet on health has taken scientists around the world in search of the ideal diet. They have discovered entire peoples in Russia, the Himalayas, Ecuador, and Mexico with diets and life-styles quite different from ours, all of whom seem to have in common an astonishing lack of the degenerative diseases common in industrialized nations. These people live long, healthy, active lives. Of course, other factors besides nutrition play a role in their health and longevity. They usually live at high altitudes where the air is free from smog and the water is pure and free from chemicals. Most are farmers working rugged land. They are spared the stresses of industrialized societies, and they get plenty of exercise from work as well as from recreation.
An exceptional example is that of the Tarahumarha Indians of Mexico, who play a recreational game involving kicking a wooden ball for more than 100 miles. This grueling activity is performed over rugged terrain and resembles soccer in that team members kick the ball back and forth to one another as they run. Their diet consists mostly of plant food with a limited amount of animal products. They are not exposed to processed foods, which are highly adulterated with fats and sugar. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are all nonexistent in their cultures. To be sure, they don't have the conveniences of modern housing, sanitation, and medical services, yet they are healthy and alert. Obviously, we are unlikely to drop everything and move to the Andes or join the Tarahumarha Indians in kickball. However, we can learn to incorporate those aspects of their life-style which contribute to their good health into our modern life-style. We need to get back on the track because we have let all the conveniences of a technological society steal one of our most precious national assets: our health and well-being.
Even our own government has begun to recognize the health problems related to our diet. In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition was formed to evaluate all of the research and to listen to expert testimony relating the American diet to disease. The evidence associating our eating patterns with disease was very impressive. But association and circumstantial evidence are not direct proof that diet causes or prevents disease. Naturally, the powerful lobbyists of the giant food conglomerates were quick to point this out. They are well aware that if they can show one shred of evidence disproving the link between their products and disease, a nutritionally uneducated public will probably choose to ignore all the other facts. So far these tactics seem to have worked very well. Processed-food sales are up -- not down!
There are several general diet changes you can make to improve your health and performance and decrease your exposure to disease:
FATS: We all eat too much fat. Average Americans consume 42% of their calories in fat. We should reduce this to 30% or less. Only 10% of our total calories should be eaten in the form of saturated fats.
CHOLESTEROL: We should consume about 300 milligrams a day or less.
CARBOHYDRATES: We presently eat only 28% of our calories in the form of complex carbohydrates. We should increase that amount to at least 48%.
SUGAR: We eat twice as much refined and processed sugar as we should. Refined and processed sugar should account for no more than 10% of our total calorie intake.
SALT: The average person consumes too much salt, in some cases as many as 20 grams a day or more (about 4 teaspoons). We should reduce this to fewer than 5 grams a day. We can get by very well on about 1/10 teaspoon.
PROTEIN: Many of us eat more than we require, and we eat too much protein from expensive animal sources.
EXERCISE: Most Americans do not exercise enough. We should exercise regularly to control our weight and increase our cardiovascular fitness.
TOBACCO, ALCOHOL, AND DRUGS: True health will not occur if we abuse the use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.
Learning about Good Nutrition
Learning about good nutrition in today's marketplace is no easy task. It's easy to tell someone to reduce his or her cholesterol intake, but that doesn't mean just substituting margarine for butter or using more vegetable oil, in spite of what the advertisements say. The food industry is way ahead of nutritionists in telling the public what is healthy, but they often don't tell the whole story. They sell margarine, which is cholesterol-free, but switching from butter to margarine won't do a thing for the eater's total fat intake or, for that matter, for the cholesterol intake. Just going from one fat to the other misses the whole point that all fat intake should be reduced.
Other terms, like complex carbohydrates, refined sugar, saturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat, are very confusing to the average person. Take salt, for example. A student of mine assumed that he was not eating a lot of salt simply because he didn't salt his food. He was unaware that the majority of our salt intake comes from processed foods, which have salt added. You're lucky if you can find a food product made that doesn't have added salt.
In the following chapters, the field of nutrition is explained in the simplest terms. You will be able to understand a science that has become more complex for the average person, and, more importantly, you will be able to apply it to your daily eating habits. The result of following a positive nutritional program will be an increase in your health and performance.
Questions and Answers
Q: Every time I read about a diet it says it might increase my life by from five to ten years. Maybe that's not worth it to me. What do you think?
A: I think you want to have your cake and eat it too! No one can give you any guarantees of a longer life or a life with more quality, but I would feel pretty safe in saying that chances for serious disease and early death will be greatly increased if you have a poor diet, don't exercise, smoke, etc. I remember seeing a film on cancer in which a woman who had smoked for twenty years was dying of cancer. She said she didn't care if she died ten years earlier at 65 instead of 75. She thought the ten years was taken off the end, not the middle! She died of lung cancer soon after reaching forty years of age.
Q: My grandfather is sixty years old. He has a terrible diet, doesn't exercise, and smokes. How did he make it?
A: I can't attest to the quality of his life, but if he's really healthy, which I doubt, he's an exception to the rule. Most sixty-year-old men in the United States have many ailments, lack energy, and suffer some advanced degree of circulatory disease. Being alive as opposed to being dead is not a measurement of one's state of health!
Q: Don't most of us buy what we want ? No one forces us to buy a product.
