5 Basics of Martial Arts Nutrition
You know what’s funny?
If I told someone – anyone – that they could only drive one car for the rest of their life then they would take amazing care of that car.
No cheap waterlogged Tijuana gas would ever go into that fuel tank, and only the highest grade synthetic lubricants would be used for oil changes.
If you can never replace that vehicle then you would do everything you can to make it last forever.
But instead of cars, now consider your body. With current technology you only get one body, so why aren’t we all completely paranoid about what we put into our stomachs when we’re eating?
Or, put another way, why are we filling our bodies with crap?
If you’re reading this you probably love to train, right?
Well nutrition is absolutely critical for optimising energy levels, increasing your ability to train, and helping you recover quickly from your martial arts workouts. Oh, it’s also pretty important for not dying prematurely!
Unfortunately nutrition is also a legitimately complicated topic, because what you should put in your mouth depends on your genetics, body composition, age, current fitness levels, goals in the sport, and much more.
And of course there’s a ton of conflicting nutrition advice out there too. Different self proclaimed ‘experts’ will pontificate endlessly about high fat vs low fat diets, keto vs vegan, bacon vs kale chips… I’ve heard it all.
However some nutritional facts are pretty cut and dried. Almost everyone agrees on them, so let’s start with those.
Here are my top 5 tips for good nutrition:
Nutrition Tip 1 – Sugar is the Enemy
Just about everybody agrees that a diet high in sugar is bad for you. It makes you fat, gives you diabetes, increases the chances of cancer, is addictive, and more. It’s evil, so avoid it.
Sadly a lot of people include sugar in every single meal, especially when you factor in hidden sugars (more on this later).
Generally the less sugar you eat the better you’ll perform in your sport and the healthier you’ll be. I’ve had relatives die of type 2 (i.e. self inflicted) diabetes; it’s a horrible death from essentially an optional disease that people get from eating too much sugar.
Of course sugar is incredibly addictive. Sugar screws with your brain dopamine levels so weaning yourself off of sugar and resisting the cravings is a lot easier said than done.
Just how a smokers trying to quit often need to try quitting multiple times, weaning yourself off of sugar can take some time. But every effort helps.
Obviously you want to avoid candies, sweets, sodas, ice cream, ‘sports drinks’, etc.
Want to know something scary? 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams. A can of red bull has 27 grams of sugar, which is just under 7 teaspoons of sugar.
Would you sit there and stuff 7 teaspoons of sugar into your mouth? Probably not!
But sugar is snuck into all kinds of food, including many that you don’t suspect. So you have to make looking at the list of ingredients on food labels.
As you probably already know, ingredients on a label are listed in order of quantity; the most abundant ingredient is listed first, the second most abundant ingredient is listed second, and so on.
Trouble is, food manufacturers can hide sugar in the label by calling it different names.
So if ingredients 3, 4 and 5 are different forms of sugar, then sugar might actually be the single most abundant ingredient…
Here for your reference are some (but not all) the names of sugar hiding in our food:
Corn syrup solids
Evaporated cane juice
Fruit juice concentrates
High-fructose corn syrup
Concentrated fruit juice
Evaporated cane juice
Rice syrup Etc. Etc. Etc.
Nutrition Tip 2 – Know What Glycemic Index Is
There’s a really important term that you need to wrap your brain around; it’s called ‘glycemic index’ or ‘GI’.
When it comes to eating healthy it’s not only how many calories you take in; it’s how quickly those calories you do ingest end up in your bloodstream.
You already know this…
Eat pure sugar and it’ll first spike your blood sugar, and then, a few hours later, your blood sugar will crash. You’ll feel tired and lethargic, and also be unconsciously driven to start hunting for your next sugar fix.
Instead you generally want to eat food that gives you a long, slow burn rather than the quick hit followed by a crash.
Glycemic index is a number, typically ranging from about 10 to 100, that tells you how quickly the calories from that food show up in your bloodstream as sugar.
Two simple examples….
Glucose has a GI of 100. That’s high, so if you eat a bunch of glucose it’ll spike your blood sugar very quickly.
But if you eat the same number of calories of black beans (GI = 30) then it’ll take much longer for your blood sugar to spike, so you’ll get a much more even burn. This is better for you!
In general, the more fiber, fat and protein a food contains the lower the glycemic index will be.
That’s why brown rice is better than white rice, and why yams are better than white potatoes.
Conversely, the more added sugars then the higher the Glycemic Index will be.
Kellogs Corn Flakes contain both sugar (ingredient number 2) and barley malt extract (ingredient number 4), which is why they have a GI of 93. So basically you’re having candy for breakfast.
Oatmeal, by contrast, only has a GI of 55.
Now you can get really complicated about this topic and start talking in terms of Glycemic Loads and biochemical individuality, but let’s get the basics down first…
Step 1: start learning what high and low glycemic index foods
Step 2: start favouring the low glycemic foods then you’ll avoid the sugar roller coaster and have more even energy throughout the day. And also avoid those pesky diseases like diabetes, which is always a plus.
