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Optimal Nutrition Revisited

How to fuel your body with real food for optimal performance

Nutrition is one of those areas where you can find endless articles, case studies, and books that support a myriad of different grazing theories. I myself had written a blog on this topic roughly 2 years ago. Although not much has changed concerning my views on the matter, it's an important enough subject to warrant being revisited. This time though, I'm going to be a little more specific. So what are the basics you need know for optimal performance both in the gym and out on an obstacle course?

First and foremost, are you drinking enough water?  Depending on your size and activity level, your body needs at least 2-4L of water throughout the day.  When we sleep our bodies go into repair mode and water is the #1 ingredient. You need to replenish that process as soon as you wake up, too – meaning you should hit the sack with a large glass of water waiting on your night stand so you can drink 8-16oz as soon as you wake up.  

Now that you’re hydrated, the first step to optimizing your nutrition is knowing what to put in your body. Our gut is relatively primitive, and it functions best when you you feed it real food. Not sure what real food looks like? Start by reading the ingredient label. Ingredients are listed in the order of most to least, and a good rule of thumb for most food items is that less ingredients is better. You should also be able to recognize all of those ingredients, meaning they should be basic, earthly things that you can purchase individually in a common market. Avoid any foods with GMO (genetically modified) or synthetic (man-made) ingredients like chemicals, preservatives, and artificial colors or sugars. The simplest way to do this is to shop at your local  farmer’s market or CSA (community supported agriculture).  If limited to your commercial grocery store, try sticking to the perimeter of the isles and avoid purchasing anything processed that comes in a box, bag, or can.

When shopping, prioritize nutrient dense foods that are high in free-radical fighting antioxidants and healthy omega-3’s (the good fatty acids that lower the risk of coronary heart disease, manage cholesterol levels, and curb joint pain).  Wild-caught fish, pasture raised eggs, organic avocado, walnuts, and pumpkin & chia seeds are all great sources of omega-3’s, and a bountiful combination of colorful fruits and vegetables will fill you up on antioxidants

There are certain foods that the federal government encourages us to eat even though they may actually do more harm than good. One of those is gluten containing cereal grains. We’ve all seen the SAD (Standard American Diet) food pyramid that suggests the foundation of our diet be made up of rice, pasta, and crackers. But we actually get very little nutritional benefit from these fast-burning, high-glycemic carbohydrates. Think you need those carbs for energy? Think again. Slow-release carbs like sweet potatoes, quinoa, and brown rice are a much healthier alternative and can provide your body with lasting energy over an extended period of time without a rapid elevation in blood sugar. Stop eating all of those breads, bagels, and burritos!

Next, make sure your diet includes high quality sources of protein. We need protein because it is responsible for repairing damaged cells and tissues, building and maintaining lean muscle mass, and strengthening our immune system.  Most animal-based foods provide complete proteins (those containing an adequate proportion of all 9 essential amino acids) whereas most plant-based foods do not. That is why it’s much easier for an omnivorous athlete, one who’s eating free-range chicken and grass-fed beef, to have plenty of protein in their diet versus a vegan or vegetarian athlete who will need to eat very specific combinations of plant-based foods to get the complete set of amino acids that their bodies need to function.

Other foods to avoid because they are relatively nutritionally void and/or known to cause inflammation within the body include hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fat), anything deep fried, sugary candies and baked sweets, alcohol, and lactose laden dairy products. Although the later can be a excellent source of protein, calcium, and vitamin-D, most dairy products are highly processed and full of sugar (especially yogurts). If you are gong to include dairy in your diet, it’s best to only consume grass fed, pasture-raised sources that have undergone little to no processing (i.e. raw, whole milk vs. pasteurized skim milk fortified with synthetic vitamins).

We're all different people with different goals. The only way to truly identify what works best for your body is by making these changes one-by-one and documenting the results. For example, not everyone is going to have the same reaction to dairy but when you eliminate yogurt, milk, and cheese you just might realize that you feel less gassy, bloated, and stuffy in the head. Making small dietary adjustments each day and keeping a journal will help you identify what works and doesn’t.  Now, is this absolutely everything you need to know about optimal nutrition? No! But this is a great place to start, so enjoy.

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