Saturday, July 18, 2009

Real Food & Performance

Have you noticed how food is becoming medicine? Cheerios lowers your cholesterol. Activia yogurt keeps you regular. Milk builds strong bones. We no longer are encouraged to eat food simply because it tastes good. It should also correct some medical condition we have.

There is a similar trend going on in sports nutritional products. Athletes seem to be coming to the conclusion that sports bars, protein drink mixes, electrolyte concoctions and more are healthy and a good source of what we need to improve performance. Athletes comment on such supplements as if it is a foregone conclusion that this stuff is not only healthy, but also the best source of whatever it is we need to become faster and more enduring.

I believe just the opposite: A diet high in such highly processed stuff (I don’t think of them as “food”) is unhealthy. Nature has been making foods such as fruits and vegetables for millions of years. We evolved quite nicely as a species eating these along with animal products. Such foods seem to have everything we need to not only survive as a species but to thrive as athletes.

On the other hand, sports nutrition scientists have been making their stuff for about 30 years. And it’s only been for the last 15 years or so that athletes have preferred to carry a bar in their pocket on a bike ride rather than a banana. Now we’ve come to the point where many (most?) think that the best possible food to eat post-workout is something out of a plastic bag. Some even carry this preference for sports nutritionals into their daily lives eating stuff throughout the day that was unheard of just months ago.

Here are a few guidelines I believe will help you when it comes to making food selections.

• If the product comes in plastic packaging eat it only in very small portions, preferably during exercise, and then only because of convenience.
• If the product has more than five ingredients listed on the package it’s best avoided or eaten in very limited quantities. Eat these only when “real” food is not readily available.
• The foods you should be the most wary of are those that proclaim loudly to be “healthy” or “all natural.”
• Typically, the more expensive a product is per calorie, the less healthy it is.
• The less advertising there is for a food, the healthier it is.
• If your grandparents could not have eaten it, it’s best avoided.

This is not to say that you should never eat sports bars or the like. There are times and situations when they are convenient. But the primary time to eat them is during exercise, and then only very long or very intense workouts. Generally, if you are in decent shape and the workout lasts less than two hours all you need is water, assuming you had a meal sometime in the last few hours before starting the session. For such short workouts you really don’t need all of that sugar or the other stuff (protein, sodium, magnesium, vitamins, minerals, etc) we’re told are some how necessary for sports performance.

For optimal health and sports performance simplify your diet.


At July 18, 2009 1:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alays interesting to read you posts Joe.
What do you think about "engineered" recovery drinks? The ones we are supposed to drink within 45min after exercise; the ones with sugars, proteins, amino acids that (supposedly) help muscles recover faster and fuller.

Or is it better stick to simple real foods for recovery too? I often hear about the chocolate milk as the simplest option.



At July 18, 2009 1:43 PM , Blogger Feltslave said...

Joe - I work in the food industry - it is something the marketing folks seem to be so focused on- I just started (although not a new book) - a book "In Defense of Food". Initial chapters are exactly that "science" trending of food and how it is becoming dangerous to our natural pattern of eating. Thanks for the post - another good read.

At July 18, 2009 1:58 PM , Blogger Andrew said...

I can see where you are coming from but i find it quite to get any starch in after a work out or any other time during the day if i am busy as i cant cook potaotos


At July 18, 2009 3:18 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Myk--Thanks for your comment. In recovery you need carb and fluids. Starchy foods (potato, rice, bread, bagels, etc) are a good choice.

At July 18, 2009 7:43 PM , Blogger mikesaif said...

Totally agree with you Joe. I eat only natural or organic "real" food whenever possible. Nothing processed is in our house and the few ingredients the better. Having said that, I have started to use Cliff bars for nutrition when riding instead of a banana. But your post has got me back to the bananas again. Also interesting that I don't really need anything for a 2 hour ride or less. We keep getting stuff pushed on us to eat while riding but it seems this is only needed for longer rides. Thanks again.

At July 18, 2009 9:14 PM , Anonymous Ed said...

"In recovery you need carb and fluids. Starchy foods (potato, rice, bread, bagels, etc) are a good choice."

Does fruit fit in that list? Some have said that fructose will cause glycogen replenishment to be restricted to the liver for a period, delaying replenishment in muscle. Is there truth in that and fruit is deliberately not in your list, or is it another half-founded or over-isolated fact and fruit is okay for recovery?

