athletes

How 'food porn' marketing of health foods misleads us towards temptation

We see them on social media every day - gorgeous food photos, stacked and styled to perfection with delicious looking fresh ingredients. But are these artistic creations of fritters, stacks, smoothies and bowls really good for us? If we are using these beautiful bowls of goodness as inspiration for our daily meals are we doing ourselves a favour or doing more harm than good? 

I am relatively new to Instagram, but I feel more and more concerned about the way nutritious foods are portrayed and promoted. Others share my concerns!  Nina Mills from What's for Eats (an experienced Instagrammer!) has written Why I post food photos on Instagram that is well worth a read and I certainly share many of her sentiments. 

Below are some things to think about as you scroll through your favourite food photos.....

Is that really healthy?

The two health food photos that frustrate me the most are breakfast related – pancakes and smoothie bowls. Although those high protein maple and berry pancakes look amazing and sound super-healthy, if you replicated this at home you may be shocked at the sugar content. Same for smoothie bowls – some of the ingredients may be nutritious, but there is also often a lot of hidden sugars. Nut butters, seeds, dried fruit, coconut, avocado…..all nutritious ingredients but the energy can quickly add up. Natural sugar is still sugar (think maple syrup, rice malt syrup, agave, etc.) and not a more nutritious substitute for table sugar. Your protein bliss balls washed down with a cacao salted caramel smoothie could very well be equivalent to breakfast and lunch put together!  *You can read more about natural sugars in my blog post 'The Great Sugar Con....'

Size matters

Let’s face it, most Instagram serves are not small. Unless you are a 120kg+ rugby player, that plate may not be the best amount for you.  Fine dining portions don't always look as enticing as a platter-sized meal.  Large portions that look tasty can make healthy food more appealing, but the serves depicted are not going to suit everyone. 

Eating well can be boring

I don’t tend to share photos of my daily breakfast. A standard bowl of porridge with yoghurt and fruit/nuts is probably not going to create too much excitement on Instagram. We want to see fun and interesting food that excites our tastebuds!  But as Nina mentions in her post, seeing images of everyday foods can be useful to help us to feel ok when we aren't whipping up exotic dishes three times per day.

To eat well day-to-day, you don’t need to be making corn fritters with avocado salsa every morning. Social media images can create pressure on people to spend hours in the kitchen using expensive ingredients. As much as I hate to say it, healthy eating in most households is not particularly flamboyant, especially as part of a busy lifestyle. Many of us could put in the effort to make our meals a bit more exciting, but we don’t need the extravagance of healthy eating portrayals on social media. 

Social media can provide some great food inspiration, but don’t be blinded by the dazzle and hype. Think about what is in your food, your individual needs and food that makes you feel good - and enjoy an over-the-top over-styled Instagrammable feast now and then! 

Interested in nutrition?  I would love to send you free updates and recipes, just leave your details here.  You can also follow my pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or check out my Thoughts page for more articles like this.

Recover like a champion - what top Australian athletes eat after training and competition

Salmon Patties 01.jpg

Salmon Patties Image by Rebecca Doyle from Bec Doyle Photography (from the book Eat Right for Your Life)

 

Ever wondered what your favourite sportspeople eat after training or competition?  Elite athletes have specific nutrition and hydration goals post-exercise to ensure they recover for their next session or event.  An athlete's recovery meal will be tailored to meet the specific need of the sport, and the goals and preferences of the individual.

We have heard from Lisa Weightman, Olympic marathon runner, in a previous blog post and gained an insight into her approach to nutrition Marathon Running Nutrition - with Rio-bound Olympian Lisa Weightman.  Lisa mentioned that her favourite recovery meal is her mum's salmon patties, and she was generous enough to share the recipe with us (hope she checked with her mum!! Recipe further on).   These salmon patties contain all the components that are important for athlete recovery, and believe it or not, they are not even dairy-free or wheat-free or low-fat or 'free' anything else, they are just nourishing home-cooked food.  Plus they tick all the boxes for recovery, providing the key nutrients: 

Protein

Carbohydrate

Healthy fats

Vitamins/antioxidants

What do some of our top Australian athletes eat?

There are plenty of great options that can make the perfect recovery food.  It's great to understand the theory about the nutrients required post-exercise but the meal also needs to taste good if an athlete is going to choose it regularly as a recovery option. It was great for Lisa to share her favourite post-run meal with us, and this got me thinking about other athletes from different sports and what they personally choose for recovery.    So I asked them!  Here are the favourite recovery meals from some of Australia's best athletes, if you want to know more about the athlete simply click on their name:

 

Todd Blanchfield - Professional Athlete at Melbourne United Basketball Club and Emerging Boomers Australian team

Favourite recovery meal: Grilled chicken with rice

Todd has a great understanding of foods for recovery and makes sure his organized with food ready to go after training and games.  He is handy around a BBQ, which is a great way to cook meat, chicken and fish for a quick and easy meal after training.  Combine with vegetables or salad and some sweet potato, corn, rice or quinoa for re-fuelling.

