Our panel of ex­perts bust the myths to bring you a de­fin­i­tive guide to sports nu­tri­tion


From the in­gre­di­ents la­bels on food­stuffs to the dig­i­tal dis­play of the spin bike, you can’t es­cape calo­ries. It’s also hard to avoid ar­ti­cles ex­plain­ing that to en­joy X treat you must burn Y, but the view that sweet or fatty food is a guilty plea­sure to be purged is be­ing in­creas­ingly chal­lenged.

Four-time Ironman world cham­pion Chrissie Welling­ton even wrote an im­pas­sioned let­ter to 220, stat­ing: “I am shocked and dis­ap­pointed to see mes­sages sug­gest­ing that the con­sump­tion of cer­tain foods is con­comi­tant upon un­der­tak­ing ex­er­cise. The im­pli­ca­tion is that ex­er­cise is a pun­ish­ment. Some may think such mes­sag­ing in­no­cent and in­nocu­ous. As some­one who has strug­gled with eat­ing dis­or­ders, I view this nar­ra­tive as be­ing ex­tremely un­help­ful and po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing.”

It’s un­de­ni­able mod­ern so­ci­ety has an un­healthy re­la­tion­ship with food and ex­er­cise. There were 617,000 obe­sity-re­lated ad­mis­sions to UK hos­pi­tals in 2016/17, a rise of 18% in a year. Eat­ing dis­or­ders are es­ti­mated

to af­fect 1.6mil­lion, with males com­pris­ing up to 25%, and stud­ies sug­gest around 8% of women ex­pe­ri­ence bu­limia at some stage. There’s also thought to be a 20% higher preva­lence of eat­ing dis­or­ders among ath­letes. To seek a bet­ter way for­ward, we asked four ex­perts to lead the de­bate...

q Are state­ments such as “burn X calo­ries to en­joy Y treat” a prob­lem?

AK: There are in­her­ent prob­lems with sim­ply fo­cussing on an en­ergy bal­ance model be­cause be­ing able to mea­sure some­thing means it can be con­trolled. Such con­trol is of­ten re­lated to disor­dered eat­ing, so ex­treme care must be taken when us­ing such state­ments. It’s not about be­ing po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, but to recog­nise how oth­ers may in­ter­pret mes­sages. I of­ten pre­scribe a café ride for cake and cof­fee. This isn’t about re­ward­ing the ath­lete, it’s about en­joy­able and re­lax­ing things be­ing con­ducive to wel­fare and per­for­mance.

JC: Yes. It’s es­pe­cially harm­ful to young­sters to start count­ing calo­ries. Ex­er­cise should be an in­te­grated part of life and not in­cen­tivised by food. The way we view food needs to be more bal­anced so we un­der­stand nu­tri­ents, our health, and our bod­ies, rather than be­ing slaves to our taste buds and ad­ver­tis­ing.

RM: Any­body who has a slightly ob­ses­sive per­son­al­ity is at risk of be­com­ing ex­treme in other ar­eas too. If you’re fix­ated on training and it’s creat­ing anx­i­ety around food, you’re more likely to read into that state­ment and only feel you de­serve a treat if you train.

Q Have you ever read or been told some­thing that has af­fected your own re­la­tion­ship with food?

JT: I had a pretty se­ri­ous eat­ing dis­or­der in col­lege for a few years and think some of it was caused by be­ing told I was a ‘big run­ner’ and de­vel­op­ing a com­plex. Small com­ments stick more than you’d think.

JC: I think most fe­males have. I was schooled in bal­anced nu­tri­tion with the na­tional de­vel­op­ment swim pro­gramme, but when I hit pu­berty, the fo­cus seemed to change to watch­ing weight. When deal­ing with the hor­mones of ado­les­cence, it isn’t as easy as calo­ries in equals calo­ries out. If the fo­cus was on op­ti­mal nu­tri­tion for re­cov­ery rather than em­pha­sis­ing body fat per­cent­age, it would have caused less prob­lem­atic eat­ing is­sues.