At July 18, 2009 9:20 PM , Blogger Navin Sadarangani said...

I absolutely agree to you Joe. I have been a total supporter of natural food (fresh fruits and healthy vegetables) and i think if one eats them in the right quantities and plans his diet well, he'll enjoy a life of good health, great fitness & activity. Having said that, i do sometimes have a bar or so when i run long distances, only because of convenience, while knowing that it's not the best thing. But then, i don't have a support crew following me right :-)

At July 19, 2009 7:53 AM , Blogger M doc said...

As you once pointed out long ago, nutrition remains the 4th discipline in triathlon, and for many, the most confusing, just as it is in the every day world for consumers. Triathlete or not, it remains impossible to sort out nutritional truths from the confusing and often contradictory "truths" promoted from someone trying to see you something, which seem to be backed up by at least some science.
So to appeal to historical and and anthropological principles to make sense of this nutritional mess seems to be almost the only way out--like breast feeding, which remains the primary nutrition of choice for an infant, Mother Nature should remain the nutritional source of choice for the rest of us, including triathletes.
I hope your readers will see the value of your points, although you could have given more credit to the nutritional writer Michael Pollan, the author of "In Defense of Food", where you surely got most of these principles from!

At July 19, 2009 8:16 AM , Anonymous Sam Garner said...

While training for a Marathon, I did some research on this:
- the best post-run drink, giving a boost of protein and sugar in an easy digestible form (for most) is 2 % milk.
- If you think water is not good enough for you, it seems that the brand "mineral water" is low on sodium and quite good: you buy a bottle and read the main ingredients. Than just add the required amounts of sugar to chilled green tea. If you feel low in sodium (most middle aged runners are NOT), buy another sports drink, and read from there. The sodium apparently does not really is the main part in bringing the drink on its osmotic capacity.
- as a snack, nothing beats the banana, coming in a nice package, and mixing dry matter with the liquids, better than any gel.

At July 19, 2009 9:00 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Ed--Good question. Starch is at the top of the list of categories because of its high glycemic load and index. Of these, potato is among the best because it is also net alkaline-enhancing. The other starches are net acid-enhancing. There is not much to support alkaline vs acidic foods when it comes to recovery, but given the acidic state of the body following intense exercise especially, I favor alkaline foods at this stage. And this is also especially true for older athletes who have a greater tendency toward acidity. They don't actually become acidic because the body uses its resources (calcium from bone, for example) to prevent excessive acidity. This is an expensive way to solve the problem. Merely eating alkaline foods would lessen that cost, I believe.

Fruit would be the next category for recovery. Starchy fruits (banana, plantain) would be near the top of this list because of their higher GI and GL (as above with other starchy foods).

All of this, of course, has to do primarily with replacing glycogen stores. The first 30 minutes post-workout is usually recommended as the time to take in such foods as the body is quite sensitive to carb at that time. But some research has shown that this window may be quite a bit wider. Perhaps 2 hours. This may have a lot to do with the individual athlete and the nature of the preceding workout.

At July 19, 2009 10:52 AM , Anonymous Ed said...

Joe- thank you for your reply. Is the alkalinity benefit true for sweet potatoes and yams as well (which I much prefer), or just the humble plain Jane potato?

At July 19, 2009 2:20 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Ed--Yes. Sweet potatoes and yams are also alkaline enhancing.

At July 19, 2009 11:11 PM , Blogger Watzzupsport said...

I am always glad to see questioning of the packaged products that get peddled to athletes, as if you have to have the latest post,pre,during, supplement to achieve a result.
Also seeing fruit and raw foods getting a good thumbs up is heartening as there is not a lot of man made products that are as complete a nutrition and energy source.
For those looking for a natural energy boost try Chia seed wonderful natural product for athletic energy supply. You can add them to a water bottle they turn quite gelatinous or have them in a smoothie.

At July 20, 2009 9:16 AM , Blogger Bahzob said...

Cracking post Joe. One to frame and put up on the wall. Real food is the best food. Thanks

At July 20, 2009 3:18 PM , Blogger Fran said...

We already know that our last 50 years of feeding crops engineered fertilizer has damaged the crops' ability to cooperate with microorganisms and get what they need from nature.

