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Fueling Fitness: Understanding The Link Between Food and Fitness

The natural link between food and fitness has stimulated a mountain of sports nutrition research and launched countless products marketed to fitness-minded consumers.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

The research into nutrition and fitness is now so extensive, every five years the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) publishes in its journal a review of studies on the topic. Subjects range from the effects of dietary supplements and other ergogenic aids on physical performance to the most effective macronutrient distribution patterns (how best to manage calories for maximum results).

Despite the complexity of the subject and the sheer volume of investigation, certain dependable basics filter through.

All athletes — whether casual or competitive — need to balance their energy (read: calories), protein and fluid intake to match their activity; that’s basic. For example, insufficient calories for a serious athlete or even the fitness-minded individual means loss of muscle mass, reduction in strength and increased risk for illness. Most active persons with a body weight ranging from 110-175 lb., and who exercise 30 to 40 minutes per day, will require an extra 200-400 calories per workout session.

For serious athletes, energy expenditure can be daunting. Exercising two to three hours per day, five to six times per week can push these added energy demands to 600-1,200 or more kcals per hour during exercise, driving daily energy requirements to between 2,500 and 8,000 kcals for highly competitive athletes.

Adding to the challenges of refueling is the fact that intense training can suppress appetite. Also, athletes should not eat too close to training to avoid digestive issues or cramping. To meet the energy demands, many athletes turn to high-energy drinks and nutrition bars to provide nutrient-dense snacks that complement balanced meals.

Nutrient density is important for athletes. This is because demands for micronutrients — the vitamins and minerals that allow proteins, fats and carbohydrates to be utilized — are correspondingly increased.

The Power of Carbohydrates

Egg GranolaDespite the persistent popularity of all things “low carb,” athletes know carbohydrates are vital sources of energy. General recommendations are that 45-65 percent of kcals should come from carbohydrates with complex sources. These include whole fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, all playing the dominant energy role.

“Carbohydrates are necessary to fuel muscles and muscle-building exercise,” says Kelly Toups, program manager for the Whole Grains Council, Boston. “Whole grains offer many benefits over refined grains. The bran is rich in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants, and the germ is the source of healthy fats, minerals and protein.

"Without the bran and germ, about 25 percent of the grain’s protein is lost, along with at least 17 key nutrients, many of which are vital to sports performance," she continues. "For example, magnesium — typically stripped away to 16 percent of its original level in white flour versus whole wheat flour — is necessary to help muscles relax.”

The Kashi Co., La Jolla, Calif., provides a spectrum of whole-grain products, from snack bars to pilafs. Using its “seven whole grains on a mission” theme to emphasize different properties of whole grains, the company promotes whole grains as good sources of energy for fitness-minded consumers as well as for serious athletes. The company even added a protein counter to its website so consumers can calculate daily protein intake as they add whole grain products to their daily fare. This serves as a reminder that grains are major contributors to human protein needs, as they have been for thousands of years.

“While a pasta dinner is a classic pre-race ritual, it’s hardly the only way to carb-load,” says Toups. “The variety of whole grains available, along with increasing culinary curiosity, continues to open new doors for whole-grain centered meals.

"For example, so-called 'ancient' or 'heritage' grains are finding their way into more popular exercise and recovery foods. Breakfast cereals are constantly reformulating, and nutrition bars — a popular pick for long-distance cyclers and runners — are increasingly studded with ingredients such as amaranth, oats and quinoa. Even in the beverage industry, drinks made from oats or quinoa are being introduced as quick sources of portable nutrition.”

Ancient grains such as quinoa, teff, millet and buckwheat are rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber and protein. And so are legumes such as beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils. Many of these grains, and all of the legumes, are free of gluten, the protein in wheat and its relatives, rye and barley, which generates autoimmune reactions in persons with celiac disease. Although celiac disease affects only a small portion of the population, gluten-free products are increasingly popular among athletes, driving an increased variety of healthy carbohydrate choices.

ThinkThin ProductsThink Products Inc., Los Angeles, grew from the vision of Lizanne Falsetto, an international model who sensed the need for healthy foods on the go. Following years of success with its high-protein bars, the company recently added a variety of gluten-free, high-protein hot cereals to its line.

Based on a mix of steel-cut oats, rolled oats and quinoa, with added fruits and nuts, the hot cereals provide a balance of complex carbohydrates and lean protein, alongside healthy fats. It should be added that virtually all whole foods that contain energy-yielding complex carbohydrates (starch) are also good sources of protein.

More protein

The amount of protein needed by athletes has been the subject of much study and debate. The RDA for protein is 0.8g per kg of body weight. For that 110-175-lb. athlete, that translates to a protein requirement of between 40 and 65g per day. This amount is easily met by most Americans.

However, recent research into the demands of competitive athletes has resulted in recommendations for twice that amount of protein or greater. This has sent fitness-minded consumers and serious athletes on a hunt for more protein-rich foods and ingredients to pump up meals and replace traditional snacks.

KindStrong1Manufacturers of healthy snack choice lines are upping their products’ protein profiles to meet the demands of these fitness-minded consumers, often mixing a variety of proteins to produce a more effective balance of amino acids. Kind Bars, from Kind LLC, New York, are based on nuts and seeds rather than grains. Nuts and seeds are natural sources of protein and healthy fats. The company also recently added a line of bars — called Kind and Strong — that include pea protein for increased protein content.

Technically speaking, protein is not a dietary necessity; the subunits, amino acids, are. Twenty amino acids make up all the proteins from which the body is made — all proteins in nature for that matter. Only nine are considered dietary necessities, depending upon the circumstances. When those nine dietary “essential amino acids” are present in sufficient quantity and balance, the rest can be manufactured by the body according to need.

