Is ‘clean eating’ hurting your sporting performance?

The food you eat can enhance your athletic performance. A well-planned, nutritious balanced diet meets all of your nutrient and energy needs.
Equally, the food you eat can impair sporting performance by leaving you lacking in essential nutrients.

Here I discuss the trend of ‘clean eating’ and how it can damage your athletic performance.

What is ‘clean’ eating’?

There is no clear definition of ‘clean eating’.
Eating ‘clean’ tends to be a way of eating where only foods in their most natural state are consumed. Processed foods tend to be completely eliminated. 

Which sounds good in theory. Because many people, sporty or not, could do with moderating their intake of processed foods and refined sugars.
But that is the problem. ‘Clean eating’ is usually an all-or-nothing approach; there is no moderation or balance involved.
It is an image of perfection that is not realistic, or necessary.

The more extreme versions of eating ‘clean’ involve rigid rules and lists of what can/cannot be eaten. There is no scientific research to support this way of eating.
Many people following a ‘clean’ diet will avoid wheat and/or gluten and dairy. Some only eat raw foods; others are happy to have plenty of organic, grass-fed butter or coconut oil while shunning other forms of fat. Most clean eaters avoid refined white sugar, choosing agave or honey instead.

I know of a few ‘clean eaters’ whose food choices are massively restrictive, yet they still drink plenty of alcohol…. No, I do not understand that concept either.

There are a number of ways eating ‘clean’ could be hurting your sporting performance. These are 3 important factors.

1. Not eating enough.

The thing with eating only whole, unprocessed foods that do not come in a jar or packet is the tendency to focus solely on vegetables and fruits. Obviously, fresh fruit and veg are nutritious. They should make up a large part of your healthy balanced diet. But it is not enough to give sustained energy for most people, especially those who exercise regularly.
Recovery from training sessions requires adequate nutrition in the form of a balance of carbs, protein and fat. A piece of fruit or green smoothie is not adequate.
Long term inadequate nutrition leads to increased risk of injury. Also impaired immune function, loss of muscle mass, and increased fatigue. All the training you do will feel harder than it needs to and gains in performance will be limited.

2. Lack of variety.

Restricting food means you eat the same things during a typical week. Sometimes even the same foods on a daily basis.
For sure, overnight oats and fresh fruit for breakfast is healthy. A salad bowl and cold-pressed juice for lunch ticks nutrition boxes. And organic chicken breast and green veg for dinner are healthy food choices. But when you make the same food choices almost every single day of the week, variety is lacking.
Which means you are unlikely to be consuming enough of a variety of essential vitamins and minerals to support good health and athletic performance. For example, following a solely plant-based diet may leave you lacking in vitamin B12 (naturally present only in animal products). Limiting dairy intake can contribute to low levels of vitamin D as dairy is one helpful source of the ‘sunshine vitamin’.

3. Restricting carbohydrate.

Carbohydrates are digested and broken down into glucose. Glucose is your body’s primary energy source. Glucose is converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver, ready to use during exercise.
If you don’t eat enough carbohydrate, your exercise performance is compromised because you lack sufficient glycogen stores to fuel the body during training.
When energy needs are not met through carbohydrate intake your body breaks down muscle tissue in order to gain energy from protein stores instead. Muscle loss compromises sports performance and immune function. This leaves athletes more susceptible to illness and injury.

Have you tried ‘clean eating’? Did you find it impacted your sporting performance?

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