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Four Principles of Rational Nutrition.

IN ADDITION TO SOUND training, the athletes' most important means of recovery and restoration are nutrition and sleep. Unless they eat well and maintain a stable sleep-wakefulness cycle, they will be unable to achieve optimal training effects or fully recover and adapt.

Optimal fitness is a specialized state of health, and no training program can offset a poor lifestyle. Since Strength & Conditioning coaches are often the first people whom athletes approach for answers or advice, I would like to provide a summary of effective and concise guidelines for sound nutrition.

The old-school "just learn to eat fight" mentality is simplistic. It's practically impossible for most people, especially student-athletes, to observe the principles of rational nutrition on a regular basis. Because of our processed/refined food intake, our diets are typically too high in saturated fats, simple sugars and salt; and too low in calories, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids (especially omega-3), fiber, and other nutrients. We also tend to neglect critical nutritional windows of opportunity.

Let us begin with our first four principles of rational nutrition:

1. Eat 3-4 squares and 1-2 power snacks daily in order to maintain a high metabolic rate and balanced nutrient intake. Eat meals or high-energy snacks at about 4 hour intervals. Plan your meals in advance and make sure good foods are always available. The most important windows of opportunity occur in the morning, as well as during and after exercise. Breakfast should be the first order of business every day. It literally breaks the fasting state caused by not eating since the previous day.

2. Water is the foundation of the food guide pyramid, and is the most abundant and important nutrient (comprising over two-thirds of body mass). Optimal athleticism can be achieved only when you are fully hydrated, but fluid balance and blood volume are depleted during intense activity. The objective is to prevent thirst rather than quench it. Thirst lags behind actual need; and in fact dehydration is already impairing your performance by the time you feel thirsty. Since water can be lost faster than it is replaced, drink fluids at every opportunity, whether you're thirsty or not. A carb-protein-electrolyte drink during and after exercise can also minimize catabolism and fatigue.

3. Eat a variety of foods, emphasizing those at the base of the food guide pyramid, especially complex, fiber-rich, unrefined carbs, lean proteins, and essential unsaturated fats. Each food group provides important bioactive compounds. Build your meals on the 1-2-3 rule:

* 3 parts carbohydrate. Carbs fuel the neuromuscular system, spare proteins, and prime fat metabolism. Carb-rich foods, coupled with training, will maximize your energy stores and work capacity. Carbs supply 4.1 calories/gram, and should comprise 55-65% of caloric intake at each meal. Emphasize complex, high-fiber, unrefined carbs (especially from grain-vegetable-fruit sources) with minimal processed sugar intake.

* 2 parts protein. Amino acids are structural building blocks for tissue growth and repair; provide energy; buffer acid-base balance; and regulate fluid balance and plasma volume. They supply 4.35 calories/gram, and should comprise 15-25% of caloric intake.

* 1 part fat. Essential fatty acids serve vital roles: energy, nutrient transport/storage, hormone/cell structure, cushioning, protection, and insulation. They supply 9 calories/gram, which is more than twice that of carbs or proteins. Fats should comprise 20-25% of caloric intake [10-12?% of diet by weight], most of which are unsaturated oils from vegetable-nut-seed sources. Even when we minimize the amount of saturated fat in our diets, however, we tend to get an imbalance of "omega-6" (linoleic) vs. "omega-3" (alpha-linolenic) fatty acids. This can be corrected by regularly eating foods or supplements which contain high amounts of the latter, such as cold-water fish species (albacore tuna, bluefish, halibut, herring, mackerel, salmon, trout) or flax oil.

4. How your food is prepared is as important as what you eat. You generally can't go wrong if it's baked, boiled, broiled, raw or steamed. Avoid fried, processed or refined foods.

Body Composition

The bad news is that our metabolism has evolved to store fat while minimizing the lean mass it has to maintain. Limiting the amount of tissue with high metabolic cost (especially muscle), and storing extra energy as body fat, seems to be the strategy of choice for surviving feast-famine cycles. This obviously opposes our training goals, and also explains why chronic changes in calorie intake aren't very effective over the long term.

After an initial two-week adaptation window, our homeostatic mechanism adjusts to the new energy balance, the original fat/lean mass set point resumes, and it once again becomes difficult to influence one without the other. The good news is that this mechanism can be tricked to selectively gain muscle or lose fat.

The hormonal cascade triggered by food intake is an even more potent metabolic stimulus than training. Together they are a powerful 1-2 punch which can be used to make dramatic and lasting changes in body composition.

The key is to vary your calorie intake during the respective halves of each 3-4 week training phase: A 1? -2 week high-calorie period up-regulates anabolic hormones, enzyme activities, and receptors without giving the fat-burning catabolic pathways enough time to down-regulate. A subsequent 1? -2 week low-calorie period serves the reverse role.