 

Alexander Carew – Australian 400 metre runner

Favourite recovery meal: Burritos

Track athletes train hard and need to recover well.  'One of my favourite post-training meals is making burritos, a great one to add a variety of vegetables to the daily intake.

It's a great option because it's simple to prepare and easy to make lots. Sometimes it's hard to predict exactly how much you'll need after a day of training, so this meal you can always go back for seconds (and thirds) if that's what your body requires! And if you're not a bottomless pit, like I am, you may even have enough for lunch tomorrow! 

My favourite race day food is protein pancakes (1 egg, cup of oats, a little water and a scoop of Sustagen Sport). But that's normally pre-race.'

 

Simon Clarke - Professional Cyclist, Cannondale Pro Cycling

Favourite recovery meal: Tuna and rice

Road cyclists burn a lot of energy, and recovery nutrition is especially critical for heavy training phases and multi-stage events.  Many professional teams have their own private chefs, but meals don't necessarily need to be complicated.  With timing being important for recovery, quick and easy works well, or try to prepare ahead of time.

'My favourite post stage race (ie. Tour de France) recovery meal is a protein shake made with half rice milk and half water, then a bowl of rice with a tin of tuna and a little bit of balsamic glaze for taste'.

 

Glenn Manton – Speaker, Author and Athlete (various sports, from AFL to bobsled!)

Favourite recovery meal – Banana smoothie

'I can't begin to describe how much I enjoy eating (not drinking) my banana smoothie post training. It weighs more than most of the weights I lift!'

'Clean, fresh, organic and healthy' is how Glenn describes his vegetarian-style approach to nutrition, he loves to eat tasty and fresh food.  Glenn's smoothie is no ordinary banana smoothie - it's a giant!  Glenn is aware of including some protein and carbohydrate and likes to mix it up.  His standard ingredients include a non-dairy milk base like almond milk or rice milk, bananas, granola, nut butter, mesquite powder and a vegetarian protein powder. 

If you want to learn more about Glenn's approach to fitness, nutrition and overall health and well-being, check out his, and other athlete, programs at Better Body 12 weeks.

 

Leigh Montagna – Professional Athlete at St Kilda Football Club, Director of Football - Boost Sport

Favourite recovery meal - Pizza (healthy-style) 

'Good mix of fats, carbs and protein, and easy to get down as a snack straight after a game.  I try to go for the higher protein toppings like chicken.  My motto is "if you deserved it, treat yourself"....not every week but more likely after a win!  

'My next proper meal post-game is never the same. I might go out for dinner or have something in the fridge, anything from burritos, to a chicken dish or a pasta.  It just depends what I feel like. I really sharpen up and eat healthy the rest of the week in the lead up to the next game.'  

 

Jessica Morrison - Athlete at Mercantile Rowing Club and VIS Rowing (previously AIS Swimming)

Favourite recovery meal: Smoothie (oats, FC milk, yoghurt, honey & chia seeds) & scrambled eggs on toast. 

Typically rowers burn a lot of energy in morning training so recovery nutrition needs are high.

'My smoothie takes two seconds to make, I enjoy it while I am making eggs. It's instantly satisfying & eggs provide good sustenance & I like something warm with a bit of protein after training. Sometimes I'll make the smoothie with chocolate milk & would normally have all of this after a morning row.

I eat to train, not train to eat!'

 

Madi Robinson - Athlete at Melbourne Vixens Netball Club and Australian Diamonds Team member

Favourite recovery meal: Varies!

Madi is super passionate about good nutrition and knows the benefits that eating well can bring for health and performance (check out Madi's great website by clicking on her name).

'Straight after a game I have a protein shake and two rick cakes with peanut butter and banana.  I then have my main meal within 2 hours of the game for home games and this can be:

Chicken burger with salad

OR

Fish or chicken with veggies (beans, broccoli, sweet potato) cob of corn

OR

Sweet potato - with chicken, beans, spinach & salad

To rehydrate, I have an SOS rehydrate sachet after matches to help replenish my fluid losses.  I sweat a lot and change dresses at half time so its important I not only get the right food into my body but also fluid as well to recover'.

 

Jessica Rothwell – Australian Race Walker and Accredited Practising Dietitian

Favourite recovery meal – Oats with yoghurt, fruit and toppings

Jess is a hard-working athlete, and knows a bit about nutrition being a dietitian herself.  Note the use of herbs and spices in her recovery meal.....

‘My favourite breakfast after a morning training session is milky soaked salted oats, heaped with natural yoghurt, blueberries, cinnamon & sprinkled with nuts & seeds.

I like to alternate the blueberries with grated apple or banana & use nutmeg, cocoa, vanilla bean or mint depending on the fruit! For additional energy I will add in tahini, honey or more nuts!