Like the soil, healthy bodies work in concert with microorganisms to break down and use food (90% of the cells in our bodies are not human cells - we are ecological systems unto ourselves). Even if we were completely certain that some of our cells could thrive on whatever is engineered into these products, we should expect that the substitution of a few essentials for a more complex real food would not be good for the system as a whole.

At July 21, 2009 9:44 AM , Anonymous Wlfdg said...

GREAT POST!! Thanks so much Joe. Since switching to Paleo 100% just short of 90 days ago, I can not believe how dramatic my body has changed. My energy levels and rate of recovery are better at 42 then they were at 22. No longer will my "sports nutrition" come out of a synthetic wrapper or bottle. I have suffered with exercise induced asthma most of my life. It's no longer an issue, AT ALL! I can not say "Thank you!" enough to you and Loren Cordain.

Real food and unprocessed sources of carbs? Who would have thought?

At July 22, 2009 5:55 AM , Blogger Ryan and Katie said...

I'm 100% on board with this! My mantra has always been, "if the food comes from God (nature, mother earth, etc.), then it's good. If it comes from a factory, then it's not."

At July 23, 2009 7:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've moved to a country where you simply cannot buy gels/sports drinks/bars etc. And there's no mail order. It forced me to look for alternatives, bananas, dates, honey, homemade malt loaf. Works well, tastes great, saves cash.

At July 23, 2009 8:29 AM , Blogger Social Psych said...

I love my daily dose of apples, almonds, bananas and veggies as much as the next triathlete. But I'm hesitant to believe that anything "processed" is bad for me. That peanut butter I have with my apple is "processed" and that banana has been genetically modified over the years to be easy to transport. Plus, not everything natural (from God, mother earth, etc.) is good for you. I'm pretty sure hemlock, ergot, salmonella, and poison ivy are all natural and unprocessed too.

I'm just saying I wish it was as simple as thinking natural=good and processed=bad. Here's an article I came across regarding this:

At July 25, 2009 6:06 AM , Blogger Craig Uffman said...

Thanks, joe, for this. I appreciate the point, but I wonder about exceptions, also. In particular, I have thought that food as grown with EnergyFirst whey protein (in a shake) was about the most healthy way to to control my diet in terms of percent of fat, carbo, and protein.

Does your concern apply to whey protein shakes with food as grown (fruits)?

At August 2, 2009 10:40 AM , Blogger Craig Uffman said...

Just following up on my question about whey protein, Joe. I regularly use whey protein shakes as part of my diet because I can control real easily the percentages of the three groups and it has very high efficiency. Are you steering us away from whey protein shakes?

At August 2, 2009 12:13 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Craig--I think that's fine postworkout.Otherwise, I would prefer to get nutrients from foods that aren't so highly processed.

At August 5, 2009 8:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,
hey do you have any resoures that can help athletes with diabetes. I have a couple freinds and it is very hard to guess the right nutrition while riding and recovery?


Randall - Tucson

At August 5, 2009 11:53 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Randall--I'm afraid I can't be of help here but I'll bet someone reading your question will be able to.

At August 5, 2009 11:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simple honey in the waterbottle actually works pretty well, absorbs quickly, and tastes pretty well, starting with only 2 to 4 talespoons depending on your water bottle size. I think the natual uncooked honey may even work better then the cooked stuff.

At August 11, 2009 9:56 AM , Blogger Paul said...

I am trying to view everything that enters my mouth as a drug in that it has some effect on my body.

Good post - thanks.

At August 14, 2009 4:43 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm very interested in your dietry advice as I trust your experience.
I have had my copy of the MTB Training Bible for years and
I have a copy of the Paleo Diet on the way.
I'm wondering what you think about cows' colostrum and whether it is of any benefit from an immune boosting point of view?


Sarah .

At August 14, 2009 8:25 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Sarah--Thanks for your comment. I haven't had any experience with colostrum for boosting the immune systems of athletes. Never used it myself. And I haven't done much to try to keep up with the research on it either. There has been some but they seem to have contradictory results. For example you can read these 2 abstracts: and

At August 14, 2009 3:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Again,

Thanks for your speedy reply :-)
It is very much appreciated.