Of course. We’re con­tin­u­ally in­un­dated with mes­sages in the me­dia, su­per­mar­ket and be­yond. I was an obese kid at a time when it wasn’t a so­ci­etal prob­lem, so I’ve al­ways had a chal­leng­ing re­la­tion­ship with food. How­ever, my part­ner’s great at­ti­tude to eat­ing rubs off on me. When I stud­ied Bud­dhism, we of­ten spoke of the mind­ful­ness of eat­ing. That means think­ing about those in­volved in the pro­duc­tion chain, the qual­ity of the pro­duce and how it tastes. Eat­ing is about re­spect­ing and en­joy­ing food rather than sim­ply con­sid­er­ing it to be fuel.

RM: No, be­cause I work with so many peo­ple with eat­ing is­sues and see the im­pact it has on their life in gen­eral – not just their health.

Q Have you ever im­posed rules around eat­ing more healthily

JC: Yes. For a long time car­bo­hy­drates were a sin, but I’m long past be­liev­ing hard and fast rules on diet. The con­clu­sion I’ve come to is that if I pro­vide my body with healthy, bal­anced and nu­tri­tious en­ergy, it re­sponds well and doesn’t get sick and tired too of­ten. If I don’t, I break.

Nu­tri­tional rules cause me to fix­ate on a sin­gle fail­ure. When I was bu­limic for in­stance, eat­ing a sin­gle piece of choco­late could mean a down­ward spi­ral of bing­ing and purg­ing for days. Or starv­ing my­self could mean a week­end of eu­pho­ria. I will never let food have that con­trol over my self-es­teem again.

JT: I joke that my only rule is ‘don’t be an ass­hole!’, by which I mean don’t do crazy stuff that doesn’t make sense – just eat mostly healthy when you’re hun­gry. Rules cause peo­ple to be too strict and then binge as a re­sult. I’ve seen it in a lot of Type-A ath­letes.

AK: I’m a vege­tar­ian for eth­i­cal and sus­tain­abil­ity rea­sons and avoid food that has been highly pro­cessed when pos­si­ble. This typ­i­cally means diet is au­to­mat­i­cally healthy with­out healthy eat­ing be­ing part of my iden­tity.

RM: I’m lib­eral with my ad­vice. Some find that hard be­cause they want specifics. Gen­er­ally, I’ll say when build­ing into a high-in­ten­sity training ses­sion, have suf­fi­cient car­bo­hy­drates. Ath­letes that do well train hard but can also hap­pily eat pizza and not stress about it.

Q Are we more ed­u­cated – or in a tan­gled mess – over diet than ever be­fore?

RM: It’s an ab­so­lute shit­storm. Too many un­qual­i­fied peo­ple make broad state­ments about what they do, and oth­ers see them as the epit­ome of health or per­for­mance and treat it as gospel. Peo­ple adopt diet trends – gluten-free, re­fined sugar-free, whole plant-based – as a means of re­stric­tion. I’d never put an ath­lete on ‘low carb, high fat’ be­cause I do a lot of biomarker check­ing and see im­me­di­ately the im­pact it has on per­for­mance, thy­roid func­tion and im­mune health. There will be low carb, high fat ad­vo­cates say­ing they don’t feel hun­gry, it’s the low­est weight they’ve ever been, and they’ve got the best gly­caemic con­trol they’ve ever had, but at some point it’ll bite them in the bum. I’ve seen it with so many ath­letes, it wor­ries me.

There are also is­sues around who you should trust be­cause the term nutri­tion­ist is not reg­u­lated. The only per­son who is tech­ni­cally qual­i­fied to work in clin­i­cal con­di­tions, with eat­ing dis­or­ders, di­a­betes or can­cer is a di­eti­tian, yet a num­ber are of­fer­ing ad­vice and it’s dan­ger­ous.

Ju­nior ath­letes, es­pe­cially, are not taught to man­age ex­pec­ta­tions. They are go­ing to fail on oc­ca­sion, so come up the path­way not be­liev­ing in them­selves and al­ways

“If I pro­vide my body with healthy, bal­anced and nu­tri­tious en­ergy, it re­sponds well. If I don’t, I break”

look­ing next band­wagon for the next and an­swer, be­come jump so re­stric­tive on the that their per­for­mance starts to fall.

AK: The re­duc­tion­ist na­ture of sci­ence also plays a role. The me­dia and mar­ke­teers of­ten pick up on sin­gle stud­ies with lim­ited sam­ple sizes to pro­mote prod­ucts, su­per­foods or call out ‘bad-guy’ foods. Some sci­en­tists even ‘play the game’ by us­ing the me­dia to pro­mote mes­sages in which they have a vested in­ter­est.