The rationale is essentially the same as that used for contrasting workload intensity. The net result is a metabolism that's constantly primed to build muscle and burn fat.

Gaining Lean Mass

Building lean mass is not just a matter of lifting weights and increasing protein intake:

* Muscle tissue is only about 22% protein. It is actually more than 70% water. The remainder consists of fuels, phospholipids, mineral salts, enzymes, etc.

* The typical American diet provides 2-3 times the required amount of protein. Athletes need less than 1 gram of protein per pound body weight per day. Even a 300 pound athlete in heavy training needs less than 300 grams [10 ounces] daily protein intake when it is obtained from balanced, high-quality sources and ingested at regular intervals.

* Chronic, excessive intake of protein (or any macronutrient) elevates the activity of enzymes that catabolize it or convert it to fat. Carbohydrate and phosphocreatine are the power fuels supplying energy for the intense work that stimulates adaptation. They also have a protein-sparing effect, making more amino acids available for structural purposes rather than using them for energy.

In order to gain lean mass without gaining fat, a cyclic change in calorie intake (combined with training) yields better results than a simple long-term increase: Consume your normal stable-weight diet for the first 1? -2 weeks of each training phase, then increase food intake by about 25% during the second 1? -2 weeks, and repeat this cycle. Continue to eat meals or power snacks at regular, 4-hour intervals throughout. Just increase their caloric content during the latter half of each phase.

If you tolerate dairy products, nonfat dry milk powder blended with regular milk is an excellent and inexpensive supplement between meals (especially at night).

Losing Body Fat

Regardiess of how much you exercise or how little you eat, fats are so energydense [1 pound is equivalent to 3,500 kilocalories] that it's impossible to metabolize more than 1-2 pounds/week. In order to achieve this without losing lean mass, a cyclic change in calorie intake (combined with training) yields better results than a simple long-term decrease: Reduce food intake by about 25% for the first 1? -2 weeks of each training phase, then resume your normal stable-weight diet for the second 1? -2 weeks, and repeat this cycle. Continue to eat meals or power snacks at regular, 4-hour intervals throughout in order to stoke your furnace and burn fat efficiently. Just decrease their caloric content during the former half of each phase.

Do not skip meals, try to dehydrate or starve the weight off, or use fad diets or "fat burners". The problem with missing meals is that it triggers a starvation response fat-storage mechanism. When deprived of nutrients, the body will obtain energy and raw materials from lean mass and fat stores -- which counteracts our training goals. Even if you cut calorie intake, the result will be exactly opposite of the desired effect.

Don't underestimate the importance of strength training in losing body fat. The larger your muscle mass, the more fat calories you burn around the clock; and the bigger and more strenuous the exercise, the greater its effect on metabolism. Hence, in order to raise your basal metabolic rate and lose fat, get after the basic structural movements.

Likewise, don't overestimate the role of endurance exercise. Submaximal distance-duration training has limited benefit for athletes. The workload should match or exceed "aerobic power" (heart rate at or above 180 beats/minute), with work intervals no longer than 6-8 minutes in duration. Such training can be performed at least 3 days/week, and should involve weight-bearing activities (e.g., climbing, hiking-jogging, rope skipping, skating, skiing).

Beware of two weight-loss myths. The first is "cutting weight" by fasting and/or dehydrating. This is a futile, last-resort tactic used by athletes who are too irresponsible or ignorant to eat and train properly.

The second is "spot reduction". Fuels are delivered to the muscles via the bloodstream, indirectly from fat depots (which are tapped in certain patterns). This is why males tend to gain or lose body fat primarily at the waist, and females primarily at the hips and thighs.

Our next two principles of rational nutrition, pertaining to weight gain and loss, are as follows:

5. The key to gaining lean mass is to intermittently increase calorie intake. Alternate between 1?-2 week periods of normal feeding and overfeeding for optimal results. Chronic high-calorie diets increase body fat as much as (or more than) muscle mass. The caloric surplus must be cyclic in order to be effective.

Keep in mind that athleticism involves more than being "thick, wide and huge". There's a limit to what constitutes functional lean mass, and to how quickly it can be gained. If you aspire to look like one of the superhuman drug addicts in a muscle magazine, you must be willing to:

* Admit that you can't make further progress naturally.

* Lead an artificial, chemically-induced lifestyle.

* Jeopardize your eligibility, health and sanity.

6. The key to losing body fat is to intermittently decrease calorie intake. Alternate between 1?-2 week periods of underfeeding and normal feeding for optimal results. The long-term "crash weight loss" mentality is not the answer, and trying to "get ripped" by eliminating body and dietary fat is impractical and unhealthy.

Chronic low-calorie diets decrease muscle mass as much as (or more than) body fat, reducing the size of the engine where fat is burned. The caloric deficit must be cyclic in order to be effective.