I enjoy this because its nutrient dense, providing nearly all 5 food groups, delicious & versatile! The dairy is helpful for maintaining my lean muscle mass, bone health, refueling & very hydrating.  

Bircher muesli is also convenient to transport in a portable container if you’re on the go & making a big batch is an effective way of saving time!’

 

Prue Rothwell – Cyclist with National Road Series team Bikebug – NextGen Racing

Recovery meal - Colourful vegetable/rice/protein bowl

Prue is passionate about wholefood nutrition, cycling and farmers' markets, a great combination for optimal recovery for an athlete.

Prue meal.jpg

'After a milk based recovery drink/yoghurt, when I’m ready for something more substantial I generally throw together something that is quick and colourful… a bowl of rice, 2x boiled eggs, cottage cheese, grated carrot, kohlrabi, beetroot, purple cabbage, leafy greens and chilli sauce…..plus some tuna or kangaroo if I want to add some meat!'

 

So many choices.....

As you can see, there is not one perfect recovery meal, a range of different foods can combine to create the right balance.  If you are keen to learn more about recovery and the best recovery foods you can have a look at one of my other blog posts Eat your way to muscle recovery - 5 of the best post-training meals. If you train early in the morning, pre-breakfast, then you may want to read about some of the more breakfast-specific recovery options at Best post-run breakfasts for recovery vs weight loss.

Or you can try Lisa Weightman's mum's recipe below!

Salmon Patties

Makes about 10 patties

Ingredients:

1 x 415g/14 oz can of salmon, drained and mashed with a fork

1/4 tsp salt

Cracked pepper

2 tbsp chopped parsley

½ medium onion, chopped

2 cups/400g cooked rice

White Sauce

55g/2 oz butter

1/3 cup/50g self-raising flour

1 cup/250ml low-fat milk

Coating

Cornflake crumbs

2 eggs, whisked

Olive oil for cooking

Method:

  1. Make the white sauce by melting the butter over a low heat in a small saucepan and adding the flour. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.
  2. Remove the pan from from heat and gradually add the milk while stirring continuously to avoid lumps. Return the pan to the  heat and stir continuously until thick.
  3. In a large bowl place the white sauce, salmon, salt and pepper to taste, onion, parsley and rice, mix together. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and leave in the fridge overnight.
  4. Roll the mixture into patties and coat with egg then roll in Corn Flake crumbs.
  5. Cook the patties in a non-stick pan with a little olive oil and serve with steamed vegetables.

 

 

 

 

Christmas eating for athletes - tips to eat well through the festive season

Image by  Bec Doyle Photography , Lamb salad with chickpea, spinach and mint cous cous from  Eat Right for Your Life

Image by Bec Doyle Photography, Lamb salad with chickpea, spinach and mint cous cous from Eat Right for Your Life

While the majority of the population are enjoying the Christmas cheer at this time of year, if you are training you may not find December quite so joyful.  Christmas is considered a time for some rest and relaxation, but if you are an athlete in pre-season or with competition in early January, this is not the best time to be in holiday mode.

Your nutrition and fitness goals may be very different to most of those around you, who seem to have absolutely no concern or interest in your training needs (and are quite happy finishing off their bowl of chips right under your nose).  Instead of cocktails and canapes and all night parties, many sports people are more about water, early dinner and watching the clock so they can be in bed for a solid 8 hours sleep.  Some even find it easier to knock back invites….alcohol and late nights don't seem quite as appealing when you have an early morning training session that requires a reasonable amount of effort.

Just because it is Christmas, it doesn’t mean you forget about your nutrition and training goals, and here are some of the reasons why:

Recovery -

Late nights and party food are not the best recipe for optimal recovery, and if you have repeated instalments of this combination you might find yourself feeling tired, sore and lacking motivation

Body composition -

If you are in pre-season or the early stages of competition, you may have some body composition goals, such as increasing muscle mass or decreasing body fat.  Either way, Christmas can have an impact by ensuring you are super busy and have less time to shop, cook and plan your eating around your day and training.  Add in a few dinners and functions and it can be a challenge to get the results that you are striving for.

Injury risk -

If you are not recovering well, and not fuelling well, then you may be increasing your potential risk for injury.  Not to mention the effect of alcohol when you are out late and judgement is impaired.  Not a great outcome for an athlete to get an injury from tripping over something or falling down some stairs at a nightclub.

Immune system -

Late nights and a busy schedule can leave you tired and run-down, plus add training to that mix and the stress on your system can leave you at risk of getting sick.  This time of year is when nutrition becomes more important than ever.

Energy levels and Fatigue -

If you are not fuelling and recovering as normal, it can impact on energy levels for training and competition, and ultimately performance.

 

It can be difficult to stay on track when everyone else seems to be in relaxation mode, but looking after yourself doesn't mean you have to lock yourself in an altitude tent for a month.  Here are some tips to help you enjoy the festive season while eating well for your sport.

