Some triathletes refer to nutrition as the fourth discipline of the sport and I couldn't agree more. The more I learn as a dietetics professional, the more I am convinced that nutrition is a critical aspect for any athlete looking to achieve peak performance. That being said, nutritional strategies can be utilized to strengthen the immune system and benefiting athletes in the following ways:
Importance of Rest, Recovery & Proper Nutrition
Strong immune health begins with adequate rest, which is turn is why it’s important for athletes to work regular rest days into their schedule AND allow sufficient down time during the off season. Over-stimulus during the racing season followed by a shortened off-season (necessary in reestablishing healthy equilibrium) can lead to long term immune suppression, under-recovery and increased risk of illness/injury later on. On a more acute basis, it's important for athletes to realize they experience immunosuppression for approximately 24 hours after longer and more strenuous workouts, and this drop in immune health can be intensified without proper nutrition both during and after workouts.
“Many athletes think performance starts with training, but really it starts with fuel.”
- Nancy Clark, Sports Nutritionist and Author
Nutritional Goals to Promote Immune Health
Any athlete looking to optimize their nutrition for peak performance should start by asking themselves the following questions:
(1) Do I consume enough calories daily to support my level of training, including the correct balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat? Do I consume plentiful amounts of colorful fruits and vegetables to provide antioxidants daily?
"Energy Availability" is known as the difference between your daily food energy Intake minus the calories you expend through exercise. A chronic low energy availability over time, whether through intentional dieting to lose weight or simply eat to match training needs, can have a direct negative effect on immune health as it decreases the energy available to support normal bodily functions. Furthermore, a calorie deficit without careful consideration of diet quality can also lead to insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals related to immune health, including vitamins C, E, B6, A and D, Folate, Iron, Selenium and Zinc.
As athletes, it's important to ensure that we first eat to meet our calorie needs for training, and second to emphasize quality nutrient-dense foods within those calories. This means never skipping meals and incorporating plenty of fruits, vegetables, quality lean proteins and whole grains with each meal and snack. A few high antioxidant foods to consider to boost immune health include: grapes, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, nuts and seeds, any dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes and other orange vegetables, beans, fish and whole grains!
(2) Do I time the intake of my carbohydrate appropriately before, during and after extended training sessions?
Carbs = gas for the “tank” to fuel your muscles, brain and immune system too. Not only will insufficient carbohydrate intake during strenuous training impair your performance and recovery, but it can negatively impacts your immune health both acutely and over the long term.
(2) Do I incorporate healthy, unsaturated fats in my diet while limiting intake of saturated fat?
Instead of aiming for low-fat foods, aim to replace sources of saturated fat in your diet for healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, which support hormone production and help fight inflammation in order to keep our immune system strong. More specifically, essential fatty acids (omega-3’s and Omega-6’s) play a role in the production of eicosanoids, a class of chemical messengers involved in your body's immune and inflammatory response. To boost your intake of healthy fats, emphasize the following: avocados, nuts (especially walnuts!), sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds, olives, flaxseed and wheat germ, chia seeds and fatty fish varieties.
(3) Am I consuming enough Vitamin D through my diet? Is my Vitamin D blood level within the appropriate right range?
While we are able to naturally synthesize Vitamin D through sun exposure, it’s not uncommon for Vitamin D levels to drop off in the winter when colder whether forces us inside more. Low Vitamin D levels have a direct effect not only on bone health, but immune health as well, and it’s never a bad idea to have your levels checked by your primary care physician. To optimize your dietary intake of Vitamin D, aim to consume a few of these foods daily: Cod Liver Oil, oily fish (trout, salmon, swordfish, mackeral, tuna and sardines), mushrooms, fortified cereals, tofu, dairy products, pork and eggs.
(4) Do I consume foods with naturally occurring probiotics to improve my gut health?
Gut health has a direct impact on both the health of our brain and our immune system. By incorporating foods into our diet with natural probiotics, we are feeding the healthy bacteria in our gut and in turn strengthening our immune system. For natural sources of probiotics, eat more of the following: yogurts and cheeses, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, sour pickles and kombucha.
(5) Do I flavor my foods with healthy herbs & spices?
Many of the herbs and spices that we use to flavor our foods also have potent anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties. Using more herbs and spices while cooking is an EASY way to bump up the nutrient density of your diet without adding extra bulk or calories. EASY! Garlic, onion, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon are a few herbs and spices that top the list in regards to their immune boosting properties!
So how did you do? I know personally I did NOT do well with eating for immune health in my 2014 season and I paid the price for it both physically and mentally. It took careful planning and me making intentional changes to my diet for the 2015 season to ensure I was able to train strong consistently all year long and reach my goals. If your nutrition is currently not up to par with where you want it to be, take assessment of what changes you need to make, set some goals, and realize a registered dietitian can help :)
Special thanks to my current dietetic intern, Grace Hatfield, for her assistance in writing this post. Look for Grace to share a little more about the importance of Vitamin D for athletes (& the general population) next week and check back Friday for the Salmon Pesto Salad recipe pictured above!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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