Do a reality check on your eating habits, considering the following:

* It isn't always possible to eat the recommended number of food group servings or to eat balanced meals at critical times (e.g., during and after training).

* Growth, exercise, injury, disease, stress, high calorie intake, and large body size each requires extraordinary nutrient intake.

* Many foods are nutrient-deficient due to over-cooking, processing, soil depletion, storage, or toxins.

* High-quality supplements can be assimilated faster than regular food, and can be superior (or more practical) in certain situations.

Keep in mind that nutritional supplements are exactly that -- supplements, not food replacements. They are often derived from the same nutrient-deficient foods which already comprise our diets (but are more concentrated and expensive); and cannot substitute for bioactive compounds obtained from whole, unrefined foods.

It is also important to understand that nutrients are interactive. Balance and timing are more important than quantity beyond a certain threshold. Once the metabolic pathways are saturated, excess nutrients either accumulate in the tissues or are excreted (depending on whether they are fat or water soluble).

Bottom line: There is no magic bullet, nor any need to shotgun all sorts of pills and powders down your throat when a sensible rifle approach can have the desired effect. Disregard so-called "miracles" or "secrets" and stick to those nutrients with proven adaptive, restorative or protective effects.

Vitamins & Minerals

Vitamins are organic compounds comprising cellular enzyme-coenzyme systems that make everything in your body work. Each vitamin catalyzes a specific biochemical reaction involved in metabolic regulation, energy production, tissue synthesis or cellular protection.

There are two types of vitamins: fat soluble [A, D, E & K], which can be stored for long periods of time; and water soluble [B-complex & C], which are readily depleted. Vitamins are not pep pills (they have no caloric value of their own), food substitutes (they cannot be assimilated without ingesting food), or structural components; nor do they contribute substantially to body mass. They are found in small quantities in natural foods, and since few can be manufactured internally we must rely on our diet to supply them.

Minerals are inorganic elements comprising about 4% of body mass, and are intrinsic to the function and structure of every tissue. They must be supplied by the diet and are widely distributed in foods, forming chelates and complexes -- a natural process which binds them to amino acids or other organic compounds, improving their uptake and utilization up to 10-fold.

There are two types of minerals: major [Ca, Cl, K, Mg, Na, P, S], which are required in relatively large amounts; and trace [B, Cr, Cu, F, Fe, Ge, I, Mn, Mo, Se, V, Zn], which are required in smaller amounts. They serve diverse roles:

* Bone and tooth structure (especially Ca & P).

* Electrolytes (Cl, K & Na) for cardiac and muscle contractility, nerve conductivity, fluid and nutrient exchange, and acid-base balance.

* Cellular metabolic regulation and synthesis (via enzymes and hormones).


Amino acids, like vitamins and minerals, are concentrated and expensive derivatives of basic foods. Timing and balance (not total amount) is the key to their benefit. A complex carb-protein drink or snack can be ingested before and after training to provide key nutrients at the specific time they are needed.

Certain aminos play more diverse roles and are needed in greater proportion than others during exercise:

* Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). Leucine, isoleucine and valine comprise one third of muscle protein, and are metabolized in muscle rather than the liver.

* Glutamine. This is the most abundant amino acid in muscle and plasma (comprising over 60% of the free amino acid pool). It serves multiple roles including protein synthesis modulation, fuel for the gut and immune system, and various protective functions.

Intense activity triggers a survival mechanism that uses all available fuels, and metabolizes entire proteins to extract BCAAs and glutamine. Collectively, they supply up to 15% of the energy used during exercise. The higher the workload and the lower the circulating carb/amino acid levels, the greater the tissue catabolism and need for subsequent repair.

Supplementation during exercise can have anticatabolic or tissue-sparing effects. Sports drinks or snacks should therefore contain complex carbs as well as proteins with an amino acid profile similar to that of muscle, as found in milk and egg products.

Since balanced meals already provide large quantities of protein, don't bother taking amino acid supplements at that time. Total protein intake is not the issue. Even when obtained from lean food sources, the problem with excess protein consumption is that the surplus cannot be stored or assimilated. It is oxidized and used for energy, converted to fat, or excreted.

Following is our last principle of rational nutrition, pertaining to supplementation:

7. Some power supplements can promote adaptation, immune function, and restoration when used in conjunction with sound nutrition and training:

* A multivitamin-mineral formula emphasizing antioxidants, especially certain vitamins (beta-carotene [provitamin A], C, D & E), minerals (Ca, Mn, Se & Zn), and amino acids (glutathione and its constituents [cysteine, glycine, glutamine]).

* A carb-protein-electrolyte drink or snack before, during, and after each workout.

* Proteins high in BCAAs and glutamine (especially whey, caseinate and milk protein isolates); and creatine monohydrate (for high power, brief recovery sports).
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Author:Plisk, Steven Scott
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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