Friday, January 27, 2012

Feed Your Head – Brain Food for Athletes

We are always running around. Running to work, running to appointments, running to races. We know how to fuel our body to keep it going, but how do you fuel your brain to stay alert and sharp? Good nutrition is important for brain health and diet plays an important role in intelligence, brain function and development. When studying different nutrients, scientific research has shown that there are specific nutrients and vitamins that can enhance brain function, increase memory and improve intelligence. Read on if you don’t want to forget your next race:

1. Omega 3 fatty acids: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Essential fatty acids top the list of important nutrients for brain development and function. One of the essential dietary nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, plays an important role in the production of DHA. DHA is essential for healthy brain development. New research shows they may even build the brain's gray matter. In one study, healthy adults who ate the most omega-3 fatty acids had the most gray matter in three brain areas that regulate mood. How do omega-3 fatty acids help the brain? Scientists are still studying the connection. But they do know this: The omega-3 fatty acid DHA, is the major polyunsaturated fatty acid found in the brain, and is important for brain development and function.

Reduced DHA is associated with impairments in cognitive ability and reduced levels of memory or recall. DHA is so critical that when pregnant women are lacking in their diet, it can disturb fetal brain development. It speeds the process of signal transduction, increases problem solving skills, and inhibits oxidative stress and inflammation. DHA also preserves cognitive function in aging persons and reduces the incidence of dementia. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in ground flax seeds and flaxseed oil, cold water fish (primarily salmon and tuna), canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and eggs. Salmon has the highest content of DHA of any fish source, ranging from 2000 - 3000 mg for each 6 oz serving. Salmon provides a host of nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin B6 and B12, as well as niacin, selenium, and magnesium. The omega-3 fats in salmon help to slow cognitive problems like Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline. It also helps to prevent inflammation, depression, and aggression, and improve eye and cardiovascular health.

2. Antioxidants

Foods rich in antioxidants are important to brain development and maintenance. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds to get an array of antioxidants. These micronutrients work to protect against free radicals that can cause damage to brain cells. Free radicals, if not controlled by antioxidants, can damage cells faster than they can be repaired, leading to diminished brain development and function. Antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E, and some bioflavonoids. Studies show that vitamin C enriches concentration and mental clarity. Vitamin E is also good for concentration, precision and clarity. Bioflavonoids are a class of plant secondary metabolites with a structure similar to that of flavones. One flavonoid is luteolin, a biochemical agent that can significantly reduce inflammation. According to a study in the October 2010 Journal of Nutrition, eating luteolin rich foods aids in the development of a healthier working memory. Thyme is very high in luteolin. Luteolin is also present in beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chili peppers, sweet pepper, lettuce and spinach. Chamomile tea is also a good source of luteolin.

Foods rich in vitamin C include oranges, lemons, kiwis and other types of citrus fruit. The vitamin C content of a fresh orange is 60 mg for an average sized orange. This provides a whole day’s worth of vitamin C, as the reference daily intake (RDI) is 60 mg. These are best eaten fresh, to obtain the maximum amount of nutrient. Sources of vitamin E include nuts, specifically almonds and walnuts, which have minerals and amino acids that are beneficial to the brain. Almonds have 7.43 mg per 1 oz of raw almonds, which is roughly 23 whole nuts. The RDI for vitamin E is 30 IU. Almonds can be eaten as a snack, roasted, or used as a garnish in salads. Other sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, mustard greens, broccoli and spinach.

3. Proteins

Proteins provide amino acids to the body, which are the building blocks of the brain's network, and play an important role in brain development. Protein-rich foods include fish, meats, poultry, eggs, dairy products, grains, seeds, legumes and nuts. Protein raises the levels of an amino acid called tyrosine, which prompts the brain to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine, which are chemical messengers in the brain. Not as well known as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine can keep you energized because they promote alertness and activity.

It's possible to boost alertness, memory and stress resistance by supplying food components that are precursors of important brain neurotransmitters. One of them is choline, the fat-like B vitamin found in eggs. Studies show that choline supplementation enhances memory and reaction time in animals, especially aging animals. It also enhances memory in people. Choline supplementation also minimizes fatigue. In one study, choline given during a 20-mile run improved running time by a significant amount. Choline is a key component of many fat-containing structures in cell membranes, whose flexibility and integrity depend on adequate supplies of choline. Two fat-like molecules in the brain, phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin, account for an unusually high percentage of the brain's total mass, so choline is particularly important for brain function and health. Choline is also a key component of acetylcholine. A neurotrasmitter that carries messages from and to nerves, acetylcholine is the body's primary chemical means of sending messages between nerves and muscles. My favorite protein brain food is eggs. One large egg contains 6.5 g of protein, out of which egg white protein content is about 3.6 grams. They also contain choline, tryptophan, selenium, and iodine. The choline in eggs boosts brain health and reduces inflammation. Choline is definitely a nutrient needed in good supply for good health. Food sources of choline include choline include soybeans and soybean products, egg yolk (the word "lecithin," comes from the Greek word lekithos meaning "egg yolk"), butter, peanuts and peanut butter, potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes, banana, milk, oranges, lentils, oats, barley, corn, sesame seeds, flax seeds, and whole wheat bread.

4. Vitamin D

According to a 2009 study in the Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, researchers discovered evidence of a link between vitamin D and cognitive function. Additionally, a study performed by the Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland concluded that vitamin D plays an important role in brain development and function. The European Male Aging Study investigated men ages 40-79 and found those with low vitamin D levels scored worse on a standard test of cognitive ability than did their peers with normal levels.

