muscle

The truth about celebrity online nutrition programs - why Chris Hemsworth’s 'Centr' is one of the best

Image courtesy of Centr

Image courtesy of Centr

You would not be alone if on first impressions you thought Chris Hemsworth’s new Centr health and fitness program was just another celebrity program with plenty of hype but not necessarily substance.  Celebrity programs have received much criticism for their lack of evidence-based content, however not all online health and well-being programs are the same…..some take their nutrition seriously - and they do it well.

Centr for example uses a range of ‘experts’ to provide varied nutrition content, including recipes, articles, cooking tips and meal plans.   I know first hand that all of their nutrition content is carefully planned, created and reviewed by the experts and the team at Loup (a complete digital business that produces online health and fitness programs) which includes an Advanced Sports Dietitian.   Loup are super passionate about health, nutrition, food (and food enjoyment), and provide ongoing support and expertise to the Centr program (in addition to other programs such as Tiffany Hall’s TiffXO). Great care is taken to provide nutrition content that is based on science, and approved by a dietitian for accuracy and consistency.    

Centr DOES provide meal plans, but with significant flexibility built in, and a focus on food enjoyment and listening to your body rather than counting calories and macros. Recipes incorporate seasonal, nutrient-dense wholefoods, to help nourish our bodies and brain rather than promoting a  ‘diet’ approach.  Yes, there are some issues with prescriptive meal plans in general, but Centr provides meal plans as a starting guide - in fact many, if not most, members do not follow the meal plans to the letter, but use them for recipe ideas to suit their food preferences and lifestyle.  The overall nutrition program aims to educate and empower individuals to actively change habits for a positive impact on both physical and mental health and well-being.    Clear recommendations are provided to seek individualized advice from an Accredited Dietitian for those with specific needs.

Online programs and meal plans are often criticized, and I admit a few years back I was one of those criticizing, but the feedback from Centr speaks for itself – individuals making better lifestyle choices and creating new habits leading to improvements in health, well-being, body composition, energy levels, confidence and happiness.  Thousands of individuals, from vegans (Centr has the most amazing vegan recipes!), to pescatarians to those who enjoy all foods.  The potential benefits for participants seem to far outweigh any perceived negatives.

Of course online programs are not for everybody – there will always be an important role for individualized advice and private consultation with dietitians like myself.  But if an online program can have a positive impact on individuals by providing credible and accurate nutrition information, delicious recipes, and practical meal ideas, this can only be a positive.

Five reasons why red meat is good for athletes

By jules (ginger beef stir fry) [CC BY 2.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

By jules (ginger beef stir fry) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember my first sports nutrition lecture at university, where sports nutrition at the time was compared to what athletes may have been eating centuries ago.  Red meat was clearly on the menus of our athletic ancestors with ancient Greek marathon winners awarded cattle for their endeavours, and a hearty steak pre-race may not have been uncommon.  The science of nutrition has come a long way since then, and although steak may not be a pre-race meal of choice, the nutrition benefits of red meat for athletes continue to be recognised. 

Nutrition fads come and go, and the popularity of red meat has catapulted from one extreme to another.  Current dietary guidelines suggest a prudent intake of red meat, however not everyone follows these guidelines, with the recent jump onto the Paleo bandwagon keeping the grass-fed beef farmers in business.  Regardless of the style of eating, when it comes to sports nutrition, red meat is a winner.  We don't always talk about meat as a food on it's own, often you hear about the importance of nutrients like protein or specific minerals for athletes, but when we break it down, meat is amazingly rich in a range of nutrients.

Here are my top 5 reasons why red meat is good for athletes:

Number 5 - Healthy fats

Discussions around red meat and health usually focus on saturated fat content, or more recently cancer risk.  If you look closely at the fat composition of Australian beef and lamb you will find that they do in fact provide omega-3 fats.  Not as much omega-3 as fish, but meat isn't all 'bad' fat. If you are concerned about your body fat levels, you can reduce the calories of meat by choosing lean cuts or trimming fat from meat, or cooling casseroles after cooking and skimming fat from the top. 