  • Eat before you go

    • This sounds terribly boring, but it can save you from getting too hungry.  I was at a function recently and I was glad to have had a snack prior as there was very little food on offer and it was mostly deep-fried.  If you are not sure what will be on offer, be sure to have a snack or small meal before you leave.

  • Enjoy the healthy options

    • With an increasing interest in health and nutrition these days, a lot of caterers are providing healthy options.  Parties where finger foods are served can be the hardest, but try to find yourself some fresh seafood (prawns, oysters, grilled calamari, fish), vegetables/dip, sushi, fresh sandwiches, smoked salmon, salad or stir-fry bowls to enjoy. 

  • Choose mains over appetisers

    • If your function involves a sit-down meal, think about how many pre-dinner snacks you really need.  Think about what food will be offered over the entire event and be selective (you may even be able to see the menu beforehand or when you arrive).

  • Plan your portions

    • If you do get caught out at a function that is over-flowing with deep-fried snacks and pastry, it’s the portions that will make all the difference.  The same applies to dinners with shared dishes, or buffet style eating - it is often the volumes consumed that can be a problem, not just the type of food.    For more info about portions, read about 5 secrets of the French... and how they manage portions so well.

  • Drink plenty of fluid

    • If you are going to be standing up at a function for a number of hours, in warm conditions, and have training the next morning, it’s important to stay hydrated.  Water or mineral water are probably your best bet, try with fresh lime or lemon to make it a bit more interesting.  Or even a fruit-based mocktail can be a good option for some extra carbohydrate.

  • Don’t compensate the day before or after

    • Some people prepare for a night out by eating less that day, or cutting back the day after.  If you are an athlete this is not all that helpful as you need consistent nutrition for ongoing recovery and training.  Don’t starve yourself or it will show in your performance.

  • Host a party

    • The best way to be sure that you can eat well at a function is to host one yourself!  That way you have complete control over what is offered, and others will probably appreciate some healthy options too.

  • Choose your night

    • If you like to have a drink, then maybe pick one event where you can have a couple of drinks.  For example maybe choose between Christmas Day and NYE to have a drink, not both.  Plan ahead, and try to pick the time that will have the least impact on your training.

  • Re-gift the chocolates

    • Resist the urge to rip into the chocolates straight away, hold onto these as a perfect new year gift for someone else.  Or if you really want one, open them on the spot and share them around so everyone gets to enjoy the fun, and you won’t end up eating the whole box.

  • Plan ahead!

    • If you continue to plan your nutrition during busy times, and maintain consistent training, you can enjoy yourself in the lead up to Christmas

If you are interested in more sports nutrition info, recipes and tips, please add your details for my free newsletter, at the bottom of any page on my website www.lisamiddleton.com.au. You can also follow me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

Top nutrition tips for travelling athletes

A quick meal or snack that is easy to prepare in your hotel room

A quick meal or snack that is easy to prepare in your hotel room

Travel brings a range of challenges for athletes, and careful planning is required to make any trip a success.  I was recently on holiday, and did a lot of observing of how people eat when they are travelling and thought about what I do on holidays in an attempt to feed myself and my family well.  Then my mind turned to athletes.  Travelling for training or competition can be a particularly daunting prospect for athletes who have specific nutrition preferences and goals.  If you are staying within your local area, or country, it can be a little easier to manage, but even if heading overseas many of the basics remain the same.

Here are my top ten tips for travel nutrition on the road to ensure you are well nourished and prepared for success:  

(1) Do your research

No matter the length of your trip, if you want to eat well while you are away, you need to research and plan ahead.  Questions you need to ask include:  

- How long will I be in transit for and will there be stops along the way?

- Will any food or fluids be provided, or can I buy, or do I need to take my own food with me?

- If staying for a number of nights, where is the closest supermarket?  Big or small?  Opening hours?

- Where can I stay that has cooking facilities and a fridge?

- Local eateries - restaurants/cafes, take-away options, types of foods and costs involved?

- Food safety - do I need to be careful of what I eat and can I drink the tap water?

These questions are just a starting point, you may need to look even further into the specifics of what foods are available, depending on your individual needs.  If you know a bit about where you are staying and where you can buy food then you will save time, money and stress.

(2) BYO

If you have a specific food that you eat regularly, and it is portable, then take it with you.  Your favourite cereal, snack or spread may be hard to find in some locations, or could be extremely expensive.  Particularly for atheltes, if you have a specific routine for before/after training and competition then it may be worth taking those important items to be sure you can keep things as familiar as possible.  If you know you are organised it will put you at ease and allow you to focus on the training or event rather than scrambling to source a pre-event meal on the day.