Also for the links.I'm having trouble loading them right now but your book has arrived and I'm already half way through !
I'm pretty sure that the far higher vitamin & mineral content of the Paleo diet would be a secure immune system boost compared to something designed for calves.
While waiting for the book to arrive I have been experimenting with cutting my carb intake and upping my lean protein and fresh veg & fruit intakes (also cutting diary & refined sugars ) -I'm at the end of my 2nd week and I'm pretty impressed with how I'm feeling. I like not having a post lunch 'dip' and I like feeling fuller for longer too ( I've always had to eat very often and thought of myself as quite blood sugar sensitive).
In short I'm really pleased that I got my battered old copy of the MTB-ers training bible out & re read the dietry advice - which led me to some web research and your Paleo book.I had a good 24 hr mtb race last weekend and I'm hoping for an even better one next year,when I've got this dialled!

I do have one last question,if you will permit me - I know you're a very busy man!

In my base phase (which is long and mostly recreational as my structure is very loose and I only build & Peak for very short periods prior to two or three events a year) I will be moving to my 'long' commute to work - this is a ride of over an hour in the morning and evening at a very easy pace. I'm not sure if I should be using a homebrew recovery drink ?
The book advises only to use it for sessions of high intensity or if it lasts 60-90 mins.
I'd be riding this time Mon-Fri .1hr 5 in and 1hr 10 home.
As it's so low in intensity does it fall in to the recovery drink category do you think?

Thanks again for letting me bother you :-)

All the Best,


At August 14, 2009 6:16 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Sarah--Naw, you don't need a recovery drink for those rides.

At September 7, 2009 9:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For long bike rides (>2,5h) I bake my one energie bars (cookies). The nutrition (dry fruits,nuts,...)came from the wholefood shop.
There are a lot of delicious recipes in the internet. Absolute easy, you need 20 Minutes an you have bars for two weeks. My energy drink is Maltodextrin, dextrose, litle salt, mixed with some joice. Nothing for persons with fructose intolerance, then take tea.
Gels or energy bar´s or drinks are only for the race. If I must test it for a important race I take a c-priority races. This kind of nutrition is a exception for me not the rule. Bad for Powerbar,Sqeezy and co,sorry. Good for me :-)
I think good and balanced diet is a important key for better performance.

from Germany

P.S Joe thousand thanks for your great books!

At September 7, 2009 9:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For long bike rides (>2,5h) I bake my one energie bars (cookies). The nutrition (dry fruits,nuts,...)came from the wholefood shop.
There are a lot of delicious recipes in the internet. Absolute easy, you need 20 Minutes an you have bars for two weeks. My energy drink is Maltodextrin, dextrose, litle salt, mixed with some joice. Nothing for persons with fructose intolerance, then take tea.
Gels or energy bar´s or drinks are only for the race. If I must test it for a important race I take a c-priority races. This kind of nutrition is a exception for me not the rule. Bad for Powerbar,Sqeezy and co,sorry. Good for me :-)
I think good and balanced diet is a important key for better performance.

from Germany

P.S Joe thousand thanks for your great books!

At September 24, 2009 7:33 AM , Anonymous Ed said...

Joe- I've just read your Paleo for Athletes and remembered this discussion and my question back in July about potato and sweet potato for recovery. Can you elaborate on a detail, please? Are potato and sweet potato bad, outside recovery phase, only because of the glycemic load or are there anti-nutrients or other reasons for avoiding them? I struggle to get enough calories into my paleo meals (typ. 5 meals per day, 4oz of fish or other meat, 10g oils, then fruits and veg. to make around 500 Cal. For meals after exercise, add in starches.) I am wondering about the idea of very small servings of sweet potato every hour or two, small enough that there's low glycemic load to help meet non-exercise caloric needs. Would that be insane or counterproductive? How low would the glycemic load per serving need to be? I have no sugar related illness / disease.

At September 24, 2009 8:31 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Ed--Good questions. Wild potatoes had anti-nutrients but those have been bred out of them thousands of years ago, or at least the ones we now get from farms. The only issues I see with them now is that they are high in calories but low in micronutrients (compared with other vegs). But they are a great recovery food because of the high glycemic load and alkalinity. If I had to recommend a starch for someone to eat at non-recovery times it would be potato. They key to recovery is stages 3-4. You've got to get a lot of high glycemic load foods in then if training at high stress loads.


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