Dave Shaw 's Opinion

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: How athletes eat

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Dave Shaw takes a look at what our sports stars are eating. Photo / Thinkstock, Supplied
Dave Shaw takes a look at what our sports stars are eating. Photo / Thinkstock, Supplied

Sports nutrition has fast-tracked through many eras of change and it's not slowing down. New evidence emerges nearly every day suggesting how to enhance what top athletes eat.

The hype always filters down, and now athletes are looking away from science and trialling the unknown in an attempt to better themselves. This isn't uncommon. Science does not always lead the field in sports nutrition.

We saw it when cyclists started to drink flat coke to help fuel their grueling bike rides over a decade ago. Everyone knew it worked, but science hadn't yet identified that it was due to the combination of caffeine and sugar.

More recently many athletes supplement with Sujon Berry powder to help recover from hard training sessions. Yet, the evidence for its use is still in mostly unknown.

Given the metabolic diversity among humans, it's fair to say we need to accept that dietary diversity is important too. History and science have clearly shown that we need to rethink - or reframe - our beliefs about what the optimal ranges of dietary fat, carbohydrate and protein are for health.

So, it may be time to think the same for performance.

There is consensus among most sports nutritionists that diets should be high in carbohydrates, relatively low in fat and moderate in protein, with supplements to be used as required. It's a simple recipe. But it doesn't work for everyone.

After all, how can a triathlete be overweight when they exercise four hours a day and eat the same as everyone else in their team? Or, why does an athlete's performance plateau when they do everything they can to maximise training?

Does it boil down to what they eat? Possibly. But the challenge is finding what works - and that may take a little trial and error.

Within New Zealand, some ultra-endurance athletes are starting to test carbohydrate restricted diets to 'beat the bonk'. This essentially means turning a blind eye to everything thought to be 'gold standard' in sports nutrition in an attempt to become fat burning machines.

Over the past few months I've been working with a New Zealand ironman as he trials a ketogenic diet. This means no bread, no pasta, no rice, no potato and no muffins. Basically, a well planned 'low carbohydrate, high fat diet' - something that has recently received a lot of media attention.

Manu Vatuvei of the Warriors - a team of athletes who eat a paleo diet.
Photo / Hannah Peters
Manu Vatuvei of the Warriors - a team of athletes who eat a paleo diet. Photo / Hannah Peters

The Warriors have also started trialling paleo nutrition concepts within their standard diet, and they aren't the only ones. Many athletes are now declaring their allegiance to a paleo diet after reaching new personal bests in health, body composition and performance.

Even sports foods have come under the spotlight. Since foods like gels, drinks and bars are often ultra-processed and high in sugar, athletes are starting to question if they should be eating them daily. This makes sense, we all know the harms of eating too much sugar, and this has sparked an evolution of the wholefood sports supplements.

Admittedly, it's easy to be seduced by new ways of thinking and forget the basics of a healthy, performance enhancing diet. So tread carefully if you're thinking about drastically changing what you eat.

What we now know about sports nutrition will work for most people, there's no doubt about that. And sometimes a little trial and error is the best way to get ahead of the game.

However, the danger lies in believing that nutrition does everything - or that it does nothing. There needs to be balance. Nutrition is only one factor driving an athlete towards the top. Let's not forget the importance of a well designed training programme, a loyal support team and good genes.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

Dave Shaw

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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