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Nutrition for Athletes: Four Tips for Healthier Eating from Medical Research

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Nutrition for Athletes: Four Tips for Healthier Eating from Medical Research

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If you’re looking for healthy eating tips, there’s no shortage of information out there.  In fact, there’s entirely too much! In order to find ways to improve your diet, you’re forced to wade through a deluge of superfoods and dietary fads that often contradict each other.  How can you sift apart the good advice from the flavor of the month? The best place to look for tips on what to eat and what to avoid is the medical literature.

Healthy eating is something doctors and epidemiologists take a keen interest in, as even small dietary changes can have a substantial effect on disease rates and overall health.  These medical studies involve looking at the diets of tens or hundreds of thousands of people; moreover, these studies must be double-checked for mistakes by independent scientists before a medical journal will publish them.  Although they’re not perfect—even large, prospective scientific studies are prone to flaws and biases—they’re one of the best tools we have for uncovering what foods are healthy and unhealthy over the long-term.  When it comes to nutrition for athletes, there’s plenty of research to choose from!  Here are four easy ways to improve your diet, backed by science.

1) Eat less processed meat

Processed meat includes bacon, ham, sausage, and any meat that’s been salted, smoked, or aged.  A 2010 scientific review article by Renata Micha, Sarah Wallace, and Dariush Mozaffarian at the Harvard School of Health gathered the results of several individual studies, resulting in a pool of 1.2 million people and over 23,000 cases of coronary heart disease.  After controlling for confounding factors like smoking, the researchers still found that every serving of processed meat per day increases your risk of heart disease by 42%.  The picture is less clear on red meat, but processed meat is definitely something to cut back on.

2) More fruits and vegetables

Everyone knows fruits and vegetables are good for you, but it helps to put some numbers behind it.  A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2003 studied death rates among a group of about 2,000 Finnish men over a period of 13 years.  Men who ate the most fruits and vegetables—those among the top 20% in the study—had one-third fewer deaths from all causes when compared to the bottom 20%.  If you’re looking for a superfood, plain old fruits and veggies is as good as it gets.

3) Less sugary and artificially sweetened drinks

The public relations war over the health risks of sugary drinks is still ongoing, but prevailing scientific opinion has settled: sugary and artificially sweetened beverages are bad for your health.  A 2010 article by Vasanti Malik and collaborators from five North American universities and hospitals merged results from 11 studies and analyzed the role of sugary drinks in the development of type 2 diabetes.  Among the 310,000 subjects across the studies, those who drank one or two servings of sugary drinks per day had a 26% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who consumed one or less per month.  Keep in mind that sugar-sweetened beverages include not just soda and energy drinks, but fruit juice too!

4) Eat more fish

Some of the most solid nutritional science thus far concerns fish.  A study in the British Medical Journal by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden took advantage of a national registry of identical twins to study fish consumption and heart disease in nearly 16,000 Swedish citizens.  The results were clear: the more fish you eat, the lower your risk of death from cardiovascular disease.  Subjects with high fish intake had a 15% lower risk of death from coronary heart disease and a 30% lower risk of death from heart attacks in particular.  The real kicker? Since Sweden is a seaside country, the scientists noted that they probably underestimated the benefits of fish because it was difficult for them to find subjects who did not eat any fish at all!

Some of these may seem like no brainers to you but sometimes it’s nice to see the actual science and research behind WHY we should and shouldn’t be eating certain foods.  Be sure and check out our article on the benefits of the paleo diet for athletes as well, as the foods they recommend fit in perfectly with the research demonstrated today!

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Profile photo of John Davis
John Davis is a Minnesota-based writer, scholar, and coach. He graduated from Carleton College with a degree in chemistry and an interest in the intersection of science, health, and fitness. His research interests include long-distance running, injury treatment and prevention, and lifestyle habits for long-term health. In his free time, he is an avid runner, keen reader of scientific research, and a high school track and cross country coach. His website, RunningWritings.com, provides detailed analysis of elite training, injury treatments, and coaching philosophies for runners. His first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, was published in 2013 and is available at Amazon.com.

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Profile photo of John Davis
John Davis is a Minnesota-based writer, scholar, and coach. He graduated from Carleton College with a degree in chemistry and an interest in the intersection of science, health, and fitness. His research interests include long-distance running, injury treatment and prevention, and lifestyle habits for long-term health. In his free time, he is an avid runner, keen reader of scientific research, and a high school track and cross country coach. His website, RunningWritings.com, provides detailed analysis of elite training, injury treatments, and coaching philosophies for runners. His first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, was published in 2013 and is available at Amazon.com.

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