(3) First stop - supermarket

Your first destination upon arrival should be the supermarket.  If you are travelling by plane, use the time to write a shopping list of the essentials.  Stocking up on arrival saves you time and money, and most importantly means that you can be organised to eat well from the outset.  Breakfasts are easy to self-cater, so too are snacks.  Lunches and dinners can be more of a challenge, depending on your cooking facilities and schedule, but if you plan ahead you can easily make it happen.

(4) Check opening hours

I mentioned this one earlier.  Not all supermarkets are open 24 hours.  Or Friday nights.  Or Sundays.  Check local supermarkets and eating establishments for standard opening hours in that location.  Living in Melbourne, I am spoilt to have shops open pretty much all the time, but not all locations have this luxury.  It was like when I was away recently on holidays and the first Saturday happened to be Anzac Day. There was chaos - people didn't know what to do or where to turn, and some were actually angry, when they realised shops were CLOSED......some ALL day.  Some may have struggled to put food on the table that night.......plan ahead!  Especially if you are arriving in a country town on a Saturday afternoon and you have a major competition on the Sunday night.  Get to the supermarket ASAP or your pre-event meal could be a packet of chips from the service station.

(5) Take containers

You have been to the supermarket and have everything ready to go, only to start putting together your snacks and lunch for your first day with no way to transport them!  I have made this mistake on several occasions, but now I always bring some plastic containers with me to ensure economical and environmentally friendly food storage.  Sure you have to wash them each night, but it takes probably less time than it would to be lining up to purchase snacks and lunch out and about.  It might be worth taking a small plastic chopping board and bowl also for food preparation if you won't have a kitchen.  Take a sturdy drink bottle from home too for re-filling each day.

(6) Eat in, and don't forget your kettle

Eating at home-base is a great way to know exactly what you are eating and there are plenty of quick and easy meals that you can whizz up with minimal ingredients.  Don't try to make things too complicated while travelling, stick to simple and nutritious.  Even if you are staying in the most basic of hotel rooms, you will still usually have a kettle.  Boiled water can be the base for a surprisingly large number of meals.  Cous-cous for example.  Or Hokkien noodles, or rice noodles.  You can easily get your carbohydrate option sorted (just remember you need a bowl to prepare), then you can add some fresh salads, and perhaps some tinned corn or other vegetables.  For protein you could add canned tuna, salmon or legumes, or sliced roast beef from the deli or even roast chicken.  Or you can buy some souvlaki-style meat from the local take-away to add to your meal.  Plus you could add cheese and/or nut/seeds/pestos for extra flavour, texture and nutrition .  The combinations are endless, how about these quick and tasty dishes:

- Cous-cous with rocket, chick peas, capsicum, feta and pepitas

- Asian style salad with rice noodles and sliced roast beef

- Chicken or lamb pieces (take-away), tabouli salad (purchased) and tzatziki with pita bread  

- Hokkien noodles with roast chicken, corn, spinach and pesto 

- Cous-cous with mixed salad, tuna and avocado

(7) Take advantage of convenience foods

Convenience foods are often processed, and therefore lumped into the 'avoid' category.  But the reality is that pretty much all foods are processed to some degree, the key is to look for minimal processing and few additives. 'Convenience' foods such as pre-packaged salad leaves, frozen vegetables in microwavable sachets, canned fish and vegetables, and even individual serves of rice or quinoa that can be easily heated can save time, money and mess.

(7) Are you really hungry?

One of the big problems when travelling is that we are often faced with hours and hours of either waiting around or in transit.  As a result we can get bored, and easily pass the time by eating and drinking for something to do.  Find some other activities to pass the time!  Head off armed with ideas to help avoid eating being the main activity.  Think about whether or not you are really hungry or not.  If you are an athlete and you are travelling over one or two days you may not be doing your regular training and most likely won't need to eat as much as you normally would on a training day.  It's great to take a range of snacks in your bag, but it doesn't mean you need to eat them all in the first hour.  Pace yourself and listen to your body.  Same with fluid, you may not need to drink the same volume as usual, although for plane travel you may need to drink extra to allow for the dehydrating effects of the cabin.

(8) Eating out

Of course when you are travelling there will be times when you want to eat out, or grab a take-away meal.  These days we are lucky and, in Australia at least, it is usually not too hard to find a half-decent option when eating at a restaurant or even choosing take-away.  My biggest tip is to just keep it simple.  Stick to basic proteins like meat, chicken or fish with vegetables or salad and not too many heavy sauces or dressings.  Examples include fish and salad, steak with vegetables, Asian-style soups or a chicken and vegetable stir-fry.  Same with carbohydrates, some athletes need more than others and if you are someone who needs lots then choose pastas or dishes served with rice, noodles or cous-cous....just watch the dressings and sauces.   Steer clear of the fried stuff and watch your portions too, it's easy to over-eat when travelling so tune in to your hunger signals.