JT: Own­ing a nu­tri­tion busi­ness, I’m even more con­scious of the many com­ing and go­ing trends and how peo­ple cap­i­talise on fad di­ets with sketchy sci­ence. A lot of it is mar­ket­ing. In fact, it’s tough for us to get our prod­ucts out there be­cause we don’t fol­low some crazy fad trend. Healthy, bal­anced, real food is not sexy from a mar­ket­ing stand­point.

JC: Orthorexia [an ob­ses­sion with eat­ing foods con­sid­ered healthy] is def­i­nitely present in the sport­ing com­mu­nity and of­ten mis­taken for healthy eat­ing. Too many oth­ers – the low fat/low calo­rie/ sweet­ener con­sumer type – only see calo­ries. They mon­i­tor weight, but not health, when choos­ing foods.

Q What’s your view of how the me­dia pro­jects ‘healthy eat­ing’?

AK: It re­flects wider so­ci­ety. Some mes­sages help­ful, some not. Even quasi-sci­en­tific pro­grammes such as Panorama get it wrong by fail­ing to recog­nise nu­ance and at­tempt to make things too sim­ple in the be­lief that this is what the au­di­ence wants. There’s also a dan­ger in how mag­a­zines present overly aspi­ra­tional healthy di­ets from a life­style per­spec­tive and some­times I won­der what re­la­tion­ship some nu­tri­tion gu­rus have with food them­selves.

JC: Rather than re­stricted calo­rie la­belling, they should em­pha­sise fresh, un­pro­cessed con­sump­tion. Peo­ple think whole fat milk is un­healthy be­cause it has more fat than semi-skimmed. It’s 4% fat and fills you up for longer.

RM: So­cial me­dia prob­a­bly has more to do with hold­ing peo­ple in bad places, but I never blame me­dia com­pletely. If some­body is vul­ner­a­ble they’ll al­ways look for val­i­da­tion. Even with­out the ar­ti­cle, that per­son would go in search of the an­swer they’re look­ing for.

Q Is there such a thing as junk food?

JC: Yes. But if you need sugar in a race, Hari­bos are per­fect. In fact, some­times they’ll do if you haven’t had time to eat and are wan­ing. If you need salt af­ter a race, crisps ful­fil that need. Ev­ery­thing has its place – just like junk TV. It’s about keep­ing per­spec­tive.

AK: Pro­cessed and overly pack­aged food is junk. The food in­dus­try does this to ‘add value’ to low cost pro­duce. For ex­am­ple, most boxed break­fast ce­real is junk and most mass-pro­duced su­per­mar­ket bread is junk – typ­i­cally com­posed of bleached flour, flour im­provers, sugar, too much salt, a re­ally high yeast con­tent to make pro­duc­tion quicker, and all sorts of other things not on the la­bel. I sus­pect poor qual­ity bread has driven the trend in peo­ple think­ing gluten-free is health­ier, which is non­sense for most. Yes, they may feel health ben­e­fits by re­duc­ing con­sump­tion

“If it grows, ei­ther from beast or plant, eat it un­til you aren’t hun­gry”

of food high in gluten, but it was prob­a­bly too much yeast and other un­nec­es­sary ad­di­tives caus­ing the GI dis­com­fort.

RM: I don’t be­lieve in any food be­ing bad or junk. If you want to have a burger, chips or ice cream, as long as it doesn’t make up the ma­jor­ity of your diet, I have no is­sue.

JT: The term is fine. There’s food that’s less healthy, but that doesn’t mean you should never have it. Q Is there a prob­lem with mar­keted sports nu­tri­tion be­ing con­tra­dic­tory to healthy eat­ing?

JC: Sports and health is not the same thing, es­pe­cially at the top level. We in­take a lot of sugar and salt, but burn off far more. It would be un­healthy not to fuel your­self with these nu­tri­ents and I don’t think there’s a prob­lem if peo­ple un­der­stand

that log­i­cally. Where there’s an is­sue is in re­plac­ing sugar in sports drinks with ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers.

