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What does healthy eating look like? Popular culture offers dozens of different depictions, from a generally “balanced” diet to superfoods, the all-fruit “Raw Til 4” philosophy of vloggers like Freelee to new fads like the meat-heavy caveman diet. The problem is that there’s a lot of conflict in this list alone, and we’ve only scratched the surface. That’s why we need to turn to science, particularly sports nutrition.
Why Look At Athletes?
When trying to devise the ideal diet, looking at athletes is a powerful strategy because athletes are a heavily studied group who function under intensive physical demands. For example, we know that athletes need more protein than the average individual, but not so much that most require protein shakes or other supplements. Athletes, or at least the broader sports nutrition sector, also have undue influence on our dietary landscape, making athletes’ diets a testing ground for what the rest of us eat.
Reading The Signs
To get at the truth about diet, it’s not enough to look at athletes. We also need to dig into the data. This isn’t always easy, but the more we learn about nutrition science in general, the better we will understand the specific nutritional needs of athletes. Professional sports managers actually employ sports nutritionists and psychologists and have mountains of evidence about what works and what doesn’t. The challenge is acquiring the degree of data literacy necessary to interpret it.
What We Know
Based on existing data from sports nutritionists, as well as from those working with lay individuals, we do know a good deal about what diets are best. The short version: there is no one-size-fits-all diet, especially once we take complicated health conditions into account.
While otherwise healthy athletes will thrive on a diet that includes complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables, those with heart disease or diabetes need to be more careful. For those with hypertension, most nutritionists recommend diets, which are low in salt, red meat, and added sugar. Meanwhile, those with diabetes need to balance every carbohydrate carefully to manage their blood sugar levels.
The Risks Of Sports Nutrition
There may be a lot of data to support sports nutrition, but it’s important to remember that this information reflects the needs of elite athletes in a society made up largely of sedentary individuals. In other words, we’re talking about two groups with vastly disparate nutritional needs. Despite these differences, though, the sports nutrition market is considered a major growth sector. That means the average individual may be loading up on excessive amounts of protein, sugar, and carbohydrates meant to power workouts and recovery. Even products like electrolyte drinks that are billed as healthier than soda may contain comparable amounts of sugar.
When it comes to making sense of dietary needs, we need to consider the mismatch that occurs when non-athletes turn to sports nutrition rather than a more conventional diet – and we may not like what we see. Though pro athletes benefit from these products as supplements, most non-athletes would do better to look at what athletes eat outside supplemental bars and shakes if they really want to know what’s healthy.