Vitamin D is manufactured by the skin from sun exposure. few foods in nature contain vitamin D. Vitamin D can be found in foods such as eggs, fish (salmon, sardines, cod, shrimp), beef liver, cheese, and foods fortified with vitamin D, such as milk and breakfast cereals. The RDI for vitamin D is 400 IU. Mackerel is also a good source of vitamin D. This fish is also contains vitamins A, E, and K, niacin, choline, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. Additionally, the fatty acids it contains are crucial for brain function, assist in healthy growth and development, and may reduce the risk of chronic conditions.

5. Vitamin B

Vitamin B complex is a group of vitamins including thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12) and others. Vitamin B is found in liver, whole grains, bananas, green beans, chicken, eggs, fish, and sunflower seeds. Vitamin B deficiency can cause beriberi, digestive disturbances, degeneration of the sex glands, and neurological problems. Excessive doses of some B vitamins can also cause nervous system damage. Several B complex vitamins have been specifically implicated in memory and memory disorders. According to a 2008 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, several of the B vitamins provide nourishment for the brain. Specifically, B12 is essential for brain and nerve cell function, B6 is essential to nerve tissue, and folate is essential to cell and tissue growth.

Thiamin is found in whole grains, beans, nuts, egg yolk, fruit and vegetables. It is particularly important for the body to be able to convert carbohydrates into energy. Mild deficiencies in thiamin can result in impaired carbohydrate metabolism and irritability; severe deficiency can result in various nervous disorders including Korsakoff’s disease, characterized by severe memory disorders as well as disorientation and hallucination.

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products (e.g. meats, eggs, dairy products). Most of the B12 needed by humans is synthesized by the body, and so external sources are not normally required. However, prolonged use of antibiotics can destroy the intestinal bacteria that produce B vitamins; in such cases, a doctor often recommends the patient take a daily vitamin supplement. Vitamin B12 is essential for the formation of red blood cells. Since red blood cells carry oxygen in the bloodstream, vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia and body tissues may not get sufficient oxygen. In the brain, this can lead to neuron damage and symptoms such as mood disturbance, dementia and psychosis.

You probably know that folic acid is important in pregnancy for healthy fetal development -- but grown-ups need it, too. A large Dutch study found that over three years, people between 50 and 70 who took folic acid supplements improved their cognitive function -- the ability to think and remember. Studies in mice have found that folic acid deficiency may play a key role in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Excellent sources of folate include romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, calf's liver, parsley, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and lentils. Very good sources include squash, black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, papaya and string beans.

Bottom Line: Feed your head as you would the rest of your body to maintain and improve memory and cognition, and never miss a race.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Off Season Nutrition for Athletes

It’s getting colder and seasonal changes put a damper on our running and cycling. This means less or no outdoor exercise during the week, and fewer miles on the weekend. So how does this all impact what we eat? Well, if you were running and/or cycling approximately 15 hours a week, and now you run and/or ride half that amount you may have reduced your weekly caloric needs by almost 8,000 calories (assuming you weigh 195 pounds and ride 16-19 mph average speed). That is a reduction of 1143 calories per day. If you don't change your eating behaviors, that would lead to gaining 2 pounds a week.  Now you know why you might gain weight in the winter.

We are not bears who hibernate and need the extra fat to keep warm. Do not use winter as an excuse to yo-yo your weight. When spring time comes around and we want to run and ride longer and faster, you will have extra pounds impeding your performance. And we need extra calories to run and ride strong while training and racing. It is not a good idea to diet when you are trying to increase endurance and speed. That is why it is important to maintain or lose weight in the winter when we are running and riding less. So how do you keep from adding those extra pounds? Here are some helpful hints:

1. Eat less – This seems obvious, but it is not as easy as it seems. Over the summer when you are exercising more, you may have found that you can get away with larger portion sizes and desserts. Now that you are exercising less, you should start thinking about portion size. What is a portion? A portion of meat (steak, chicken, fish, etc.) is the size of a deck of cards. That is equivalent to 3 ounces. A portion of pasta is ½ cup and a portion of rice is 1/3 cup. Doesn’t sound like much? To make your meals appear and feel bigger, add more vegetables to your plate. Make a pasta primavera or stir-fried rice that is generous on the veggies. It will be colorful and filling.

2. Watch what you drink #1 – If you are used to drinking Gatorade, Cytomax, Accelerade or some other fluid replacement drink while you run/ride, only use it if you are exercising more than 1 ½ hours. Otherwise, you are adding unnecessary calories to your daily intake. The exception to this rule is if you are exercising in the morning without eating breakfast first.

3. Watch what you drink #2 – Alcohol adds calories. You add about 150 calories to your intake if you drink a glass of beer, a full glass of wine or a mixed drink. Not only does it add excess calories, but alcohol increases appetite so you eat more.
4. Strengthen your bones – Start a weight lifting routine. It will shape your body while improving your bone health. Weight bearing exercise strengthens bones by stimulating bone formation. However, the benefits of weight-bearing exercise are site-specific. This means that you strengthen only the bones used directly in the exercise. Therefore, it's a good idea to participate in a variety of weight-bearing exercises. To maintain the bone-building benefits, exercise should be continued on a regular basis. Weight-bearing exercises/activities include baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, weight-lifting, aerobics, dancing, running and walking. Although swimming is good exercise, it is not a weight-bearing activity.

5. Get indoors – Less outdoor running or cycling is not a bad thing. In fact, this is a great time for cross-training. Start working out at the gym, go to spinning classes, do some weight lifting, try pilates, go swimming, get boxing or dance the night away. Do a combination of activities: some that get your heart rate up and others that incorporate balance, flexibility, stretching and strength. When spring comes around, you will be ready to get rolling on the road.

6. Get outdoors – Try a new winter sport such as cross-country skiing, snow shoeing or winter hiking. They are high calorie burners and loads of fun.

If you have any questions about how to improve your nutrition or exercise over the winter, send me an email: