BY NANCY CLARK
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At the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, more than 3,000 sports-medicine professionals and researchers from around the globe gathered to share knowledge. Here are summaries of several sports-nutrition presentations sure to be of interest to rowers:
Historically, collegiate and competitive rowers would have their body fat measured routinely, with the data posted for all to see. Many were praised for their extreme leanness (read anorexia); others were fat-shamed. Hence, many rowers experienced intense pressure both internally and externally to have a lean physique.
Today, we know that athletic performance is not dictated primarily by body-fat percentage but by volume of training, mental state, adequacy of sleep, and sufficient food intake.
Today’s recommendation is that measuring body fat should be done only if (1) the rower consents, (2) the measurement is done in private by a trained measurer using the most reliable method, (3) the information is discussed in confidence with rowers and their health-care team, and (4) the mental and physical health of the rower is a priority.
Rowers, please understand that you will perform better if you focus on getting stronger and gaining power as opposed to restricting food. If the cost of losing body fat is having to train for weeks with poorly fueled muscles, your performance will suffer and your risk of injury will increase.
Ultra-Processed Foods and Athletes
About 95 percent of athletes enjoy ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as frozen waffles, boxed mac ’n’ cheese, chips, etc. The average American consumes about 60 percent of total calories from UPFs. They are readily available, easy to prepare, have a long shelf life, and can save time.
What do rowers need to know about UPFs? First, let’s define what they are. UPFs contain substances that are used rarely in home cooking—emulsifiers, thickeners, protein isolates, etc. You’ll find those substances in energy bars, fruit yogurts, commercially baked breads, and many grab-and-go foods that busy athletes consume commonly.
UPFs also include sport drinks and protein powders. Not only are they convenient but also they digest easily. During extended exercise, when rowers need quick and easy carbs, consuming a gel, chomp, or sports drink can boost energy easily. While a swig of maple syrup or a banana can be equally energizing, UPFs are generally easier to manage.
In the general population, UPFs are linked with obesity. The more UPFs consumed, the greater the risk of weight gain. In a carefully controlled study with menus matched for carbs, protein, fat, fiber, and palatability, the UPF menu led to weight gain. The UPF eaters consumed about 500 additional calories a day compared to when they ate from the whole-foods menu, and they gained about two pounds in two weeks. Yikes!
Why did that happen? Are UPFs easier to overeat because they require less chewing, can be eaten quickly, and are super-tasty?
The answer is yet to be determined. Until such time, your better bet is to consume homemade foods whenever possible. The less packaging in your grocery cart, the better for your waistline and the better for the environment (less trash in landfills).
That said, balance and moderation pave a prudent path. There’s a time and a place for UPFs. If your protein intake is low, grabbing a protein bar on the run can help you hit your 20-to-30-gram protein target. If you consume little red meat, an iron-enriched breakfast cereal like Grape Nuts can help fill that gap. For traveling athletes, carrying bars, gels, and carb-based recovery drinks are “safe” (uncontaminated). Safety matters.
Muscle is being broken down constantly into amino acids and then rebuilt into new muscle tissue. Resistance exercise, such as weightlifting, stimulates the synthesis of new muscle during the 24 hours after exercise. Including about a sixth of a gram of high-quality protein per pound of body weight per meal maximizes muscle-protein synthesis. That comes to about 20 grams of protein for a 120-pound rower and about 30 grams for a 180-pound rower. You can consume that amount easily in chocolate milk, eggs, or tofu.
Protein’s food matrix, with all the bioactive compounds that accompany the amino acids in natural foods, has a positive influence on the muscle-building effectiveness of the amino acids. For example, eating a whole egg, not just the egg white, builds muscle tissue more effectively. Hence, your best bet is to choose food naturally rich in protein, such as nuts, yogurt, tuna, beans and rice, etc. Whole foods are preferable to the protein isolates in powders and bars.
Including protein at each meal and snack also offers benefits. Many rowers eat too little protein at breakfast and lunch, then devour two to three chicken breasts at dinner. They’d be better off enjoying a serving of protein at each meal and snack.
Vegan rowers can indeed consume adequate protein—if they’re responsible. A vegan meal with just pasta and greens doesn’t do the job.
How much protein from plants is enough? The goal is one gram of plant protein per pound of body weight a day. For a 120-pound rower, this comes to about 30 grams per meal, plus 10 to 15 grams in each of two snacks.
The information on food labels reveals the grams of protein per serving, as does a quick Google search (e.g., the protein in a half cup of hummus). Don’t be among the many athletes who believe erroneously that most Americans consume too much protein and make little effort to replace chicken with enough beans. A big dollop of hummus (about a half cup) with eight grams of protein does not equate to the 35 grams of protein in a small chicken breast.
Vegans, educate yourself!