With regard to the impact on cancer risk, it is the cured and processed meats that seem to be the main concern.  It is still wise to vary your protein foods and not eat red meat all of the time, but for most people you don't need to omit fresh meats. 

Number 4 -  Minerals

Beef and lamb are a great source of zinc and Vitamin B12, important for athletes.  Zinc is important for muscles and immune system, and may play a role in testosterone levels in males. 

Vitamin B12 is important for a range of body systems and may impact on immune function and energy levels.  Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, and a small-medium size steak will provide your daily RDI.

Number 3 - Satiety

Do you usually find you are still hungry after a meal of steak and vegetables??  No, most likely not.  Red meat is filling due to the high protein content, and is broken down slowly in the digestive system so can keep you full for longer.  You don't need a huge serve either.  Protein in a meal can also lower the glycemic index, helping to keep blood glucose levels stable.  Red meat can help to manage hunger, as do other protein-rich foods, if you are an athlete trying to manage your weight or body fat levels.

Number 2 - Iron content

Iron is an essential nutrient for athletes.  Red meat contains haem iron, which is more easily absorbed than the non-haem iron found in plant sources. The easiest way to meet your dietary iron needs is to eat small serves of red meat regularly (x3-4 per week), plus include a range of other iron-rich foods.  Don't forget to add a food containing Vitamin C to your iron-rich meal for optimal iron absorption.

For more information about why iron important and a table of different foods and their iron contents, have a read of my article on the 2XU website, Iron Tough or Rusty.

Sports Dietitians Australia also have a great Fact Sheet Iron Depletion in Athletes.

Number 1 - Protein

Probably the best thing about red meat is the quality and amount of protein.  Red meat contains all the essential amino acids, making it high quality.  This includes leucine, the critical amino acid for stimulating muscle protein synthesis to promote muscle recovery and growth.  Meat is also protein-dense, so you only need a small serve for a big dose (lean beef contains approximately 30g protein per 100g, this can vary according to cut of meat).

For more information about protein and other foods that are great protein options, Back to Basics Protein - Foods That Contain the Most and Best Protein for Recovery and Training

If you choose not to eat meat for ethical reasons there are other foods such as dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds.  For athletes who follow a vegan style of eating it can be very difficult to meet needs for nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium and Vitamin B12.  It's not impossible, there are plenty of vegan athletes out there, but it takes significant time, effort and planning, as well as supplementation, to get nutrition intake spot on.

If you are an athlete who does eat red meat, then it's worth making a special effort to eat small amounts of fresh red meat regularly, in combination with other high quality protein sources,  for energy levels, recovery and performance.

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Vitamin D for athlete health and performance

It is quite likely that you may have low Vitamin D levels.  Recent estimates indicate that over 75% of the general population may be Vitamin D deficient.  If you are an athlete, you may be at even higher risk of having low levels, and this is a problem because Vitamin D is important for health and potentially performance.  In recent weeks I have found myself talking to many athletes about Vitamin D.  The end of winter is approaching in Australia, a time of year where Vitamin D levels can be on the downward slide.  I have also read a number of journal articles of late that highlight the important role of Vitamin D for athletes.

I am prone to low Vitamin D levels.  I am not a great one for regularity in taking supplements, so I am probably Vitamin D deficient right now if I am honest.  Particularly as we are continuing to endure a pretty cold winter here in Melbourne, and most of us in the southern states will find that our Vitamin D levels decline by the end of winter when we haven’t seen much sun for a while.  So what is all the carry-on about Vitamin D?  Why do we need it, who is at risk of deficiency and how can you improve your Vitamin D levels?

Why are so many people Vitamin D deficient?

Vitamin D is a pretty clever little vitamin and plays an important role in many of our body systems.  The big problem with Vitamin D is that we generally don’t know that our levels are low until something major happens eg. bone issues.  Unlike iron, where our body will often let us know via various symptoms that our levels are on the decline, Vitamin D isn’t quite as helpful and we can go for a pretty long time without being alerted to low levels.  The only reason I found out that my levels needed a boost was through a routine blood test when I was pregnant, so goodness knows how long my levels had been low for.