RM: I’ve chal­lenged many ath­letes on this. Mes­sages about not eat­ing sugar and carbs have made it dif­fi­cult. When rac­ing, you’re go­ing to mainly be us­ing carbs for fuel as it’s the quick­est source for your mus­cles. You can only store be­tween 90mins to 2hrs de­pend­ing on how fast you’re mov­ing, so you need to keep on top of that. I strug­gle with those who say they want to use dried fruit in­stead of a gel. Our bod­ies can only ab­sorb 30g of fruc­tose an hour. Dried fruit is more fruc­tose than glu­cose, and if you don’t get the bal­ance right you’ll end up with stom­ach is­sues. I tell ath­letes that those mes­sages around sugar are for an­other pop­u­la­tion that do ab­so­lutely noth­ing – not for those training ev­ery day and rac­ing ev­ery week­end.

JT: No. I be­lieve a hu­man body runs best pri­mar­ily on car­bo­hy­drate dur­ing ex­er­cise, so you need more sugar. It’s that sim­ple.

AK: Sports nu­tri­tion can com­ple­ment healthy eat­ing but should never be viewed as a re­place­ment. There’s a place for gels and sports drinks be­cause of their con­ve­nience dur­ing rac­ing, but it angers me when I see youths guz­zling sports nu­tri­tion when their rac­ing is too short to need it. I also be­lieve that elites should only en­dorse prod­ucts they’re happy to use. I once asked a fa­mous triath­lete if they ac­tu­ally liked the prod­uct ad­ver­tised on their hel­met. Their face was telling.

Q Which sec­tor of so­ci­ety has the most prob­lems in its re­la­tion­ship be­tween food and ex­er­cise?

JC: I’ve seen more is­sues with fe­male ath­letes, but women are pre­dis­posed to higher lev­els of fat than men and there­fore the mar­gin of ma­nip­u­la­tion is wider. I also be­lieve that many sport­ing fe­males have in­her­ently lower lev­els of self-es­teem be­cause it re­mains a male do­main – and can there­fore be more vul­ner­a­ble.

RM: I see a fairly equal male/fe­male split, but there are global stud­ies show­ing a 20% higher preva­lence of eat­ing is­sues with

ath­letes. I’ve re­cently seen a lot more teenagers with eat­ing prob­lems who are not tech­ni­cally ath­letes but have be­come ex­er­cise-ob­ses­sive. The rise of In­sta­gram has played a part in pro­mot­ing the eat­clean, body-beau­ti­ful.

JT: The fe­male side has more stigma as they have more so­ci­etal pres­sure to live up to a ridicu­lous me­dia stan­dard. It ex­ists on the male side, but isn’t as preva­lent. I think it’s im­prov­ing as you have more rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dif­fer­ent body types in me­dia, but it still ex­ists.

Q If you had carte blanche to in­ter­vene and change reg­u­la­tion around food pro­vi­sion, what would you do?

JC: I’d elim­i­nate low-fat foods like sweet­ened yo­ghurt and skimmed milk. Greek yo­ghurt and full-fat milk sa­ti­ate, and you eat far less of it than these pro­cessed re­place­ments.

AK: Gov­ern­ment needs joined-up pol­icy on food, phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, health and ed­u­ca­tion. The di­dac­tic pro­vi­sion of ad­vice rarely re­sults in be­hav­iour change. I’d start with leg­is­la­tion on food mar­ket­ing and su­per­mar­ket de­sign and ban the sale of poor-qual­ity food­stuffs in sports cen­tres, hos­pi­tals and ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ments. I’d also have strict food pro­cure­ment poli­cies for food in any pub­licly-funded body.

RM: I’d ban any­body who didn’t have a proper de­gree from giv­ing nu­tri­tional ad­vice, and I’d ban pub­lish­ers from us­ing celebri­ties to write books about health, nu­tri­tion and ex­er­cise.

JT: Out­law all the crazy fads.

Q Fi­nally, if you could of­fer one piece of ad­vice around diet to cut through all the noise, what would it be?

JC: If it grows, ei­ther from beast or plant, eat it un­til you aren’t hun­gry. When you are hun­gry again, eat it again.

AK: Eat whole, un­pro­cessed foods with trans­par­ent ori­gins and min­i­mal pack­ag­ing.

JT: Long-term, con­sis­tent, sus­tain­able bal­ance is king.

RM: Food feeds the soul. I love sit­ting around a ta­ble with friends, the con­ver­sa­tions we have and the sense of well­be­ing that gives me – can’t beat it!

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