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Unleashing the power of food

By Kevin Currell | 02/01/2015

With advertising claims being boasted across almost every media outlet and an ever expanding market, the supplements industry can be potentially confusing for athletes, never mind the person on the street. This combined with tougher sanctions as a result of the new WADA Code which came into play on the 1st January 2015, underlines the importance of good advice more than ever.

As an athlete, if you could get more time to train, make the training you do more effective and then when it comes to compete get more out of your performance then you would be interested. There is something which will do this, it is incredible and is around us every day.  It is not a magic bullet of a supplement. This is how powerful the food that you eat is. The volume and type of foods you eat reduces the risk of illness and injury and therefore providing more time for an athlete to train. When and what you eat facilitates the adaptation to training, acting as an amplifier to the training you perform. Finally there is a whole raft of interventions which can enhance performance come race day, whether it be getting the food right in the hotel, hitting competition weight or using an ergogenic aid.

Our job as performance nutritionists at the EIS is simply to unleash the power of food.  However, every now and again we may use a supplement with athletes. What might those situations be?

  1. Athlete Health: We are lucky to be in a position to regularly monitor the health of our athletes. Therefore at times it is easy for us to identify when we would need to supplement an athlete’s diet to maintain their health. For example it is quite common for athletes to show signs of iron deficiency, in which case a Performance Nutritionist will work with the medic to supplement an athletes diet to correct this.
  2. Convenience: An athletes life is busy, and at times we just need to be able to provide convenient options for athletes. Sometimes the demands of the event mean that a nutrient must be supplemented. Imagine been an elite marathon runner. You can have a go yourself, hop on the treadmill at the gym and put it at full speed to feel how fast they are running. Then imagine that for two hours. Crazy isn’t it? Then imagine trying to eat a banana at that speed? It is really difficult, and not realistic. We know that sugar improves endurance performance, since the 1920’s in fact when it comes to marathon runners. In theory a banana will work, but a carbohydrate gel is a lot more practical.
  3. Ergogenic Aids: The International Olympic Committee Medical commission in their standpoint on nutrition in 2010 suggested there is sufficient scientific evidence to support the use of creatine, caffeine and buffers such as sodium bicarbonate and beta alanine.  However, only in the context of the research. So we know that creatine supplementation, of the correct dose can enhance performance of repeated sprint type exercise. It is going to do very little for a marathon.

Supplements are a controversial area, and brings with it risks for both the practitioner and athlete. It is an area we do not take lightly, and we do everything we can to reduce the risk for the athlete and ensure the supplement will complement their performance. We never see a supplement as a magic bullet.

Our process around supplements at the EIS is as follows:

  • Line of sight of Performance: There are many things we could do with an athlete. However, if it does not fit into their plan, and ultimately have a clear rationale to influence performance then we would not use it.
  • Quality Assurance: We use a peer review process to check and challenge everything we do within the EIS. At least on a monthly basis our practitioners will go through a process of practice supervision with a senior practitioner to provide this check and challenge.
  • Assessment of Evidence: We use a process adapted from a process developed by the American Board of Family Practice in 2004 called the Strength of Recommendation Taxonomy to categorise the supplements we could potentially use with athletes. Subsequent to this there are processes in place to highlight best practice depending on the supplement used and its category.
  • Risk Management: Every supplement we use must have evidence of going through a risk management process such as Informed Sport. Simply put without a batch test certificate we will not use the supplement with an athlete.
  • Partnerships: Lead Performance Nutritionist Michael Naylor has led a program to develop partnerships with a series of companies who can provide us with safe, evidence based supplements to use with our athletes.

This is great for an elite athlete, with their support team to help them assess the need and assess the risk. This certainly can be a great challenge, supplements are unregulated. However, so is who can call themselves a Nutritionist. You can call yourself a nutritionist, even if you have not done any training. You can go to your local gym and see a “nutritionist”, chances are they have just done a weekend course in nutrition. So even saying go see an expert is tough to work out. That’s why a new register, the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr) has been set up to provide quality assurance and regulation for those working in the field. To get on this register you must have a post graduate qualification in Sport and Exercise Nutrition, along with an undergraduate degree in either Dietetics or Sport Science.  So if you want to assess the need, search this register to find out who the true experts are.

Nutrition is confusing to the general public at the best of times. Every day there seems to be a new claim for a superfood, or a food or nutrient which will harm you. Supplements are no different. Fortunately, the European Food Standards Agency is working hard to clean up the claims been made. However, this will take time. A simple question to ask yourself is, could this be too good to be true? If it sounds like it then it probably is.

Let’s look at the common supplement area of fat burners. It’s surely too good to be true to believe you can pop a pill and burn fat. There is something which will help you lose weight though. It is called food. In my mind you are better off spending your hard earned money on good quality food than a fat burner. Maybe get a good cook book for Christmas or your next birthday.

At the EIS we appreciate there is a need to use supplements with our elite athletes. They are not a magic bullet. We do everything we can to assess the need and assess the risk. Yet still they are not a magic bullet. We believe food is incredible. We believe food can give athletes more time to train, make training more effective and get more of their performance. We believe food is powerful, and mix it with a good training plan then maybe there is a magic bullet.