(9) Food hygiene

Probably one of the most annoying things that can happen to a travelling athlete is gastro.  It is relatively common to have some alterations in bowel motions when travelling, but if you get food poisoning you will soon know about it, and it can ruin any well-planned preparation.  You have put in the hours over months or even years, so the last thing you want is to be suffering on the big day.  You can never totally eliminate the risk, but you can be smart about your food and fluid choices.  Don't eat from roadside food trucks or carts, don't eat food unless it is piping hot, don't eat foods that are meant to be cold if they haven't been in a fridge and don't drink the water, consume ice, swallow water in the shower or when brushing teeth, or eat salads and unpeeled fruit in areas where you are warned not to drink the water.  These are just a few tips, so again, do your research on t your destination to eat well and eat safely.

(10) Enjoy the local hospitality

We have focused a lot on maintaining a relatively normal routine while travelling, but of course it is important to enjoy the local cuisine, especially if you are travelling to a new or different country to your own.  One of the things I love about travelling is the opportunity to experience different tastes, textures and styles of food.  Food experiences are often our best memories of travel.  But perhaps do your experimenting after your event, just in case!  Try to eat at reputable food establishments, and just because locals eat there doesn't mean it is safe for you....what the locals can tolerate can be very different to what you can!  Plan ahead and enjoy the opportunities and fun that travel brings.

Why 'everything in moderation' is not always the best way to go

Over recent weeks I have seen something that I never imagined I would ever see. Dietitians publicly promoting images of themselves chowing down on donuts, biscuits and all manner of sugary morsels.  Dietitians, and other health professionals of a similarly  conservative background - all promoters of nutritious foods, who help people to reduce their intake of high sugar, high fat foods.  But shouldn't a dietitian be seen crunching on an apple or a carrot stick?  These sugar-sweet images certainly don't seem to convey the message of good nutrition and health at first glance.  However, there is a valid reason why many dietitians are going against the grain.  It has everything to do with moderation.  But what is moderation, and is moderation the best approach for everyone?  My suggestion would be, not necessarily.

There appears to be a show of unity amongst a growing number of dietitians in promoting the messages of balance, moderation and non-restrictive eating (exactly what most of us should aim for ultimately).  This reaction is in direct response to the current glut of dietary approaches that involve extreme restriction of foods and food groups.  Many nutritionists and dietitians do not support these popular diets and are taking a stance to illustrate that all foods can be enjoyed in moderation, for both health and enjoyment, and that no food or food group is completely off-limits.  

One thing I do love about the ambassadors of the back-to-nature style food trends is their passion.  They practice what they preach (mostly, unless they are getting paid the big bucks on cooking competition shows, then 'toxic' sugar is all of a sudden neutralised).  They live and breathe nutrition and health, almost to (and sometimes beyond) the point of obsession.   When 'clean' eating goes too far it is no longer a healthy way to live.  Unfortunately this all or nothing approach can often lead to disaster, or at least a major fall of some sort, in the long-term. 

Personally, I don't recommend that people eat donuts, cakes, biscuits, etc.  I don't label them as 'never' foods either.  Many people come to see me to improve their nutrition either for exercise performance, to achieve body composition goals or to manage digestive issues.  For athletes to improve their chances of success, there are benefits to relatively specific structure when it comes to training, nutrition and other factors that contribute to performance.   If someone is trying to lose body fat or gain muscle mass in a timely fashion then the same applies.  For those with digestive issues, restriction is often required, no question.  I would suggest that all people who book in to see a dietitian are working towards particular goals and looking for strategies to achieve these.  In my experience structure beats moderation hands down, in the short-term at least. 

Moderation is a term that is interpreted differently by different people.  For some people, it may mean eating well most of the time, then relaxing a bit once per week or fortnight when they go out for dinner.  For others, moderation may mean having a small piece of dark chocolate every night within a relatively healthy eating style.  Others may have half a chocolate block and find moderation there.  For others it might mean having 4 beers per night instead of 8.  Moderation varies widely in its application, and can mean very different things for health and associated outcomes.   The term moderation is in some ways irrelevant without some level of boundary with regard to the types and volumes of food.  For some people these boundaries can be more flexible than others. 

Back to my example of athletes.  For particular times of the year their boundaries may be quite tight if there are specific goals for a given time-frame, then more flexible at different times of the year.  Someone trying to lose weight may also need more structure to start with, but we all have different motivators, so some people might like generalised guidelines in preference to the 7-day plan that could work well for others.  For someone with intolerances and allergies,  moderation is not an option.  For someone who cannot eat certain foods, it may be quite frustrating to hear 'everything in moderation' as the best strategy for healthy eating, as this is an option they may yearn for but will never experience as a reality.

