Let nutrition be the base of your success

Lack of nutrition awareness, unscientific way of eating, overall attitude towards diet, and cultural food beliefs in general, are at the heart of the performance disparity between Indian and foreign athletes.

Right diet: An Indian athlete should know how to really differentiate the good foods, bad foods and foods that one takes for performance.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Following the best-ever medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian athletes have set the bar high for Paris 2024. A lot will be expected out of them in the next Olympics. Athletes themselves are coming forward openly stating their ambition for Paris Olympics 2024.

For me this is a mix of confidence and dedication. They could have easily decided to rest on these laurels, but they have decided to better themselves.

One of the key sentiments among these Olympic medal winners is that the Indian athletes’ adaptation to sports performance diet lacks the precision in comparison to their foreign counterparts.

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Lack of nutrition awareness, unscientific way of eating, overall attitude towards diet, and cultural food beliefs in general, are at the heart of the performance disparity between Indian and foreign athletes.

There is conscious and stubborn efforts towards putting up a structure in place to find talent at an early age and put them under the guided supervision of a coach. However the casual approach towards diet and not putting the young talent under supervision of a sports nutritionist still puzzles me.

When we construct a house, we don’t give it the right raw materials at the final stage, rather the right type of raw materials are provided from the start to lay a strong foundation that can last longer. Similarly, for athletes to grow into stronger, fitter professional champions and have a long sporting career, they require right nutritional guidance from the beginning.

Height growth and injury prevention are one of the many advantages of healthy eating. It also helps to reduce muscle fatigue and discomfort, strengthens the immune system, increases energy level, improves focus and attention span and speeds up muscle healing and recovery.

For the Tokyo Olympics, I had worked with 11 athletes on their Olympic nutrition plans and they had confessed to me in private that had they knew how to eat for performance at an early age they could have done much better. In fact, many athletes are now vocal and share on public platform the nutrition indiscipline of Indian athletes. It was evident that gold medallist Neeraj Chopra kept away from a highly loaded, high sugar, high fat traditional dessert churma, while P. V. Sindhu told the Prime Minister she was missing eating ice cream. Both these player represented the nutritional awareness of WHAT NOT TO EAT! However, does the Indian athlete know how to really differentiate the good foods, bad foods and foods that one takes for performance? We had a boxer saying that the physio of the shooting team was advising her on her weight management. No one understands that a physiotherapist or a trainer is not the sports diet expert. The former coach of the New Zealand women’s hockey team, Marc Lammers, once said in an India sports performance conclave that they had over 35 support staff for their hockey team. This include multiple coaches, physios, trainers, masseurs and even two fashion designers to make sure the women dress and felt like top stars in the Olympics. They had one designated nutritionist for each player and that nutritionist was shadowing the player for three years prior to the Olympics.

Our players realise this lack of support staff, especially in the nutrition arena. This realisation occurs when they travel for matches and compete with their foreign counterparts. While we are still struggling to raise nutrition awareness among the athletes, the foreign athletes are miles ahead in terms of scientifically planning their nutrition. I remember two-time Olympic medal winner Sushil Kumar having me plan his diets for both Beijing and London Olympics. His coach Yashwir said in Cuba they saw that the nutritionist played a key role in a wrestler’s performance. He gave me crucial support and a free hand to help Sushil change his diet.

Embracing performance science with nutrition as the key, before you buy 177 javelins, may be a start. There is a lot the government can do in terms of understanding what needs to be done and then outsourcing this task. As a sports nutritionist, I insist the No. 1 task is to have a nutrition performance think-tank that designs the eating psychology of the Indian athlete. From there you move into the sport. It is a science and needs experts spearheading a transition for diet in the Indian Olympic contingent for Paris 2024.

How do you integrate science to your diet?

Genetics: Do a gene test, identify your strong and weak points. For example if you know that you are allergic to milk, you work to identify alternative foods to meet your nutrient needs. In India, the common notion is milk is a must for an athlete to get power. What if it’s taking away your power to compete by troubling your gut?

Body composition analysis: Do you know how much is muscle-fat ratio in your body? Are you aware that when you try to lose weight you are also at the risk of losing muscles? How are you determining your calorie needs for training, resting and competition days? A body composition analysis tests several parameters to ensure that you are eating for performance.

Blood chemistry markers: It gives the inside picture of your body and provides with information such as nutritional deficiencies, inflammation markers, medical concerns, allowing to better understand performance and nutrition.

Bio individual eating: You will require an expert’s support that can help you identify specific nutrition requirements of your body. Nutrition science is complex and needs someone with relevant background to understand and interpret nuances of food nutrients.

Scientific structured plan: Any gain from your hardwork in training can easily be nullified in one session of bad eating. To reap the benefits of training you need disciplined eating. Choosing the right food, in right quantity and eating at the right time is essential. Your calorie requirements will be different during training days, rest days, competition days, travelling days and during injury recovery. The food on the plate should reflect your day’s plan. When you scientifically plan nutrition intake throughout the day, week, month and year, each cell in the body will get the right nourishment to perform at its peak.

The coaches and parents’ role is critical towards developing nutrition awareness among athletes for an overall development. A nutrition coach by your side will allow you to focus on other essential things, while the nutritionist takes end-to-end care of your the athlete’s nutrition needs.

I can feel a buzz in the environment. India’s performance at the Tokyo Olympics has given an uplift to all. May be it’s the right time to emphasise on the importance of nutrition.

Sports nutrition is a key area for any athletic performance and without its proper planning it will be nearly impossible to realise your full potential. I hope the Sports Minister and the coaches are listening. I have just privately enrolled 25 athletes to Paris Olympics on a long term diet strategy program.

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