A: Big Brother is here! McDonald's alone spends $120 million a year in advertising telling you what to eat. You have to go out of your way to eat right today, because most of the time the easiest choice is a poor one. How many times have you had fries, a milkshake, and a hamburger because they were fast, cheap, and convenient? If you just follow your taste buds in today's highly processed food market, you'll be in real trouble. We must learn to shut our eyes and ears to the advertising.
Q: Can you give me other examples of how my food dollar is controlled by industry and not by me?
A: Yes. You don't see ads for skim or nonfat milk, do you? Only "milk" is advertised, and if they promoted the wholesome nonfat milk, what would they do with all that fat? How often do you see ads for whole-grain breads and cereals? Not too often; but you see plenty of ads aimed at children, promoting sugared cereals, candy, pastries, and other junk foods. Come to think of it, maybe your child has become an agent for the food industry and tells you what to spend your money on! Do you seriously think your great-grandmother would consciously walk into a supermarket and say, "Give me a box of your sugar-coated green and yellow breakfast cereal"? Such an act is learned behavior, not intelligent choice.
Q: How do we eat differently from our grandparents?
A: We eat more processed and convenience foods, such as instant dinners, instant breakfast drinks, and packaged and canned products. Although not all of them are bad, they are usually excessive in sugar, fat, and calories, and are low in nutrients and fiber. Because both husband and wife are working in more families, we eat out more. One-third of our food dollar is spent on fast foods, many of which are high in sugar, fat, protein, and calories, the very things we should reduce in our diet.
Q: Will improved nutrition really have that much effect on my health?
A: That really depends on how bad your diet is now. The more deficient the diet, the more marked the improvement will be. Nutrition is a major component of total health, but to develop optimum health, a person must evaluate all of his or her health habits, including exercise, smoking, and stress control.
Q: Teen-agers, especially athletes, seem so trim and healthy, yet they eat all kinds of junk. Why don't they experience disease?
A: Many do. Obesity and overweight are very characteristic problems among teen-agers. For a simple answer to your question, look at an ex-athlete at forty years of age. Get the picture? Degeneration takes many years, and if teen-agers continue a life-style of nutritional abuses, they will suffer the same illnesses and diseases as their parents. I often ask students if they would like to have the same state of health when they are older that their parents have now. They look at me and shake their heads -- No!
Q: When I eat a poor diet and then switch to a good diet for a few days, I still feel the same.
A: You are taught to expect instant results, but things just don't happen that way. You get fat very slowly -- it often takes years -- but you expect to lose it all in two weeks. I'm sure that if you smoked a cigarette and woke up the next day with lung cancer, it wouldn't take long for you to quit smoking. Attempt to change your eating habits at a rate that will assure some long-term changes, and you will begin to experience a better state of health.
Q: Are all those diseases you listed the result of eating wrong?
A: Diet surely has the strongest link to most of them, but it's not always the direct cause. Heredity can predispose some of us to certain diseases in spite of our precautions. Other factors, such as our level of exercise, exposure to chemicals, stress, and use of alcohol, have an impact on our chances of developing certain diseases.
Q: As a coach I can't see where diet can have much effect on performance. How much does it have?
A: It's relative. I might ask the same question about conditioning, weight training, or drills. I know of many athletes who weight train all the time but still don't win. That doesn't mean weight training is unimportant. You have to analyze the whole program and then see where you can enhance it. Positive nutrition enables an athlete to derive the maximum benefits from training.
Q: I've seen athletes on all kinds of bizarre diets and supplements. They seem to swear by them, but I don't see them performing better than the athletes who ignore their diets.
A: Athletes are a superstitious breed. They'll try anything to win. Bizarre diets and unlimited use of supplements are hardly scientific approaches to improved performance. They may help, purely by accident, but they also may be a hindrance. Ignoring diet altogether can be just as bad. If you're performing well on a poor diet, imagine what you might do on a good diet! If a miler smokes and still runs the mile in 4:10 minutes, should he or she continue to smoke?
Q: It seems that athletes have been getting along fine for years without any concern for diet. Why all the concern?
A: There was a time when football players got along fine without weight training! When players became stronger from lifting weights, everyone got on the bandwagon or they were left behind. Look for the weak link to success and then improve it. For most athletes nutrition is that weak link.
Q: There is not much you can do if you have a genetic weakness for a disease, is there?
A: Yes. A genetic weakness simply means you have a greater chance of getting a certain disease. A person at risk should choose a life-style to reduce the risk. For example, if your doctor says you have a strong history of heart disease in your family, you are not necessarily going to get heart disease. But you had better pay more attention to the risk factors -- and what you eat is a major risk factor!
Q: What if I ignore all of your suggestions?
A: Visit a few hospitals and homes for the elderly so you can get an idea of what your future holds. Carry a large insurance policy. Buy a cemetery plot. Don't, by any means, plan for the future. Be a fatalist, and you are guaranteed the same life as the typical American. Welcome to the diet cola generation!
Q: Will I see a direct effect on my performance from eating a better diet?
A: That depends on how bad it is now. In time you will notice your level of training will improve, which in turn will result in an improved performance. Don't just measure the success of your diet by performance. The long-range benefits of better health will be equally important later in life.
ardCopyright © 1984 by Frank G. Addleman