What’s your metabolic age?

The new age passport to an athlete’s playing longevity.

Supremely fit: Cristiano Ronaldo has a body fat percentage of 7% while most international footballers have a body fat of 11-15%.   -  Getty Images

Recently, I was watching a documentary on how football star Cristiano Ronaldo trains his body, and his training reflects the principle of absolute discipline.

When Ronaldo said his biological body age was 23 (his birth certificate age is 33) and he could play till he is 41, he was not joking. The human body can be measured with X-rays, bioimpedance and blood tests that can predict the real age of an athlete. For many years, athletes have played cat and mouse with the authorities by competing in district, state and national competitions in age groups younger than their actual age to win unfairly. Fortunately, testing by the authorities now can be used to determine fair play.

As athletes reach their age bracket and settle into adulthood, many feel that they have arrived. However, the body plays spoiler as one grows older in sport. Ageing will cause you to lose growth hormone (GH), which was once available in your younger years. GH is a molecule that helps athletes recover faster. So, after the age of 18-20 years, players’ recovery begins to diminish due to dwindling GH. Once you hit 25, it is harder to get of out bed the day after a good practice. This stark reality hits players, and before they know it they are in their 30s and their bodies are screaming for retirement.

In the last 10 years, I have had over a dozen celebrity athletes walk into my QUA Nutrition clinics only to be told that their body age was 20 years older than their birth certificate age. So, a 22-year-old is actually 42 years on the metabolic scale. As a nutrition coach, I tell players that if they want to be younger or have a longer life as a player, you have to cheat the body into believing it is younger. Ronaldo, for example, is younger in age because he has a body fat percentage of 7 per cent, while most international footballers have 11-15 per cent body fat. Most Indian athletes have above 15 per cent body fat, and when they are not on a structured nutrition plan, it may even be in the range of 20-30 per cent.

To retain a younger metabolic age, you have to cheat the body by allowing a larger muscle mass and a very low fat percentage.

Fat percentage in an athlete is measured as subcutaneous fat (under-the-skin fat) and visceral fat, which is the fat around the internal organs. In my experience, I have seen many athletes with almost acceptable subcutaneous fat percentages but really bad visceral fat levels. Visceral fat is a point scale and not a percentage. Below is a table of visceral fat percentages.

Visceral Fat levels *Measured on a bioimpedance or DEXA scan

0

Ripped six-pack abs

Athletes with powerful core

1-9

Normal

Athletes with fat storage gene

10-14

High

Athletes eating unhealthy

15-30

Very high

Athlete in serious health trouble

 

Since many of my clients will frown upon me if I make a public disclosure of their visceral fat percentages, I would give my personal example as a 43-year-old nutritionist with a visceral fat of 2.5, which allows me a reading of body age of 29 years. If I had visceral fat of 6, I would be 43, and with a visceral fat of 15, I am a grandpa at 65 years! Today, I am worried about 18-year-old players with visceral fat scores of 10 and above. They should be zero!

So why do Indians have higher visceral fat? Well, there is an abdominal gene that allows for greater fat deposition around the midriff if the diet is high in carbohydrates and low in proteins. Many years back, when cricketer Robin Uthappa decided to focus on a sports nutrition-driven weight loss plan, we analysed his eating patterns as well as the genes that were causing greater fat deposition. By knowing what mutations were present in his gene pattern, we were able to identify foods and calorie patterns that would allow him to lose around 20kg over nine months. All of this loss was fat and not muscle. It brought Robin out swinging even harder.

Every athlete today should be using nutrigenomics (the science of gene tests in relation to your nutrition and personal genome or DNA code) to determine an accurate nutrition plan rather than debating on changing the way you eat. It’s always 70 per cent nutrition and 30 per cent training to change the body.

Virat Kolhi, in his online interviews, has talked about grilled chicken and grilled fish in his diet for the last four years. Only when he has to bulk up does he add some red meat. Chapatis and rice in the Indian diet are quick to be attracted to your waistline. There is another set of genes that are coded in the human body for absorbing fats. In a nutrition plan, we know there are saturated fats (ghee and butter), monounsaturated fats (olive and almond oil) and polyunsaturated fats (canola oil and grapeseed oil), and some of these work fine for one athlete and for another athlete they may cause weight gain. For Commonwealth gold medallist powerlifter Sathish Kumar, traditional ghee will be beneficial up to 7 per cent of his total calorie intake and olive oil will actually make him put on weight. So, when he trains in Europe, I have to inform the Indian contingent or his chefs at the Games villages not to cook his food with olive oil.

If the entire Indian cricket team is eating healthy, it’s because athletes like Virat Kolhi and Shikhar Dhawan are very invested in their food habits. Their bodies are, after all, their money-spinning machines!

To learn more about nutrigenomics and sports performance and discovering your body age, email Ryan at ryan@quanutrition.com