Unfortunately sometimes when you address one issue it can create another.  Sunscreen is essential for protecting our skin from the sun’s rays.  If you block the sun, you help to reduce the risk of skin cancer.  But you also block the sun’s amazing ultraviolet (UV) radiation which is required for the production of Vitamin D in the skin.  So all of our slip, slop, slapping, which is absolutely important to avoid burning our skin, doesn’t do much for our Vitamin D. 

Who is at risk?

Lack of sunlight is the number one risk factor for low Vitamin D.  So if you spend a lot of your daylight hours inside, like a number of athletes I work with who train predominantly indoors, your levels may be low.  Athletes may also have increased physiological demands for Vitamin D, compared to the general population.

Other individuals at higher risk include:

  • indoor lifestyle eg. work, study.

  • if you cover your skin for religious reasons.

  • if you have naturally very dark skin.

  • if you avoid the sun for cosmetic reasons or skin protection.

  • specific medical conditions.

There is some debate over the cut-off values for Vitamin D levels in the blood, and whether the set levels are in fact too high, meaning that more people are being diagnosed as being low in Vitamin D.  It is important to speak with your GP or medical professional to determine the best way to address your Vitamin D status and needs.

Why is Vitamin D important?

Bones - Vitamin D controls calcium levels in the blood and is required for the absorption of calcium from the gut, which in turn is important for bones.  Low Vitamin D can increase the risk of musculoskeletal problems, including bone conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis.  For athletes, an increase in bone turnover with low Vitamin D can increase the risk of bone injuries such as stress fractures.  Sufficient Vitamin D may help to prevent this.

Immune System - Vitamin D is thought to have a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, and some studies suggest that Vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of viral respiratory tract infections. Winter is often when Vitamin D levels decrease, so if you are prone to getting sick in the cooler months make sure your Vitamin D levels are kept up throughout.

Mental health – There seems to be a link between Vitamin D and mental health, including moods and even depression.

Muscle strength – Vitamin D may have a particularly important role for improving muscle strength in athletes.  There is a potential for increased size and number of type II fast twitch muscle fibres and a study in athletes showed a positive impact on muscle function with Vitamin D supplementation if levels are low.

Injury prevention - Low Vitamin D may increase the risk for inflammatory-related injuries.

Performance - Few studies have looked at Vitamin D and its direct effect on performance in young adults, however multiple performance studies in older adults have related low vitamin D levels to decreased reaction time and poor balance.  There may also be a potential impact on VO2 max.

Strategies to increase Vitamin D levels

  • Spend some time out in the sun without sunscreen on  

    • Find a balance between sun exposure for Vitamin D and protecting your skin against skin cancer.  The amount of time required for exposure will vary depending on where you live.  Check the SunSmart website for more details on exposure times in Australia.    

  • It's difficult to obtain enough Vitamin D just from foods.  Only 5-10% of our Vitamin D may come from food.  Foods that are rich in Vitamin D include– salmon, dark-flesh fish, egg yolks, fortified foods (like milk), UV mushrooms.

  • Vitamin D supplementation may be required for certain individuals.  Speak with your health professional about appropriate dosages if you have been found to have low Vitamin D levels

Summary:  For athletes, there is limited evidence to support vitamin D as a direct performance enhancer, however optimal Vitamin D is important for health, immune function and reduced risk of bone injuries such as stress fractures, and muscle injury. Although Vitamin D is not shown to have a direct performance effect, the indirect impact could make a significant difference to performance and health/injury outcomes.  Further research is required to determine the magnitude of effect of vitamin D on performance, in particular the areas of strength, power, reaction time and balance.

