Nutrition is one of the most overlooked aspects of being a fighter, yet it's also something every serious hobbyist or competitor needs to be serious about - not only for performance in the ring but to keep healthy in general.
Unfortunately, the world of nutrition is the "Wild West," and much of what you will read is misinformation, or something positioned as "science" but with little substantive research.
Today, we will be talking about common fad diets, bad eating habits and, most importantly, having a healthy relationship with food, in order to be the best fighters we can.
1 SMOOTHIES & PROTEIN SHAKES
I have seen, more and more often, potential athletes turning their attention away from proper eating and on to vegetable/fruit smoothies and protein shakes.
The idea behind these fruity fads is that you are "detoxing" your body and getting your nutrition in an easy way, as eating can be such a chore.
In reality, what you are doing is weakening your digestive system – if you consume all your food in liquid form, you will struggle to digest solid food whenever you stray from strictly smoothies. Additionally, it is scientifically impossible to detox (whatever that means) using smoothies, as your body will wash away the toxins it needs to on its own. If it didn’t do this, we’d all be dead.
Is a fruit/vegetable smoothie here and there a bad thing? Of course not, and if they are something you enjoy, you should absolutely drink them, but smoothies and protein shakes are supplements to your diet, not your diet itself.
2 KETO, CARNIVORES & LOW CARB DIETS
You fundamentally need carbohydrates in order to perform as a fighter. While ketogenetic diets are especially useful when you are trying to cut weight for a fight, they should not be what you primarily eat as an athlete.
While there are successful fighters on the keto diet, this does not mean that they are having their success because of said diet, and this does not mean they would not be better athletes without relying on it.
Keto diets are useful for endurance athletes, marathon runners, and the like. What they are not particularly good for are athletes performing with high intensity for shorter periods of time.
In Muay Thai, you will be fighting at most 15 minutes, with a rest every three minutes. If you’re not a pro, or if you compete more often under kickboxing rules, you’ll possibly be fighting for only nine minutes. A keto diet is not optimal for a nak muay.
Then, there is the new carnivore diet. Unlike keto, which certainly has a place in fitness, the carnivore diet is something I’m convinced is an April Fool's joke that’s gone on far too long. The carnivore diet is exactly what it sounds like, removing fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds from one's diet, and eating solely animal products. There is currently no research on the effects of a carnivore diet on a person
So, what's the issue with this diet, seemingly tailor-made to piss off vegans? If you want to be an athlete - nay, if you want to be a human with a normal functioning body, you need vegetables. You need fiber for digestion, you need folate, vitamins, and you need potassium for healthier blood pressure.
In short, eat your greens.
While neither ideal for a fighter nor for health in general, veganism is a dietary choice done usually for ethical reasons, which is why I propose supplementation and workarounds in order to make it work the best it can, though it is still far less effective than a balanced diet.
The raw truth is, if you are serious about being a professional fighter, consider at the very least going vegetarian and allowing yourself to consume eggs, milk and cheese for healthy fats and proteins.
If veganism is non-negotiable for you, you will need to ensure that either through diet or supplementation you are getting the following:
You also have to be very attentive on how you intake your protein, as vegan protein is usually worse for the body than getting it from animal products. Remember that though it is an ethical choice, it is not scientifically healthier than an omnivorous diet. The notion that it is healthier than eating meat is a myth.
I mentioned above that I recommend a competing fighter at least be a vegetarian (Shaolin warrior monks are the only Shaolin in the temple permitted to eat meat for that very reason). That being said, if eating meat causes you emotional distress, I advise you instead go for workarounds and supplementation, because of our next, and final point...
4 HAVING A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
Of course, the stock answer, is a balanced diet that ensures you get protein, carbohydrates, fat and all the vitamins and minerals to help your body function. The easiest way to get there is to eat a mix of vegetables, lean meat and grains. The specifics of what you eat depend on your own individual needs and goals.
While it is crucial that an athlete have a proper balanced diet that suits their needs, what is important and criminally overlooked is ensuring you are eating food that you like, both healthy and unhealthy.
I take issue with fat loss programs that encourage you to diet and cut out sweets, cakes, fried foods, and other unhealthy dishes. To take someone who is used to, and enjoys eating those foods, and encouraging them to completely abandon them is not only going to make eating healthy a chore, it is going to inevitably cause that person to, one day, give up on their diet.
By focusing on losing/gaining pounds, and not on health and performance, we open ourselves up for a lot of unneeded self-critique and even eating disorders.
No food is bad for you in moderation. If someone can be obese and still alive well into their 70s, there is no reason at all that having a cheat meal or day once a week will harm you.
To paraphrase renowned physical therapist, Jeff Cavalier: If a baseball player has a batting average of 90% they will be in the hall of fame as an all time great. If 90% of your diet is healthy, and 10% is junk, that 10% won’t ruin your gains.
We should not demonize unhealthy foods and try to stay away from them all the time. They are fun, and they might not be good for our health, but they can be food for our mental well-being. It feels good to have a week of great healthy eating, working out, and being allowed to treat yourself to cake, fast food, whatever you want.
Alistair Overeem himself, in an interview with Michael Schiavello (The Voice Versus) said that he will eat healthy all week, but he allows himself a McDonald's meal if he has been eating healthy.
One final point: when you are eating healthy and eating for optimum performance, you still need to eat food that you enjoy. That is why I’m not angry at the notion of someone remaining vegan and supplementing, even though I do not encourage veganism for fighters. There is no sense in eating healthy food that you do not like, for whatever reason. If you hate eggs with a burning passion, don’t eat them. It’s not worth it. You can get that nutrition from another source.
If you want healthy eating to be an important life style change for you (not to be confused with short-term dieting), you need to make sure you’re eating healthy foods that you enjoy. Don’t let your pursuit of results get in the way of being kind to yourself.
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