Elite Athletes Leading Us Back to Real Food

November 29, 2011 in Fitness, Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

It is interesting that Kazimierz Funk, the Polish biochemist who is credited with formulating the concept of vitamins in 1912, made his observations and did his work just about 100 years ago. Funk got the idea to study nutrients in foods, after he read about a Dutchman, Christiaan Eijkman, a Nobel prize-winning professor of physiology, who had noticed that people eating brown rice were less vulnerable to beriberi than those who ate only the fully milled product (one of the original processed foods). That’s a short explanation of how vitamin B1 (thiamine) was discovered. Vitamin B1 was followed by the discovery of many other vitamins and minerals that are necessary for health.

Now, just about 100 years later, biochemical science has discovered thousands of nutrients that are found naturally in plants and plant products (vegetables, seeds, grains, fruit, nuts, oils) and animal products (fish, chicken, meat, eggs, milk and milk products). It seems as though, the general public is having a difficult time letting go of the concept that the only important nutrients are those originally discovered about a hundred years ago, that when not consumed cause overt disease. It seems as though its time to begin a new way of thinking about nutrition. There is a plethora of research that bears witness to the benefits of eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and not eating too much red meat, processed foods and dairy products. The answer to the sought-after health benefits and reduced disease risks is not found in just a few essential vitamins or minerals being added to impoverished processed foods; but in the consumption of whole foods, not processed substitutes, with scientific-sounding additives.

It’s intriguing that discovering ways to prevent beriberi, scurvy, rickets, and pellagra led to adding just a single identified nutrient each time. But we shouldn’t get stuck in old thinking about single vitamins. We are at the dawn of the understanding of many nutrients found in whole foods, working together. The scientific community is learning, each and every day, that it is complex interactions, not single nutrients, which sustain our health. Repeatedly, the researchers learn that taking the nutrient that the researchers thought was providing a certain benefit from a specific whole food or food group, does not provide the benefit when provided as a supplement. The researchers continually tell us, “Eat the food that has been linked to the relationship with the health benefit.” One of the frequent speculations is that it’s more than one nutrient that is working in providing the health benefit. We do not yet know all the answers about what makes nutrients work optimally. But there’s plenty of evidence that the nutrients in real foods are involved.

It is also interesting that Eijkman and Funk did not advise to stop eating the white rice and go back to eating the brown rice if the population wanted to avoid beriberi; they found a way to isolate the thiamine and add it to the impoverished white rice. Note: Even when I was studying at UCLA in the early 1980’s, we were still being taught that enriched rice was a superior alternate to regular white rice. We didn’t worry about any other nutrients that may have been lost when the bran layer was removed. And the idea that the valuable fiber was among the nutrients being disposed of in the milling process was of little or no concern. Little or no mention was ever made; not even mild encouragement for the public to eat brown rice. Now of course, we have so much more information, but we still seem to be stuck into thinking in the Nutritionism way that began about 100 years ago. Continue milling the rice, corn, wheat and toss in or spray on some vitamins and the health halo glows.

If you think that nutritionism (Nutritionism: Using a Single Player instead of the Entire Team) is a problem of our past and no longer plagues us, you can try two things: 1) Walk the cereal aisle of the grocery store and look for the names of nutrients plastered on the front of packages of processed breakfast cereals. 2) You only need to glance at the Nutra Ingredients-USA.com chart, which illustrates the growing worldwide sales trends in the vitamin sector for the past five years and shows us that nutritionism is growing.

A terrific example of the growing trend in manufactured vitamin-laced foods is “sports beans.” (It’s so difficult for me to call these items food. It makes me reach for Dr. Grandpa’s (Victor Bunderson) created term fude.) Frankly, I’ve never seen a sports bean, but essentially they are Jelly Belly candies with added vitamins. How healthy and scientific it makes them sound to use the term electrolytes – sodium and potassium – in describing how these jellybeans are magically transformed into the ominously cool thing called “sports beans.” A recent article says that the sports bean sales have continued growing in the double-digits each year, six years after launch. Talk about a great example of adding a ‘halo effect’ to something easily classified as a “fake, fattening fude.” All you have to do is just throw in a few cheap additives. To get the ‘halo effect’, you merely add vitamins, sodium, and potassium. In this case you add them to mere sugar candy, something no one would ever accuse of being on the healthy food list.  You can do it with or without adding caffeine. Thank you to the Jelly Belly Company for this primal example of nutritionism.

Elite Athletes – An example for the General Public

The performance of elite athletes is discussed in an article published in the Chicago Tribune’s Health section on November 2, 2011 – Some athletes ditch processed foods for the real deal.  Allen Lim, a sports physiologist noticed that many of America’s top pro cyclists were having problems with the diet of packaged bars, gels, chews and sugary sports drinks; some were experiencing stomachaches, diarrhea and bloating. Lim steered the athletes away from engineered foods and focused on feeding them fresh, whole ingredients, on and off the bike. One of the American pro cyclists Christian Vande Velde says, “You want something you look forward to eating that’ll give you readily available energy. And real foods, he says, tend to satiate better.”

Nancy Clark a Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist and a runner, says that although the manufactured foods can be convenient and useful during high-intensity exercise, they are more expensive than real foods, and some people “experience ‘flavor fatigue,’ so they add real foods. “Engineered foods can be just too much sweet, and after two hours of sports drinks and gels, you think, ugh, I can’t take any more, and you don’t drink the drink or eat the gels and you run out of fuel.”

Levi Leipheimer, who has four Top 10 Tour de France finishes and a bronze medal from the Beijing Olympics, says, “When you have real food and cut down on processed food, it makes a big impact on digestion. With processed foods, you get bloated for a few hours and the next day you’re fine. But I think it’s a signal that your diet’s not balanced and you’re not eating how you should be. I definitely have more energy and recover better when I’m eating healthier. Your brain functions better and more clear.”

Lim and a chef Bij Thomas developed “The Feed Zone Cookbook: Fast and Flavorful Food for Athletes” (Velo Press). It is gratifying to those who share the perspective of this blog to learn that elite athletes are recognizing that eating refreshingly simple and flavorful ingredients (real food) satisfies an athlete’s cravings and prepares the body for top performance.

I’m not surprised that the elite athletes are among the first to learn that real food has a whole lot more than sugar and vitamins. People like Clark and Lim have spent their careers learning how to feed athletes. When you are demanding a great deal from your body, it’s easy to notice a performance difference between processed fudes and real foods. I hope the general public can learn from the athletes – real food provides a better platform for excellent performance. Can we learn from what they’ve learned? I think, “yes.”  Spraying on or mixing in a select few nutrients does not deliver the powerhouse to keep us healthy and functioning optimally. The immense variety of nutrients, flavors and textures available in nature offer so much more than does a jellybean, a gel, or a sports drink.

Don’t let the nutritionism of the marketers of engineered foods use the halo effect to convince you that processed foods with some cheap supplemented vitamins or minerals will deliver the same results as real foods. Let the sight of a vitamin or mineral’s name plastered on the front of the package that you’re about to pick up, work like a yellow ‘caution light’. Let just seeing the easy-to-spot evidence of nutritionism turn your own “Buy This” light red. Do this and you will avoid slipping into their carefully arranged trance.