We are quite literally what we eat. Every part of our body, from the muscles powering our barbell lifts to our littlest toenail, is derived from something we have eaten at some point in time. The food we eat is also the fuel that is burned to provide the energy to power those lifts or grow that toenail.
When we think about it like that, it seems obvious that the food we eat will have a profound impact on our performance in training, how we adapt to training (i.e. how much fitter, faster and stronger we get), and our body composition. And, of course, on our health. And health comes first in eating for performance and long term body composition. A sick athlete cannot train as effectively and certainly doesn’t have as many spare resources to adapt to training … they are being used to fight the sickness!
So what do we need to consider in our basic diet?
Food = Macronutrients + Micronutrients
Macronutrients are the things we need large amounts of. Micronutrients are the things we need small amounts of (but they are still vital!).
Let’s take the macronutrients first. These are protein, fats, carbs, fibre and water. We typically focus on protein, fats and carbs as these are the macros that provide the energy and building block to fuel us and make us! But fibre and water are essential too.
Fibre is necessary for a healthy gut, which is important not only for digestion but also for things as far removed as stress, immunity and weight control! If you have 5-7 handfuls of a variety fruit or veg a day, and some wholegrains or nuts you should be hitting round about the amount and variety you need.
And water is key to life! Our insides are a salty soup. We typically don’t feel thirsty until we are ~2% dehydrated, and yet if we are just 1.5% dehydrated our concentration can … not good if you are going for a heavy snatch! As a rough rule of thumb, your pee should be clear or the colour of light straw. If it is darker, you need to drink!!
Now, to turn our attention to protein, fats and carbs. The things that provide the ‘calories’ in our diets. The easiest way to do this is via a table!
And another thing, animal proteins are complete proteins, which means they contain adequate amounts of the essential amino acids (EAA). The essential amino acids are those we can’t make in the body from other amino acids and so must obtain directly from the diet. Any one plant protein is not a ‘complete’ protein. We must combine complementary plant proteins in a meal to ensure we have the essential amino acids for our body to use at that point in time. Pair legumes (like soy or lentils) with wholegrains, nuts or seeds to create a complete protein in a meal!
So that is the macronutrients. What about the micronutrients?
The micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. They are mostly “essential”, which means we must obtain them from our diet (we can’t make them). Whilst macronutrients provide the energy and building blocks for the body, the micronutrients enable us to access the energy and building blocks! In short, they are needed for everything to work! There are so many micronutrients that we need, and so I won’t address each in turn. I will simply say that if you eat a diet that is rich in a variety of whole unprocessed foods, hitting all the macronutrient food groups, including a range of colours within each food group (colours roughly equate to different micronutrient spectra!) then you will be giving yourself the best chance of getting what you need!
So there you have it. The key components of a basic diet, and where to find them. Everybody is different – from genetics, to physiology, to age, to training, to lifestyle – and so the specific amounts of each macronutrient and micronutrient that we need differ. But hopefully this article has given some insight into what we need, and why.