Performance nutrition that works: it’s about food

sports food (photo: cogdogblog via Flickr)

After listening to an NPR story about Jamaican sprinters early in May, I started thinking about how sports nutrition has been hijacked by product marketers.  Jamaican sprinters are the best in the world.  Is it magic?  Is it some unusual genetic advantage?  No, it’s hard work.  And yams.

According to the story, the pre-workout meal every morning includes yams and green bananas, along with the Jamaican national dish Ackee and Saltfish.  In the US, athletes would be more likely to load up on pricey commercial “energy” or protein drinks, or perhaps a “sports” drink that promises hydration and electrolytes.  The Jamaicans rely on plain old food.  And (gasp!) high carb foods at that.  The president of the local technical college is quoted describing their typical breakfast as the equivalent of a dose of steroids.

Of course, I checked out the composition of those breakfast foods.  Yams and green bananas are starchy foods, low protein, high complex carb, with a small amount of natural sugars.  The perfect recipe for a training breakfast, since muscles will use all that carbohydrate for fuel.  The ackee is a fruit, which will add a bit more natural sugar.  The salt cod adds some protein to the meal, but it’s not served in huge portions, so the fish is more of a condiment.  It’s soaked ahead of time to remove some of the salt, but nevertheless some will remain, adding sodium, which would be important for athletes who are losing sodium in sweat.  The yams, bananas, ackee and other plant ingredients will add plenty of potassium and other minerals.  A meal made for athletes.  No scientific “energy” drinks necessary.

And in fact, results of a new study validate the Jamaicans’ approach.  Researchers at Appalachian State compared the effect of (plain old) bananas to a (scientific) sports drink in cyclists.  During a 2.5-3 hour cycling session, subjects ate either 1/2 banana or 1 cup of sports drink every 15 minutes.  Blood samples were collected to measure over 100 biochemical markers for metabolism and endurance.  There was no difference between bananas and sports drinks.  Additionally, the researchers noted that bananas had lots of more other nutrients not found in sports drinks, like fiber and potassium.  By the way, it’s notoriously hard to add potassium salts to commercial food products, because the potassium affects the taste, and excess intake of certain forms of potassium can be toxic.  Potassium supplements are limited to 99 mg each.  The recommended daily intake is about 4000 mg.  One 8″ banana has about 500 mg.  A cup of Gatorade has 30 mg.  A Powerbar Performance bar has 105 mg.

Of course, with competitive sports, results matter.  So if the Jamaicans continue to dominate sprinting at the Summer Olympics, will we see a comeback for food as the athlete’s best fuel source?

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