The protein quality of a food is judged by the balance of essential amino acids. Whole foods, such as whole grains, legumes and nuts, are serious sources of protein. Still, most are incompletely balanced with respect to certain amino acids. However, animal proteins contain all essential amino acids in relative balance (with the notable exception of gelatin).

The most balanced animal proteins are egg and whey, the standards by which other proteins are judged. However, different foods can be mixed and matched to create an effective balance, the amino acid weaknesses of one food complemented by the strengths of another. This balance is naturally built into many traditional cultures.

“Serious athletes, as well as more casual exercisers, need protein in order to repair muscle damaged during activity,” says Mitch Kanter, executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center, Park Ridge, Ill. “It’s necessary in order to synthesize new muscle, as well as for many other exercise and non-exercise related bodily functions. New research indicates that the post-exercise recovery meal should contain a good amount of protein in order to aid in muscle growth and repair.”

Kanter notes that an egg contains all of the essential amino acids in the right proportions, including high levels of the amino acid leucine. Leucine has been shown to be extremely important for muscle protein synthesis.

“For those persons who ingest the majority of their protein as plant-based protein, it becomes extremely important to know how to mix and match protein sources to ensure intake of all of the essential amino acids,” adds Kanter. “For example, mixing rice and beans is a staple in Spanish cuisine. The protein in rice is poor in certain amino acids that beans are rich in, and vice-versa.”

Unlike carbohydrates and fat, proteins contain nitrogen, which is critical to protein synthesis. Each cell has its own pool of amino acids derived from diet and recycled proteins. From this pool, the cell selects the needed amino acids to build new proteins according to genetic instructions. It’s a little like playing scrabble. If you have a balanced hand of letters, you can build a variety of words. Similarly, if the cell has a balance of amino acids from which to choose, it can synthesize any needed protein.

Amino acids not used to build proteins or other nitrogen-containing compounds are diverted to energy production. However, the same nitrogen necessary for protein synthesis must be removed before amino acids can be used for energy. The accumulation of nitrogen byproducts limits the use of protein as fuel. (These byproducts also are toxic and thus quickly eliminated in the urine.) That is why a balanced amino acid profile is critical to protein synthesis and why high-quality proteins or combinations of proteins are so important to fitness and health in general.

Today, with the emphasis on sustainability, plant proteins are becoming more and more popular. Creating complete proteins by complementing grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetables with high-quality animal proteins is a growing trend.

Roquette America Inc., Geneva, Ill., is creating new applications for its pea protein Nutralys. It allows manufactures to add more plant protein to snacks, powdered drink mixes and meal replacements.

“Milk plays a complementary role in diets around the world,” says Joseph O’Donnell, an expert consultant for the Center of Excellence at the American Dairy Products Institute, Elmhurst, Ill. “Adding just a bit of milk protein, such as whey, dramatically raises the nutritional quality of the diet. A modest amount of whey can help increase the utilization of all the amino acids coming from other protein sources. The amino acid profile of whey proteins make them the most efficient of all proteins at promoting growth.”

O’Donnell points out how whey has a relatively high level of branched chain amino acids. These are known to promote building of muscle mass. Also, whey protein has relatively fewer “dispensable" amino acids in its profile, which means that the nitrogen load is reduced thus sparing the body the metabolic expense (primarily via the kidneys and liver) of removing extra nitrogen.

Organic Valley Cooperative, La Farge, Wis., recently created a line of organic milk protein shakes called Organic Fuel. This coincides with the recent popularity of using chocolate milk as a recovery drink. Sweetened with unrefined cane sugar and flavored with Dutch chocolate or vanilla, the formula has a pretty impressive precedent as a recovery drink. An article in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism in 2004 revealed that famed Kenyan distance runners mix sugar in milk for added calories. In fact, milk accounted for 28 percent of their daily protein intake.

Certain vegetable proteins such as soy and quinoa are complete and help complement other vegetable proteins. These are of particular importance to vegan athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

“More and more athletes are drawn to healthy ways of meeting their needs for protein,” says Scott Desing, chief business development officer for Devansoy Inc., Pagosa Springs, Colo. “Soy powders and milks are used in many applications, from nutrition bars to protein shakes to healthy baked goods, as an ingredient that complements other protein sources like whole grains.”

Soy protein, as one of the few complete vegetable proteins, is popular with vegans and vegetarians. Also, as a high-protein source, it meets the demands of all individuals who are lactose-intolerant. Devansoy’s water-extracted soy protein is favored for a number of reasons. In addition to being sourced from identity preserved, non-GMO soybeans, it is naturally gluten-free.

“Though the concentration of water-extracted protein isn’t as high as soy protein isolate, which requires a more complex hexane extraction method, water-extracted soy protein meets the standards required to be certified organic,” adds Desing. “The movement today is toward sustainable products with clean labels.”

Results from the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), Providence, R.I., an ongoing research project conceived and supervised by Rena Wing, Ph.D., at Brown University, and James Hill, Ph.D., at the University of Colorado, demonstrate that the vast majority of successful weight-loss regimens include an exercise component.

The NWCR monitors more than 10,000 participants over the age of 18 who have lost more than 30 pounds, and kept the weight off for at least one year. Coordinated through the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at Miriam Hospital in Providence, it could be the largest weight-control study of ever conducted. Studies such as this confirm that balancing energy intake with energy expenditure is fundamental to athletic performance, general fitness and weight control.