Friend, fellow cyclist, and all round good egg @repsychlist has generously offered to share with me some of his thoughts on diet and nutrition.

He really knows his stuff, so we decided to break things up into a series of focused bite-sized chunks. (no doubt because the piece I’m sure is coming on Sugar will be a real mouthful)! So keep an eye out for the next installment, which we’re already cooking up.

Diet is an area in which I have a lot of room for improvement. Despite best intentions, I still probably don’t eat the correct food for optimum performance. I’m really looking forward to hearing what Frank has to say over the coming weeks.!

This is part 1 of an occasional guest blog series that @rmalpass has agreed to host. Anyone who has the misfortune to know me has had to endure my tirades about food (and I’m very grateful to you all for being so tolerant), and so it occurred to me that I should ‘piss or get off the pot’ by writing some of my views down for you to have a crack at. My apologies if it seems to you that I am simply stating the bleedingly obvious; all I know is that quite a few of the people I talk with know very little about the food they’re eating. This series is, in fact, just a slightly more polished (hopefully) amalgamation of the many text replies I’ve been sending recently in response to questions from cycling friends.

First of all a disclaimer: I’m writing this as a scientist, though not specifically in the field of nutrition or physiology; so it doesn’t matter what I think (philosophy) or believe (theology), it’s the facts that count. Evidence is incomplete, constantly evolving and subject to interpretation; and I am certainly not familiar with all of it. This is a blog, after all, not a peer-reviewed referenced article; but if you really want to slug it out (or just want to know more) we could get into that. One of the joys of science is that it’s really cool when someone else points out new evidence that improves understanding, even if that means you have to change your mind. So go ahead and tell me about something you know that supports or challenges what I say in this series. But remember, this is not a philosophy or theology blog, or a hang-out for troll…

Basic principles: More protein, less carbohydrate

Protein requires 20-35% of its (in vitro) calories to digest, absorb and distribute around the temple that is your body; the figures for carbohydrate and fat are 5-15%; this is an example of how, in your body (in vivo) as opposed to measurement in the laboratory (in vitro), ‘a calorie is NOT a calorie’. Protein also promotes satiety (trans: delays hunger), essentially because it takes longer to digest (to be technical, reduced gut motility and modulating a variety of chemical messengers) so your temple sends you ‘full’ signals for longer. This is especially true for cured meat and fish, such as smoked salmon and Parma ham, and lightly cooked meats as cooking breaks down protein making it easier (calorifically less costly) to digest. Don’t eat pink pork or chicken, though, because of specific bacteria and parasites that must be zapped by thorough cooking.

Meat, fish and eggs are high protein foods. Visibly lean meat with excess fat trimmed is typically 10-15% ‘unhealthy’ (saturated) fat whereas salami and paté are 30% and more; fish is generally lower in fat than lean meat, and the fats are considered ‘healthy’ (unsaturated). Of course, it also depends on how the meat or fish is cooked and whether it’s bathed in gravy or sauce. Eggs, seeds and nuts are high in protein but remember that nuts in particular also contain a lot of (healthy) fats so don’t guzzle them. Whey powder (as in ‘curds & whey’; technically, the liquid fraction from curdling milk, and usually concentrated to boost the protein to 80% whilst reducing lactose and fat) and wheat germ (technically, the seed embryo – rich in protein, healthy fat and lots of lovely minerals and vitamins – milled off in the production of white flour) are great for boosting protein without resorting to eating too much meat and dairy which is important as we’re also trying to limit (saturated) fat both for health and calories. I’ve focussed on foods particularly rich in protein, but it’s important to remember that there is protein in many other foods, and vegetarians in particular will be eating a lot of pulses.

Exercise increases the need to supply protein building blocks ie amino acids. Traditionally, power athletes were considered to need a high protein diet and endurance athletes a high carbohydrate diet. Current opinion is that increased protein in the diet is beneficial for endurance as well as power athletes. I’m making a conscious decision here not to get into technicalities. In practice this might mean, for example, swapping half your breakfast muesli for mixed seeds, and getting into a mindset of having protein rather than carbohydrate snacks and rewards in terms of your general diet.

The Bottom Line

Increasing the proportion of protein in your diet will help with weight control and promote adaptation to training. Trans: eat more protein to go faster, especially up hill!