Put Down the Pre-race Pasta

Most triathletes turn to carbs for their pre-race meal. But should they?


Posted: 18 November 2009

One of the long-enduring and rarely questioned traditions associated with triathlon events of all kinds is the substantial pasta dinner the evening before race day. After all, who doesn't believe in the hearty, turbo-fuelling advantages of eating a whopping plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce?

As it turns out, plenty of people are against the idea, and these nonbelievers, these heretics, include a number of highly informed and perfectly rational people, including Dr Allen Lim, the brains behind much of cycling team Garmin-Slipstream's training and race preparation.

"There's nothing nutritious about that food," is Lim's blunt opinion of the traditional pre-race meal. In fact, he has eliminated all processed wheat from Garmin-Slipstream's diet, and at races has replaced traditional starchy foods with balanced, whole-food fuel, such as rice cakes made with eggs, olive oil, prosciutto and liquid amino acids.

If this creates the unsettling impression that Lim knows something you don't, well, that's because he probably does. His job is to make sure that, unlike the rest of us, his team doesn't blithely adhere to old, and possibly counterproductive, eating habits that may lead to weight fluctuation and diminished performance.

This new school of food science led by the likes of Lim has challenged and even corrected popular notions about food, particularly about carbohydrates and fat. Proponents of this new approach believe, for example, that a diet heavy in starch causes your body to burn sugar instead of fat, so you reach exhaustion more easily, often eat too much and end up overweight rather than properly fuelled.

Even triathlon coach Joe Friel, who relentlessly and passionately advocated carbohydrates in his influential Training Bible series of books, has done an about-turn, eschewing starches and relying instead on vegetables, fruits and lean meats as fuel.

Consider what follows as a challenge to the ideas about nutrition you've been exposed to for years. Follow the advice and you'll stay lean and strong, and be able to keep going for longer
on less food.

FOOD FALLACY: STARCHES ARE SENSIBLE FUEL

At some point, for some reason, starch became synonymous with carbohydrate. While pasta and potatoes are indeed carbohydrates - and you do need carbs for fuel - they're often not the best sources, especially if you're trying to keep weight off. It's easy to binge on starchy carbohydrates, and any surplus goes to your fat stores.

"Your brain operates on sugar, and when you eat potatoes, for example, your body turns them into sugar and delivers them to your cells quickly, which makes your brain happy and leaves you wanting more," says Friel.  

Fruits and vegetables, by contrast, are rich in carbs but often lower in calories and also are digested more slowly. And people are generally less inclined to devour so many berries and carrots that they end up with more fuel than they need. As a bonus, plant foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals and immunity-boosting phytonutrients that make you healthier and stronger, so you can perform better and burn more calories.

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Choose carbohydrates wisely. Eat starchy, quickly digested carbs only during and right before and after training sessions or races, when it's important to eat food that can be quickly converted to fuel. Otherwise, get your carbs from fruits and vegetables.

How much is enough? Cynthia Sass, sports nutritionist and coauthor of The Flat Belly Diet, says that 50-55 per cent of your calories should come from carbs. If you're eating considerably more than that, especially from starchy sources, then you risk changing your metabolism, says Friel.

"When I see someone who has started eating lots of starch," he says, "they not only have gained fat, they've also changed their metabolism from fat-burning to sugar-burning." It doesn't happen over one plate of pasta, but the body is adaptable.

"Over the course of a few of months," Friel says, "it will switch over to burn whatever you're feeding it most." When possible, pair your carbohydrates with protein. Lean meats, nut butters, fish and eggs slow down digestion, so you feel full sooner, get more evenly generated energy from your meals and stay full longer. The amino acids in protein also help repair, build and maintain muscle tissue.

FOOD FALLACY: ALL FAT MAKES YOU FAT

For years, governments have preached low-fat, carb-heavy diets. "This wasn't only misguided - it was wrong," Friel says.As your body becomes more lean and conditioned, you become better at burning fat. You need ample amounts of healthy fat, which, contrary to widely held belief, won't make you fat.

In fact, starchy foods turn to stored fat far more quickly. What's more, evidence is stacking up that healthy unsaturated fats are essential for firing up your fat-burning metabolism. In a study of 101 men and women, researchers in Harvard University in the US put half the group on a low-fat diet and half on a diet that included about 20 percent of calories from monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). After 18 months, the MUFA-eaters had lost 5kg; their low-fat-eating peers had shed only 2.7kg. Fat is also slower to digest than carbs, which means you stay hunger-free for longer.

Fat will help you keep going longer so you can burn more calories, says Friel. Research shows that athletes who get about 50-plus per cent of their diet from fat produce better average times to exhaustion in exercise tests than those eating typical low-fat, high-carb diets.

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Add healthy fats to every meal. Sass recommends getting about 20 per cent
of your calories from MUFAs, about 55 grams per day. "Because most athletes don't have time to count fat grams, the simpler message is: include small portions of good fats, like almonds, avocado and olive oil, with all meals and snacks," she says. Try nuts and seeds, olive-based tapenades and even the occasional chunk of dark chocolate. Here are some portions to aim for:

Nuts and seeds - Everything from pecans to pine nuts and tahini. A serving size is two tablespoons.
Olives - Black, green, mixed or blended in a spreadable tapenade. A serving is 10 large olives or two tablespoons of spread.
Oils - Canola, flaxseed, peanut, safflower walnut, sunflower, sesame or olive. Cook with them, drizzle them, eat them in pesto. One serving is one tablespoon.
Avocado - As guacamole or just sliced. About 200g is one serving.
Dark chocolate - About 50 grams.

FOOD FALLACY: FOOD COMES FROM A BOX

Many triathletes who think they're eating healthily often consume far more sugar and sodium than they realise because they eat so much pasta, cereals, energy bars and other processed foods. "The majority of supermarket foods are packaged junk," says sports nutritionist and exercise physiologist Tavis Piattoly.

Some items also contain trans fats - the type you want to avoid. The sugar is also troublesome for weight loss because it causes the body to step up its production of insulin, which in turn blocks hormones that control appetite. So the food you eat is quickly stored as fat - and still, you're always hungry.

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Eat mostly whole foods that are part of an animal or plant, Piattoly says. Fill most of your shopping basket with fresh produce, meats, fish and other whole foods. Then go down the centre aisles, where the processed foods are stacked, for the rest. That should reflect the amounts of whole and processed foods in your diet.

FOOD FALLACY: SKIPPING BREAKFAST IS FINE IF YOU NEED TO LOSE A LITTLE WEIGHT

Eat breakfast. That bit of essential advice is part of the food gospel. Still, according to a survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, fewer than half of us eat a morning meal.

Breakfast is the key that starts your fat-burning metabolism. Without it, you go into an energy deficit that not only leaves you ravenous (and more likely to over-eat) later, but also suppresses your calorie-burning furnace, so what you do eat is more likely to go into storage.

Research shows that people who skip breakfast are four and a half times more likely to be overweight than those who don't. "It's one of the biggest fuelling mistakes almost everyone makes," says Piattoly.

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Because you have a whole day of activity - usually including some training - ahead of you, try to eat about 25 per cent of your daily calories at your morning meal. That meal should include protein, healthy fat and fibre-rich carbohydrates such as fruit.

A UK study has found that exercisers who ate a breakfast high in fibre burned twice as much fat during workouts later in the day than those who ate less fibrous foods. For a power breakfast, try two eggs cooked any way you like; 50g whole oats, cooked; 230ml yoghurt; 200g mixed berries; coffee; and orange juice.

FOOD FALLACY: YOU CAN EAT THE SAMEWHEN YOU'RE 40 AS YOU DID WHEN YOU'RE 20

Muscle is the engine that powers you, but it also drives your calorie-burning metabolism. The more lean tissue you have, the more calories you burn and the leaner you stay. As we age, we naturally lose muscle and thus gain fat.

Strength training helps stem that loss, but the right foods are more important for muscle maintenance than most people realise. Because of age-related kidney changes, our blood becomes more acidic as the years pass and we excrete nitrogen, an essential component of muscle protein, faster than we take it in, Friel says. "Essentially we end up peeing away our muscles," he says. And with a net loss of nitrogen, you can't form new muscle.  

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Turn the tide on nitrogen loss and preserve muscle mass by increasing the alkalinity of your blood to neutralise the acidity, says Friel. Fruits and vegetables are the only foods that offer a net alkaline increase, says Friel. Fats and oils are neutral.

All other foods, including grains, legumes and meats, have an acid-producing effect. If you don't get most of your carbs from fruits and vegetables, Friel says, you're losing muscle mass as well as calcium from your bones, which also gets leached away in an acidic environment as you age.

FOOD FALLACY: YOU'RE NEVER HUNGRY... OR YOU'RE ALWAYS HUNGRY

Most diets treat hunger as the enemy. But it's actually your closest ally, says Piattoly. "Once you start the fat-reduction process, you'll be a little hungry, but not starving," he says. "The trick is balancing the two, so you're losing weight, but not setting yourself up for a binge."

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Try to eat every three to four hours, says Piattoly. "Eat breakfast, then wait until you feel hungry and eat just until you're no longer hungry," he says. "That's where people usually go wrong. They eat past the point of satisfaction until they're 'full.' Eat only until you're no longer hungry. If you don't feel hungry again in three to four hours, you ate too much earlier." Once you get the hang of it, weight loss and maintenance is much easier.

FOOD FALLACY: A CALORIE IS A CALORIE

This might be the biggest weight-loss misunderstanding in existence. For years we’ve been told that weight loss is a simple calories-in, calories-out equation, and 3,500 excess calories whether they come from soybeans or pie, mean an extra kilogram in weight. That’s simply not true.

“There are three key types of calories: carbohydrate, protein and fat,” says Sass. “They’re as different as petrol, motor oil and brake fluid in terms of the roles they play in keeping your body operating optimally,” she says.

Sass says that many of her clients might eat the right number of calories, but they have cut too much fat from their diet. So the jobs that fat does, such as repairing cell membranes and optimising hormones, go undone, and the surplus carbs are stored as fat. By correcting her clients’ balance of carbs, protein and fat without changing their calorie intake, she says she has helped them lose weight, improve their immune systems, gain muscle and boost energy.

THE GET-LEAN FIX

Eat a representative of each macronutrient at each meal. To get Sass’s recommended 50-55 per cent of your calories from carbs you should half-fill your plate with vegetables, fruits and some whole grains.

Sass says the rest should be made up as follows: 25-30 per cent from fats (olive oil, avocado and so on) and 15-20 per cent from protein (lean meat, fish, eggs and poultry). “Just be sure to skew your pre-workout meals or snacks to be heavier in carbs and lower in fat and protein to fuel up properly and avoid cramps,” she says.


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