What is a “Balanced Diet” anyway?

Nutrition plays an enormous role in health and human performance. Nutrition is a complex field and unfortunately often oversimplified. Diet is critical to performance outcomes and optimizing energy stores for human performance. Because different substrates are utilized to greater or lesser degrees during exercise, the definition of a “balanced” diet would varies based on the training stimulus. And what might constitute a balanced diet for a cross country athlete may not be adequate for an athlete in a power sport, and vice versa. A female cross country athlete may experience anemia as a result of intense training, and a power lifter may experience significant protein catabolism after a lift if he is not eating properly. Both demonstrate different training- induced nutrient deficiencies that must be met in a “balanced” diet program.

Everyone wants a quick, simple, cookie-cutter solution to lose weight and save the world from the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, these methods are oversimplified at best and fail to acknowledge health as a multi-dimensional issue and one for which the extent and context of health not only varies for anthropomorphic characteristics such as height, weight, age, training status,etc., but also varies culturally, socially, economically, and on the basis of education. We cannot fail to acknowledge, better yet emphasize, that “the solution” must accommodate the perceptions and social norms across different cultures and economic privileges.

That’s why it is imperative we do not fall into the trap of thinking all calories are the same. The type of calories consumed does matter. And the timing of those calories is critical to optimal body composition as well. Increased consumption of refined, processed, chemically altered foods (artificial sugars, high fructose corn syrup, etc.), whether from fast-food sources or not, play an implicit adverse role in specific endocrine responses (cortisol stress response, insulin response, adipose-estrogen responses, and metabolic syndromes) in addition to modifying the epigenome (Jankord & Herman, 2008).

For optimal performance outcomes, it is important to understand the role of macronutrients in the progression and prevention of disease. For example, many individuals have high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose. An individual with high total cholesterol, high LDL and low HDL cholesterol would need to reduce the amount of saturated fats in the diet and increase omega-3 fats through consumption of foods such as quality fish, raw almonds, flax seeds (or supplement), and increasing the amount of fiber and daily exercise (McArdle, Katch & Katch, 1999). Someone with high blood pressure may need to go on a low salt and possibly modified carbohydrate diet – especially if there is a past history of fluid in the pericardial sack. And of course, a diabetic will need significant modifications to the the diet to improve outcomes.

We often recognize the importance of diet once something has gone wrong – high blood pressure, the onset of environmentally induced diabetes. What’s hard to get people to understand is the importance of diet and exercise before lifestyle behaviors get out of hand. That is why it is imperative that we as individuals take responsibility for our own wellbeing by understanding the role and function of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in human performance.

References

Jankord R., Herman P. (2008). Limbic regulation of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical function during acute and chronic stress. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1114, 64-73.

McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (1999). Sports and Exercise Nutrition. (4thed). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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