Each year, athletes at all levels, hungry for a competitive edge, eagerly consume billions of dollars worth of sports drinks, power bars and other special "sports" supplements.
Are they performing better or just engaging in an expensive exercise in futility?
From a medical standpoint, it's likely the latter. Whether you're a weekend warrior or a big-money pro, you'll probably perform just fine following the same healthful diet guidelines recommended for everyone else.
Many people get too concerned about what types of foods to eat — this much carbohydrate, and the right amount of protein. The more important message is to eat enough calories to provide the energy for best performance. And while those calories should come from healthful, nutrient-dense foods, they don't have to be specially formulated — whether by product or even nutrient.
For instance, many athletes tend to eat a lot of protein, believing it will increase their strength and endurance. But there is little scientific evidence supporting the benefits of high-protein diets to enhance performance.
In fact, most Americans — athletes included — get too much protein in their diets. Unless you have a kidney disorder, protein is not harmful, but most high-protein foods, such as meats, are also high in saturated fats, which can increase risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
Instead, athletes and everyone else would do better by eating fruits, vegetables, mono and polyunsaturated oils, and whole grains, with moderate amounts of protein and avoiding saturated fats and sugars. Within that framework, there are a few basic nutrition guidelines for optimal performance:
Drink two 8-ounce glasses of water before you start exercising, and another two glasses after your workout. If you will be exercising continuously for more than 30 minutes, try to drink small amounts every 15 to 30 minutes as you run or during breaks. Water is best; caffeinated beverages such as colas, iced tea and coffee can cause you to lose water and minerals out of your body through the urine.
Sports drinks are useful only if your workout is especially strenuous or long or if you sweat profusely. They are not usually necessary for a child's weekend soccer or baseball game. A good rule of thumb: If you barely break a sweat, water is better.
Eat at least two hours before exercising, because it takes at least that long for the food to be digested and metabolized. An ideal pre-workout meal includes a vegetarian sandwich (with little or no butter or mayonnaise), a cup of low-fat yogurt or a pasta dish with low-fat sauce — all relatively easily digested foods. Eating huge amounts of pasta or other carbohydrates for "carbo loading" isn't necessary for the average person — it won't help your exercise performance and, if you eat more than you burn off, will add pounds to your physique.
If your workout is strenuous, you'll need to replace the calories you burn with a post-exercise snack. Here, carbohydrates are most important because they replace the energy stores in the body's muscle tissue. Good post-workout snacks include a bagel with a small amount of fruit preserves, whole grain pasta, a banana, graham crackers, carrots or a cup of low-fat yogurt. Energy bars are fine but are best if they contain no more than 15 percent protein and 25 percent fat.
To be certain that you are getting enough vitamins and minerals, take a multivitamin/mineral supplement daily. Other supplements to consider are extra vitamin D (up to 1,000 International Units per day) and iron for women. Other than that, the average person needs no other supplements. That means no amino acid powders, no protein drinks, no herbs, no steroids. They haven't been proven to work, and some could be harmful to your health.