Digestion & Performance

December 30, 2015
Female athlete with painful injury or spasm in muscles.
Categories: Uncategorized

by Sara Vance, Nutritionist & Author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan & Host of The Metabolism Summit

Energy is Needed for Performance.

Your body needs energy to perform at it’s peak. So when choosing what to eat before and during your workout – you want to look for something that will deliver nutrients and useable energy.  Here is a list of 15 Superfoods for Peak Performance to consider adding to your daily nutrition.

But another consideration that is often not mentioned, is that what we use to fuel our workouts should also be easily digested.

You see, digestion takes energy.  So if you are putting something in your body before a workout that is not easy to digest – then you are borrowing the energy you need to perform and diverting it to digest that food.

So – essentially overwhelming your digestion will take energy away from your workout.

Think about it – food that is not easily digested can not only make you feel like you have a lump in your stomach (who wants to work out with that?), it can also result in bloating, pain, indigestion, fatigue, and cramping. And if you are regularly eating foods that you are not tolerating well – overtime – this could make you more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation – which impedes recovery and can lead to overuse injuries.

So focusing on your digestion is one good strategy for athletes looking to improve energy, performance and recovery.

Some Easy to Digest Pre-workout Foods:

  • Smoothies. One of my favorite things for pre-workouts is a smoothie – because you can load up on the nutrition, but not overwhelm your digestion. If you like to use protein powder in your smoothie – find one that does not cause digestive issues. If yours does – you need to switch. My favorites are vegan proteins derived from pea, cranberry and hemp; or sprouted rice. If you tolerate dairy (many people do not – and if you do not, I highly recommend NOT having dairy before a workout!), then I recommend grass-fed whey protein. I like to include protein powder, some kind of greens (like spinach or a greens powder), coconut water, berries, frozen banana, and a teaspoon of coconut oil or manna, and a pinch of Himalayan salt. Try these delicious recipes:
  • Bone broth/Soup – Another great pre-workout food is soup (homemade is best) – because it easy to digest, and provides minerals and sodium. (Read these two articles: Heard about Liquid Gold? and Athletes Need Sodium)
  • Eggs – not everyone tolerates eggs well – but for those that do, it is a complete protein source and high in nutrients. One of the reasons people may not tolerate them well – is they are buying non-organic eggs that are fed a diet of GMO soy and corn – which ends up affecting the quality of the eggs.  So pay the extra money for organic, even better if you can get free range or pasture raised – which are fed a better diet and are much higher in inflammation lowering omega 3s.
  • Sweet potatoes – Do you like sweet potatoes? They are wonderful source of carbohydrates and great for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ask any top athlete – and they are probably eating sweet potatoes.  Bake a few of them ahead of time, warm them up and drizzle on a little butter or coconut oil, and some chopped nuts and a touch of honey – give it a try!!
  • Fermented foods – foods that have been fermented contain beneficial bacteria that supports healthy digestion -these include yogurt, kimchi, traditional sauerkraut, and kefir. Traditional sourdough bread is also fermented, which is why it may be better digested than regular wheat. Some people may want to consider adding a probiotic supplement if they do not regularly consume fermented foods.
  • Whole Fruit – berries, apples, bananas, and oranges can be a good option for some people – but I like to eat them with a handful or nuts, a spoonful of nut butter or coconut manna, to level out the glycemic response and give you longer lasting energy.  Or throw them into a smoothie!  Those who do not tolerate FODMAPs or fructose might want to steer clear of fruit before a workout.
  • Avocado – Do you like avocados?  Instead of an apple a day, an avocado a day is the way to keep the doctor away!  Rich in monounsaturated fats, and fiber – avocados are a delicious addition to toast, and wonderful alongside eggs, and can make a smoothie rich & creamy and delicious.

How do you know if you are not digesting food well?

  1. You will want to tune in to your body to figure out what foods work well, and what do not. Some signs to look for:
  2. If you have bloating, indigestion, gas, pain, cramps, low energy, a stuffy/runny nose, or you feel the food sitting in your stomach like a rock.
  3. More serious reactions could be reflux, vomiting, swelling, and diarrhea.
  4. Other signs of food intolerances can include moodiness, anxiety, depression, focus issues, brain fog, and a craving for that food. (read: Got anxiety? Consider Your Second Brain)

Common Digestion Foes:
Below are some common foods that may not be ideal fuel for you because they could be working against digestion:

  • Soy: It is amazing to me how many sports nutrition products have soy in them.  I am not a fan of soy – because I have had to help too many clients clean up their digestive issues from eating too many soy-based protein bars.  The only kind of soy I ever recommend is organic fermented soy (like miso or tamari).  Soy is poorly digested, and contains anti-nutrients, and is mostly GMO. But because it is a cheap source of protein, a lot of bars and protein powders contain it. Plus, in large amounts (like for those that drink a lot of soy milk), it can have estrogenic effects. So read labels and steer clear of soy if you want a healthy GI tract.  (Read article: Is Soy bad for You? )
  • Dairy (for some people) – less than half the population has the proper enzymes to digest the lactose in dairy. Other proteins in dairy that can cause reactions are casein and whey. So intolerance to dairy is quite common. Some people if they do not have a strong reaction to dairy can digest fermented dairy (like yogurt), and butter.
  • Sugar alcohols – xylitol and some other sugar alcohols can wreak havoc on certain people’s digestion. So if you are bothered by sugar alcohols – avoid gum and other foods containing them – like certain ‘sugar free’ foods.
  • Gluten/grains – some people just do not tolerate gluten or wheat well. In addition to the above signs, anemia can be another sign that you have an issue with gluten. If you Read: Can Going Gluten Free Give Athletes an Edge?
  • High insoluble fiber foods– although fiber is really important for your digestion and overall health and should be included in your daily diet – having foods with lots of roughage/fiber before or during your workout could backfire – because it takes extra energy to digest. Foods with soluble fiber are easier to digest and can actually help to retain water – so they can actually be performance enhancers when consumed with plenty of water – like chia seeds. (read: Pre-hydrate with Chia seeds)
  • Fried foods– fried foods and foods that contain a lot of low quality oils also take a lot of energy to digest, and also work against recovery. Fried foods are usually made with cheap soy and vegetable oils – which are often oxidized and high in inflammation-promoting omega 6 fats. Which can interfere with recovery. So these are best avoided before or during your workouts; and even limited after workouts.  The one exception is coconut oil – because it is primarily medium chain fatty acids – coconut oil is much easier digested, and it is converted to fuel much easier than other fats.  So it is a good choice for fueling a workout!
  • GMOs & Pesticides – foods that are genetically modified or loaded with pesticides can be harming our digestion. Glysophate (a common pesticide used on GMOs) is actually patented as an antibiotic – which can cause imbalances in the balance of bacteria in our gut – which is critical to our health and digestion. Consider going organic or all non-GMO for a couple weeks to see if your digestion and overall health improves.
  • Eating too much too close to your workout.  One big mistake for athletes is not getting enough fuel for their workouts.  But another mistake is eating too much too close to their workout.  Ideally – you want to give your body the time it needs to digest before jumping into your workout.  If you do not have time for that – make sure you are eating something very easy to digest like a smoothie, or protein powder and greens powder mixed into coconut water – what I call the “Quick Pick Me Up Drink” – I also like to add a couple teaspoons of chia seeds to mine .

How’s Your Energy?

If you feel your energy lagging in a workout – think about how you fueled that workout.  Ask yourself:

  • Do I need to eat more in general throughout the day?  A very common mistake athletes make is to not get enough to eat throughout the day to properly fuel their workouts.
  • Do I need to lay off the sweets and processed carbs and eat something that will sustain my energy longer?  Eating sugary foods like candy before a workout might give you an initial burst of energy, but it is not going to sustain you well- because it is followed by a blood sugar crash – which can cause you to hit a wall and majorly bonk, or even lead to more serious symptoms of low blood sugar.
  • Perhaps I need to hydrate better?  Most people are chronically dehydrated all the time.  This is not good for our health or metabolism, but can be very dangerous to athletes. Make sure you are not forgetting about your hydration – not just during your workouts – but all day long. And don’t forget those electrolytes – and they do not have to com from day-glow drinks – many super healthy foods contain natural electrolytes.  (Read: Hydrating Foods to Beat the Heat).
  • Maybe what I am eating – I am not digesting well.  If you have an upset stomach, or other symptoms of poor digestion – try to narrow it down to figure which food is not working for you  – and try to find something else that you can digest better.

Just remember to regularly check in with yourself about how you are feeling during and after your workouts and that will help you to find out YOUR ideal fuel!


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Announcing   The Metabolism Summit – Free online from Feb 1-8!!
Want to learn from some top experts from the fitness, health and wellness world?

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You will hear Sara’s interviews with 30 experts including:

  • Dr. Phil MaffetoneHow to Turn on Your Fat Burners!  with over 35 years of experience working with world-class athletes, celebrity personalities his extensive list of clients include those in all sports, including six-time Hawaii Ironman Champion Mark Allen.  He is the master at helping athletes develop their aerobic system with the MAF method – his talk is not to be missed!
  • Dr. Marc Bubbs 7 Metabolism-Boosting Secrets to Burn Fat & Look Your Best – Naturopathic Doctor, Strength Coach, Author of The Paleo Project, and Sports Nutrition Lead for the Canadian Mens’ National Basketball Team.
  • Ben Greenfield Does Cardio Make You Skinny Fat?  An ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life”. Voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year in 2008, and named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness (2013/2014).
  • Dr. James LaValle- How to Crack Your Metabolic Code a nationally recognized clinical pharmacist, author, board certified clinical nutritionist, founder of Metabolic Code Enterprises, Inc., and served as the nutrition correspondent for Body Shaping, the number one fitness show on ESPN II.
  • Patrick McKeownIs Mouth Breathing Messing Up Your Metabolism? – Author of the book The Oxygen Advantage, and the top expert for the Buteyko breathing method, Patrick trains athletes how to breathe better (through their nose, not the mouth) to get rid of asthma, and improve their performance. You might learn some breathing techniques that could change your performance & potentially your health and life! Patrick was able to cure his own severe asthma using this method!
  • Dr. Mark Houston – The Top Metabolic Dysfunctions that Cause Heart Disease

And that is just a few of the 30 amazing speakers you will hear on The Metabolism Summit!  This summit is not to be missed – and make sure to get your pens and paper out – each talk is chock full of actionable tips!!

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Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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