For someone already at a healthy weight and of good health, moderation is the way to go.  The idea of being able to maintain good health while still enjoying the foods and drinks that you love is very appealing.  Maintenance with moderation is achievable, although for people with a history of weight fluctuation, mindful moderation will still be important to ensure long term good health.  This brings up another point - moderation is very hard for a lot of people.  Not everyone can just stop at  one chocolate out of a fresh box, or one donut, or a handful of chips.  Actually I would say that most people find moderation hard.  Moderation is great in theory, but putting moderation into practice doesn't just happen....it takes some time, effort and prioritizing, and it often requires some professional help. 

Of course there are individuals who find moderation easy, or don't have the same food temptations experienced by many.  There are also those who have the genetic make-up where they seem to be able to eat almost anything and as much as they like with  absolutely no difference to their weight and health (although not everyone within their healthy weight range is fit and well). 

For those experiencing disordered eating, moderation can be a real challenge.  More and more young (and older) people are being effected by disordered eating, which is often characterized by restrictive patterns.  A strong message of 'moderation' is particularly relevant with regard to disordered eating.  As the above examples indicate, the specifics of the moderation message need to be tailored according to an individual's relationship with food.   

So perhaps the image portrayed by some dietitians of late has more to do with the particular client groups that they work with and how the moderation concept applies. I can think of a personal example myself, where I was acutely aware and concerned of my image as a dietitian.  When I was pregnant I suffered from reasonably bad morning sickness, and the one thing that I craved and could stomach was eggs.  Eggs and bacon and extra salt to be exact, and the drive-through muffin varieties were particularly appealing and convenient.  If the timing was right I would have prepared my own eggs and bacon, but as I was finding it very difficult to cook due to illness, the take-away was the best option at the time.  My heart would race every time I drove through, in fear of being spotted by one of the staff or players from the sporting club where I worked.  The thought of one of them seeing me eating foods that were perceived to be unhealthy made me nervous.  It may sound ridiculous, but for the type of clients I work with, visuals of myself eating perceived 'junk' foods would not, I feel, be the best example of my philosophies when it came to nutrition.  Not that I don't ever eat those foods, but I think it would be quite hypocritical in a way, and almost offensive, to be seen devouring foods that I have recommended that my clients reduce their intake of.   The reality is, that for many athletes there are times where they do need to reduce their intake of particular foods to reach their goals.  Not all the time, just certain defined time periods.  I am not embarassed about any of my food choices, and I do believe in the moderation concept, but the application of moderation is highly variable for individuals, and their specific needs, whether that be within a training cycle, a calendar year or over a lifetime.  

There is an important place for moderation in nutrition, when applied appropriately and interpreted and communicated effectively.  Finding the right approach for your individual needs is the key, to be able to reach your goals, enjoy good health and appreciate and enjoy delicious foods and flavours.  No foods or food groups need to be avoided completely, other than for medical reasons, but don't expect all dietitians to be putting donuts on your menu either.

AFL Grand Final nutrition - what and when the players will be eating and drinking

Game day nutrition plans are usually well practiced and refined by the time grand final day arrives, but on the big day these strategies are often challenged by a number of September factors.  I cannot claim to know the exact nutrition plans for the Hawthorn and Sydney FC players this week, but I can write from my previous experiences with finals football.  I have been fortunate enough to work with AFL teams in five grand finals, including the week leading up to the game, and at the ground as the players arrive for their last warm up for the year.  I have seen nutrition strategies work well but have also seen some on shaky ground due to factors which are largely difficult to control but need to be considered and planned for.

Grand final week is a week like no other for an AFL player.  In fact, it may be the only time they experience grand final week from a player perspective in their entire life.  During the season, nutrition plans are created and trialed to ensure optimal fuelling, recovery, health and body composition and most players have a fine-tuned pre-game nutrition routine that is flexible depending on game times and location but reasonably consistent week-to-week.  Players work with an accredited sports dietitian at most clubs to determine what works best for them the day before a game and then on game day.  Players will have different requirements in terms of the type of foods, nutrients and timing depending on a number of factors including playing position, body weight, individual hydration considerations, climate and travel.  By the end of the season it should all be pretty well rehearsed.  Often things do run pretty smoothly up to preliminary finals, but those 7-8 days prior to the grand final bring various challenges.  Of course the club tries to keep things as normal as possible and treat it as just another week and another game, but it obviously isn't.   In terms of nutrition, a grand final brings significant challenges that are not always controllable.  There are additional activities that are compulsory for the players and quite unlike a normal week, in particular  the Grand Final parade which is scheduled just over 24 hours pre-game.  Who came up with this concept I am not sure....it is great for building the excitement in the city, and for the wider community and supporters who can't get to the game because of all the corporates, plus a great activity for kids on school holidays, but in terms of preparation it is probably less than ideal for the players!  Players have to travel into the city, wait around for the parade to start, then sit in the trays of utes (often out in the blazing sun), all when they could be relaxing and preparing.  Considering that usually on the day before a game players have their own individual routine that might be quiet and low-key, with no restrictions on timing of meals and fluids, players need to be organized to ensure adequate nutrition and fluids during this time.   

