When training also involves the taste buds

Eating happens first with the mind, then with the eyes, then the nose, and finally the taste buds. When athletes travel abroad, they get homesick! This is where they begin to lose performance.

Reworking the diet: Shikhar Dhawan’s new sports diet is eating balanced food without giving any thought to pleasure.   -  Getty Images

When cricketer Shikhar Dhawan first met me a few years ago, my first statement to him was “Athletes have no taste buds.” He laughed and said his fit Australian wife keeps introducing him to healthy dishes, but he misses his roti, butter chicken and milk.

Things have changed dramatically since then. With advanced sports nutrition counselling and sports diet planning, our team has been able to rewire Shikhar’s taste buds and his thinking on fuelling right. Shikhar’s lightning century in South Africa recently reflects his new sports diet: eating balanced food without giving any thought to pleasure.

The hunger to win

A lot of Indian athletes eat well at home. Here it is easy to get pan-India cuisines wherever you travel. However, once you travel beyond our shores, getting home-cooked food and food of your desire is difficult, if not impossible. The Commonwealth Games are scheduled in April. And in the later half of the year, the Asian Games will be closely watched by over a billion Indians. If athletes are to win, they need to have a hunger greater than what they have for desi dishes. The hunger to win, and not of the taste buds, depends on practice and training the mind to accept whatever they eat. It is a nightmare for a sports nutritionist to realign eating patterns, calorie consumption balance, accuracy of proteins and carbohydrates, as well as choices of dishes. Working with athletes, it sometimes takes me almost two full years to get a desired response from their compliance. I am glad that these days athletes are becoming aware that diet plays a crucial role in their performance.

Indian diets are easy to manipulate in the minds of the athletes. However, when it comes to overseas training and performance, we have to work on a whole new level.

Eating happens first with the mind, then with the eyes, then the nose, and finally the taste buds. When athletes travel abroad, they get homesick! This is where they begin to lose performance. The moment the athlete says, “I miss home. I am not getting good, tasty food,” he has lost the plot.

Every athlete in India needs to realign his/her thinking of food choices. It starts with the conscious ability to choose foods outside your comfort zone. In Shikhar Dhawan’s case, his Australian wife cooks for him continental dishes. So, while travelling, he is very comfortable tasting food that is not culturally aligned to his living.

So for India to win medals and be at the top slot, we need to acknowledge that we will not eat with the taste buds but with the mind.

So what does the athlete need to do? I saw the solution almost a decade ago, at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. They had hired two chefs with the knowledge of international cuisine. The student athletes from all parts of India had a timetable of the dishes — Cuban dishes, Russian stew, Polish pasta, Mongolian buuz (a variety of dumpling) and more than 10 different dishes over 30 mandated meals in a week. The athletes had complaints about nearly 30% of the dietary choices, but they were being disciplined by the Army thought process. Now, when I give these choices to athletes and youngsters looking to play for the country, I see scepticism in what I am preaching. Why? Everybody wants the easy way out. Oh! Usain Bolt likes chicken nuggets and Michael Phelps eats pizza and at McDonald’s.

‘Start young, start small’

Well, every Indian who has gone abroad to study and play has put on weight. A teenage sprint queen, who worked with me for a year, went to the US on a track and field scholarship. Fully paid, it was like a dream for her until she had to balance school work and coaching practice. With no time to cook healthy meals, she ordered pizza and takeaways for a whole year. The Indian gene, unfortunately, has a potential to store high fat. This is what my athlete faced — a whopping 8 kg weight gain in a year. Imagine what that does to your speed on the track. She eventually lost her scholarship!

I tell all my athletes, upwards of eight years, ‘start young, start small.’ One foreign meal (which is not from our country) per week. By the end of the year, you should balance your food with a plan, eating at least 50% foreign cuisines. This will ensure that your mind, your stomach and your muscles will not grumble when the time to perform arrives.

There is a huge list of foreign dishes that are tasty and suitable for sports recovery. I will list a few in the hope that athletes reading this will begin training in earnest, not only physically but with their taste buds too.

International dishes to fuel performance

Pasta: A energy giving food, pasta can be bland. So it is tweaked with sauces that give it flavour. The great thing about pasta is that its protein and vegetable content can be bumped up. Being high on carbohydrates, pasta is an excellent post workout meal option. Noodles in India is huge. Just think of pasta as being a relative of noodles. Many athletes carry with them instant noodles. This is an absolute ‘NO’ from my desk.

Dumplings: Dumplings can be mini-booster calorie snacks. With both veg and non-veg fillings, they can really be easy to get and consume. They are clean on almost everybody’s palate. Imagine dumplings as an all-rounder wherever you travel in the world.

Steak & Vegetables: Grilled meat and sauteed vegetables with a serving of herb rice or potatoes can be a year-long love affair for any Indian athlete. Training your taste buds to accept neutral sauces will take you about three months.

Oatmeal & ragi porridges: If you are stuck on an island with no food, this is one thing you can eat year long. Remember, you don’t need taste, you need nutrition. Consumption of foods based on cost and convenience, rather than nutritional value, can eventually ‘slow down’ athletes, making them incapable of performing to their full potential. However, with a guided sports nutrition plan, a travelling athlete can maintain a nutrient-rich, high-energy and high-performance diet. India’s top-ranked golfer Shubhankar Sharma has a big issue when he travels across the world. An Indian and a pure vegetarian means he has to go prepared, or else he will not fuel right. We are now working on his global cuisine diet by planning his foods based on the hotel and venue menus. A little planning will go a long way in putting him among the global medal winners.