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Frederick Stourton: No miracle diet for athletes

23 Apr, 12 | by BMJ Group

In a quiet house in Soho, where Charles Dickens reputedly wrote “A Tale of Two Cities,” C3 Collaborating for Health hosted a breakfast meeting last week on the importance of nutrition in athletics; a hot topic with the London 2012 games fast approaching. Breakfast reflected the theme, with not a bacon rasher or greasy pastry in sight, and Roger Clemens, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, and a former athlete himself, gave his views on how athletes could best prepare themselves. His answer? Optimum nutrition and optimum exercise provide optimum performance.

But what is optimum nutrition for any one athlete? Do athletes know what they are consuming, and how it is affecting them? What to eat? When to eat it? How much should they eat? What’s the right way to get to the weight they need to be? What supplements will boost their performance, and which will disqualify them?

Obviously, the key factor in an athlete’s diet is energy. Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, consumes well over 12,000 calories a day. Whilst most of this is through food, a large amount is through nutritional supplements. However, many athletes don’t consider fluid or calorie replacement drinks as supplements. They also, Clemens suggested, assume vitamins and mineral drinks are energy boosters, that caffeine is a source of energy, and food is a base rather than something that gives them the “edge” that they need.

Athletes do need to be careful about which supplements they take. Some are banned, others have possible adverse effects, and it is difficult to keep up with the latest news on which supplement is best. In the USA, Creatinine is FDA approved, and is synthesised in human muscles, although in low quantities. A daily dose is around 20 grams, increasing Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production and improving muscle gain, endurance, and strength. Nutritionists don’t advocate it, due to the risk of tachycardia, but thanks to advertising for your average enthusiast, it seems like the wonder powder that will make all the difference. Dimethylamylamine (DMAA), another supplement, is a proven CNS stimulant, and has been banned by varying organisations, including the US and Canadian militaries. The International Olympic Committee and other agencies have advised caution when using it.

Many athletes take “ergogenic aids,” such as caffeine, green tea, beetroot, and ginseng despite the evidence that they improve endurance, delay fatigue, and enhance fat loss being very weak. Not all supplements are controversial. One supplement used by many athletes, particularly marathon runners, is iron. Iron deficiency obviously affects performance, and can be lost very easily through sports hemolysis—which is why iron deficiency affects runners so much—haematuria, menstruation, and even gastrointestinal bleeding.

So is there a miracle diet that will shave extra seconds off your time, help you put the shot that bit further, or make the difference between silver and gold? If there is, it certainly isn’t one-size-fits-all; it mainly depends on age, gender, the sport that you play, and your current nutritional status. There are some general fixes, like isotonic drinks for water replacement, high carbohydrate and citric acid intake for endurance and reduced risk of injury and immune depression, and increased protein for muscle building.

And in the future? Clemens predicts that genetic and physiological profiling will allow nutritionists to tailor make diets for individual athletes, but probably not in time for the next Olympics!

Frederick Stourton is a lower sixth form student at Winchester College.

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