Speaking of fluids, September in Melbourne is ridiculous when it comes to weather.  I recall one grand final I was involved with was hot and windy, another winter-like conditions and rain.  If it is hot, it can often be the hottest day for 6 months and players are not accustomed to playing, and drinking, in that type of heat.  At least players from both teams are subjected to the same conditions but how it is managed in terms of cooling and hydration strategies could become important.  So, the weather can impact on hydration but there is a bigger factor that can play havoc with the best laid nutrition plans, and this is not specific just to AFL football but any major sporting events - nerves (for want of a more technical description).

In many ways a grand final is just another game, but in other ways it is not.  If you play in a grand final and your team wins, you are a premiership player for life.  If your team loses, you are not, simple really. The winners will be recognized for life and earn a coveted medal that all AFL players crave.  I am certainly not a psychologist, but it is clear that there is both internal and external pressure created, and some players manage this better than others.  I have frequently heard athletes say that if they don't feel nervous they won't perform well, so butterflies in the stomach can be helpful, perhaps because if you feel anxious it means whatever you are nervous about means a lot to you and you really want to do well.  Some players thrive on the 'big-game' pressure and it brings out their best, others may be terribly nervous but can turn this around into a positive, and others can have a terrible time that interferes with them performing at their best.   These nervous feelings can have a psychological impact, but also a physical impact that can impact on nutrition and hydration strategies. 

A common side-effect is stomach upset, which can impact on appetite and make it difficult to consume regular pre-game intake both the night before and on game day itself.  This effect is not exclusive to AFL.  I see a lot of elite and recreational athletes who train for events such as a marathon or ironman triathlon, events difficult to simulate in training and that require extensive preparation for that one day, whose nutrition plans are severely impacted by nervousness on the day.  The type of foods that are usually consumed may need to be altered, for example a change from a dense oat-based cereal breakfast to a lighter toast option, lower-fibre options and avoidance of dairy for improved gastrointestinal comfort.  

Often nutrients are more easily tolerated via fluids rather than solid foods, so these can be a good option for athletes who struggle to eat pre-event.  But over-drinking can be another concern.  Fluid intake can easily be over-done pre-game when nerves are involved, with players taking sip after sip as they count down the minutes to game-time, so fluid intake should be monitored so players don't feel bloated and racing to the toilet all the time.   If gastrointestinal symptoms are severe, players may struggle to eat much at all.  I will always remember one grand final where we were providing regular small doses of lemonade, rice crackers and electrolytes throughout a game to one player who was really struggling and it was all he could manage.  Not quite the usual theoretical sports nutrition recommendations, but it worked for that player on that day, sometimes you have to compromise and be creative. 

Of course not all players experience disruptive physical symptoms, but they still have the challenge of timing their nutrition on the day.  Ideally it would be good to wake at the usual time and stick to the usual breakfast then snack and/or light lunch before heading to an afternoon game. But players always like to make sure they get to the ground in plenty of time on Grand Final day, so with a 2.30pm start it means that players are likely to be in transit in that 2-3 hours prior to the game, when theory indicates is an ideal time for pre-event nutrition.  With lots of things on a player's mind on the day, prior organization is paramount to ensure optimal fuelling in those critical hours.

As important as nutrition is, it is one of a number of factors that contribute to performance.  Never is this more evident than on grand final day.  Just think of those players who are injured and play out the game with a broken hand or finger, those who have ran and ran all day but still find that extra few metres of speed, and those who I have observed that you know would literally have no fuel left in the tank but still, somehow, manage to reach the contest and punch the ball away.  It's why we love sport and why we love Australian Football.  The psychological drive seems to be able to over-ride a lot of the physical aspects that would normally limit us (happy for any experts who may have research papers on this to chip in here!).  That quest for a premiership....an individual medal, but more importantly a win with your team who have worked so hard all year, and for your club, to be remembered in history for years to come.   A premiership win is the ultimate for AFL players, and although it may seem like I am over-dramatizing a little, for AFL players on grand final day, and many other athletes at their pinnacle events, they are playing for their lives.  Not playing to stay alive (well perhaps to keep their career alive), but playing to achieve something that to date they have dedicated their whole life to. 

Even if the parade and grand final day means nutrition is not always perfect in terms of sports nutrition strategies, any potential benefit that nutrition can still bring makes me feel happy!  We know that pre-game and during the game nutrition can often be slightly different for a grand final, but what about recovery on grand final day?  There are no specific recovery strategies on grand final day because there is nothing immediate to recover for.  But one thing is certain, after the siren sounds, half the players on the ground will be swallowing tears of utter joy and jubilation, and the other half will be stuck with tears of absolute disappointment and despair.  Let's hope all the players in this years Grand Final can manage their nerves and nutrition as best they can and play their best game for the year.

*Photo courtesy of www.sherrin.com.au