Inside The Mind Of An Intern: The Science Of Nutrition

Last year, I had the opportunity of hearing John Underwood-a former NCAA All-American, International-level distance runner, and World Masters Champion-speak about nutrition at the Human Performance Project Summer Institute 2018. He talked about macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) and its effects on athletic performance. I did more research on the science of nutrition afterward and found myself less confused after learning the terms and processes of the human body regarding nutrition. As a track and field athlete or any type of athlete really, it's important to have a general knowledge about nutrition and its effects on your health and athletic performance.  

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your body. They are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in food. ⅔ of food intake must come from carbohydrates.

Sugar: Sugar, known as sucrose, is a combination of both glucose and fructose. Glucose is a type of sugar found in food that travels in the bloodstream in order to power the brain and muscles. Neurons (nerve cells) can't store glucose, so they depend on you to have a constant supply of it. You must keep your blood glucose levels up in order to function at a high level, especially for high-stress sports like running. Fructose, fruit sugar, can be good or bad, depending on what is being consumed. Fruit, certain vegetables, and honey naturally have fructose sugars which are good for you. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener derived from corn, however, is not good for you. HFCS is added to unhealthy foods such as soda and candy. Having too much sugar can cause mood changes, energy dependence on sugar spikes, insulin pulling sugar from the bloodstream and storing it as fat, insulin blocking sugar which results in low blood sugar levels, and/or magnesium deficiency. On the other hand, too little sugar can cause hypoglycemia, weakness, confusion, nervousness, and/or lack of ability to focus and think.

Starches: Starches are broken down into glucose. They promote good digestion and provide nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, calcium, and folate.
Fiber: Fiber can't be broken down into sugar and instead simply passes through the body undigested. Fiber helps maintain weight and keep blood sugar in check. There are two types of fibers: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber can help lower glucose levels and blood cholesterol. Insoluble fiber can help with digestion and prevent constipation. Too much fiber can cause bloating, gas, and/or constipation. Having too little can cause weight gain, poor blood sugar control, and/or also constipation.
Having a hard time keeping track of blood sugar levels? Check out the Glycemic index (GI). The GI ranks foods based on their effects on blood sugar levels. Try focusing on foods that are ranked 55 or less. Foods such as apples, peaches, grapes, berries, pears, apricots, slow-cooking oatmeal, yams, lentils, and most green vegetables can provide you the carbohydrates you need without making your blood sugar levels spike.

Protein is made up of units called amino acids. Amino acids are responsible for building muscle mass. Sports that require excessive repetitive endurance cardiovascular exercises, like track and field, use energy the body requires to build muscle mass, so it's important to eat the right amount of protein. Try to include at least 20-25 grams of protein with each meal.

Protein can be digested in two different ways: liquid and solid. Liquid proteins, like Casein, stimulates muscle growth at night if consumed before going to sleep. Whey protein before a workout begins to blunt muscle damage before and during a workout. Drinking whey protein also after a workout jumpstarts recovery minimizes muscle damage, and builds new mass. Solid proteins, like chicken and salmon, suppress hunger and maintain blood sugar. Since the human body can only utilize about 30 grams of protein at a time, the remainder will be disposed of as fat.

Along with the effect of increased weight due to fat being disposed of, too much protein can also cause intestinal problems and dehydration. Too little protein can cause weight and muscle loss, low blood pressure, anemia, and/or slow recovery.

One of the fats' roles in the body is functioning as an energy reserve. Unlimited amounts of energy can be stored as fat tissue. The energy stored is then used during sleep, physical activity, and low energy intake days. Watch the timing of when you eat fat though-fat takes around 6 hours to be turned into usable energy. Pre-event meals high in fat may reduce performance by slowing gastric emptying.

Unsaturated fats: Unsaturated fats are the "good fats". They regulate inflammation from exercise. Examples are olive and sunflower oil. Not consuming enough unsaturated fats can cause an imbalance in hormones which can negatively affect athletic performance.
Saturated fats: The human body already makes the saturated fats it needs, making it unnecessary to consume them. However, it's fine to have them in moderation. Examples of foods with saturated fats are red meat, coconut, and dairy.

Trans fats: Natural trans fats found in foods like low-fat dairy products and lean meats are okay to eat. Artificial trans fats, on the other hand, are extremely unhealthy and commonly found in processed food like chips, commercially baked pastries, and fast food.

The level of bad (LDL) cholesterol is increased when the consumption of saturated fats is increased. When LDL is increased, cholesterol oxidizes (becomes unstable). When cholesterol oxidizes, the immune system tries to fight it, resulting in the inflammation of the arteries. When the arteries are inflamed, proper blood flow becomes disrupted. When improper blood flow decreases, the flow of oxygen to muscles is decreased. This causes athletic performance to drop greatly, muscles to become fatigued, and recovery to be extremely slow.

Avoid being a victim of poor nutrition and the butt of everyone's joke by following healthy nutritional guidelines


- Follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to food: 80% healthy, 20% unhealthy

- 2/3 of your plate should be carbohydrates, focus on foods that are 55 or below on the GI.

- Choose fruits over sugary beverages and candy.

- Eat 20-25 grams of protein with each meal.

- Drinking Casein protein before bed will stimulate muscle growth.

- Drinking Whey during and after a workout will help boost recovery, minimize muscle damage, and build mass.

- Your body can only process 30 grams of protein at a time, the rest is disposed of as fat.

- Avoid saturated and trans fats aka junk food. You don't need them!