This post presents information of a general nature only.  For individual advice about nutrition and supplementation you should consult with an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or appropriate health professional.
References: 
  • Ogan,D. & Pritchett, K.  Vitamin D and the Athlete: Risks, Recommendations, and Benefits. Nutrients 2013, 5:1856-1868

  • Von Hurst, P.R. & Beck, K.L. Vitamin D and skeletal muscle function in athletes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2014, Nov;17(6):539-45

  • SDA Fact Sheet – Vitamin D

  • AIS Fact Sheet – Vitamin D

Eat your way to muscle recovery - 5 of the best post-training meals

Man eating steaks.jpg

Here are some quick ideas for anyone training hard and trying to get the best results in terms of muscle recovery.  I am not just talking about guys lifting heavy weights, guzzling protein and eating stacks of steaks.  Muscle recovery is important whatever type of exercise you do, be it for building muscle mass, or for a marathon, or for general fitness or training to lose weight.  If you are getting sore muscles, you are doing muscle damage and this needs to be repaired to progress your muscle condition and function. Whether you are an elite athlete or going to the gym after work to get fit, these recovery meals are for you. 

When we think of recovery we often focus on the immediate post-exercise 'window' where intake has been shown to optimize muscle recovery.  well done if you are planning ahead and taking a snack or drink containing 20-25g high quality, leucine-rich protein for straight after training, but sometimes it can be easy to forget about planning for the next meal after the initial recovery period.  Jose Areta and The Exercise and Nutrition Research Group at RMIT have done a lot of work in the area of protein and muscle and have indicated that regular protein doses spread every 3 hours over 12 or so hours post-exercise may result in optimal stimulus of muscle protein synthesis.  Recovery doesn't stop after the recovery 'window' is closed.  Your nutrition in the day/s after exercise will also impact on muscle recovery and conditioning. 

Recovery is not only about protein, but addressing your protein needs is a good start. Also include foods that provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats in your recovery meal.  Carbohydrate needs vary significantly depending on training just completed and the timing and type of your next session, as well as overall training, health and body composition goals.  Some days you may need more, sometimes you may not need too much at all in your recovery meal, and at different stages of the year your needs may differ also.

The 5 meal examples below will help you get your post-recovery recovery meal right.  Get your shopping list ready for better results at the gym or on the track. 

* Salmon with sweet potato mash and steamed greens, with soy/sesame dressing

Salmon is great for protein and healthy omega-3 fats.  Add some nutrient-rich green vegetables like broccolini, asparagus, green beans steamed only lightly to reduce heat exposure and therefore preserve vitamins.  Add a light Asian-style dressing with a base of soy sauce, maybe some fish sauce, toasted sesame seeds and chilli if you like.  Sweet potato will provide some nutritious carbohydrate.

* Beef and vegetable stir-fry with rice/grain/seed mix

A stir-fry is such a quick and easy meal after training, have everything chopped up ahead of time so all you have to do is cook it up.  Throw in a mix of colourful vegetables, like sliced capsicum, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy and mushrooms.  Maybe some cashews or almonds for extra protein, healthy fat and crunch? Serve with one of the range of rice/grain/seed mixes available at your local supermarket for a taste change and nutrient boost, especially good for endurance training sessions.

* Fish with white bean mash and salad

Don't be afraid of fish, it can be quick and easy to cook, in the pan or baked in foil or baking paper with herbs and lemon in the oven.  Instead of traditional mash, try white beans such as cannellini beans, canned are fine!  Heat with some garlic, chilli and oil and mash or keep it simple with lemon and parsley.  Don't forget some spinach or rocket for your greens.  This meal may be a bit light on carbohydrates for some. 

* Chicken with warm roast vegetables and quinoa

Grill chicken fillets and serve on top of cooked quinoa with pre-roasted vegetables.  Add some salt, oil and garlic to the vegetables when cooking and you won't need too much dressing on the salad, just a bit of lemon juice (pepitas are a great for texture, taste and nutrition added on the top).  Leftover salad is great for lunch the next day too!  A great option for all types of training, with a mix of protein and carbohydrate.

* Lamb with Greek salad

Simple lamb fillets or small lamb steaks or skewers can be easily grilled or cooked in pan, extra tasty if marinated ahead of time with lemon, garlic and herbs.  Serve with a tasty Greek-style salad with feta and olives.  Try adding some cooked pasta spirals to the Greek salad, keep the lettuce on the side, to create a quick pasta salad for lunch the next day.