To help you get started, here’s a list of some glycemic index values (from this page) for some common foods and ingredients…
GLYCEMIC INDEX BASELINE
Pure Glucose = 100
BAKERY PRODUCTS AND BREADS
Banana cake, made with sugar 47
Banana cake, made without sugar 55
Sponge cake, plain 46
Vanilla cake made from packet mix with vanilla frosting (Betty Crocker) 42
Apple, made with sugar 44
Apple, made without sugar 48
Waffles, Aunt Jemima (Quaker Oats) 76
Bagel, white, frozen 72
Baguette, white, plain 95
Coarse barley bread, 75-80% kernels, average 34
Hamburger bun 61
Kaiser roll 73
Pumpernickel bread 56
50% cracked wheat kernel bread 58
White wheat flour bread 71
Wonder™ bread, average 73
Whole wheat bread, average 71
100% Whole Grain™ bread (Natural Ovens) 51
Pita bread, white 68
Corn tortilla 52
Wheat tortilla 30
Coca Cola®, average 63
Fanta®, orange soft drink 68
Lucozade®, original (sparkling glucose drink) 95
Apple juice, unsweetened, average 44
Cranberry juice cocktail (Ocean Spray®) 68
Orange juice, unsweetened 50
Tomato juice, canned 38
“BREAKFAST CEREALS AND RELATED PRODUCTS”
All-Bran™, average 55
Coco Pops™, average 77
Cornflakes™, average 93
Cream of Wheat™ (Nabisco) 66
Cream of Wheat™, Instant (Nabisco) 74
Grapenuts™, average 75
Muesli, average 66
Oatmeal, average 55
Instant oatmeal, average 83
Puffed wheat, average 80
Raisin Bran™ (Kellogg’s) 61
Special K™ (Kellogg’s) 69
Pearled barley, average 28
Sweet corn on the cob, average 60
Couscous, average 65
White rice, average 89
Quick cooking white basmati 67
Brown rice, average 50
Converted, white rice (Uncle Ben’s®) 38
Whole wheat kernels, average 30
Bulgur, average 48
COOKIES AND CRACKERS
Graham crackers 74
Vanilla wafers 77
Rice cakes, average 82
Rye crisps, average 64
Soda crackers 74
DAIRY PRODUCTS AND ALTERNATIVES
Ice cream, regular 57
Ice cream, premium 38
Milk, full fat 41
Milk, skim 32
Reduced-fat yogurt with fruit, average 33
Apple, average 39
Banana, ripe 62
Dates, dried 42
Grapes, average 59
Orange, average 40
Peach, average 42
Peach, canned in light syrup 40
Pear, average 38
Pear, canned in pear juice 43
Prunes, pitted 29
BEANS AND NUTS
Baked beans, average 40
Blackeye peas, average 33
Black beans 30
Chickpeas, average 10
Chickpeas, canned in brine 38
Navy beans, average 31
Kidney beans, average 29
Lentils, average 29
Soy beans, average 15
Cashews, salted 27
Peanuts, average 7
PASTA and NOODLES
Fettucini, average 32
Macaroni, average 47
Macaroni and Cheese (Kraft) 64
Spaghetti, white, boiled, average 46
Spaghetti, white, boiled 20 min, average 58
Spaghetti, wholemeal, boiled, average 42
Corn chips, plain, salted, average 42
Fruit Roll-Ups® 99
M & M’s®, peanut 33
Microwave popcorn, plain, average 55
Potato chips, average 51
Pretzels, oven-baked 83
Snickers Bar® 51
Green peas, average 51
Carrots, average 35
Baked russet potato, average 111
Boiled white potato, average 82
Instant mashed potato, average 87
Sweet potato, average 70
Yam, average 54
Hummus (chickpea salad dip) 6
Chicken nuggets, frozen, reheated in microwave oven 5 min 46
Pizza, plain baked dough, served with parmesan cheese and tomato sauce 80
Pizza, Super Supreme (Pizza Hut) 36
Honey, average 61
Nutrition Tip 3 – Avoid Trans Fat
This next tip is a quick one!
Avoid trans fat at all costs.
Trans fat is a type of fat that isn’t commonly found in nature. It’s manufactured and included in food because it’s more stable than regular fats. Typically it’s used in baking, frying, fast food, and products that have to sit on the shelf for a long time.
But it’s unambiguous that trans fats are terrible for your body. They cause heart disease, and are linked to many other kinds of terrible health problems.
They’re good for commercial bakers and deep frying restaurants but not so good for you.
Currently trans fats are officially to be eliminated in the United States after June 18th of 2018, and many other countries are also taking steps to eliminate or reduce them.
Still, trans fats are something to keep track of because you might travel to another country where they’re still allowed and also, who knows what kind of workarounds the lobbying efforts of the big food corporations will achieve.
Bottom line: if there’s Trans Fat in something: don’t eat it!
Nutrition Tip 4 – Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Your mom was right – eat more vegetables.
Unprocessed vegetables are the ultimate supplement. Stuffed with fiber, antioxidants, nutrients, vitamins and minerals, plus generally low gycemic index values as well.
Half your plate should be full of veggies.
The more different kinds colourful vegetables you eat the better off you are. Peppers, kale, carrots, peas, squash, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, celery, bok choi…
Similarly fruits and berries are also really good for you, the only drawback being that they can be high in sugar and a correspondingly higher glycemic index.
But for most people the benefits of eating more raw fruits and berries outweigh any possible drawback.
Now, two important caveats…
Potatoes are not vegetables! They are high glycemic index, starch-packed sugar bombs.
Also, fruit juice is not fruit! All the fiber and many of the nutrients have been strained, cooked and processed out of the fruit by the time it makes it into the bottle of juice.
It’s incredibly easy to drink 1000 calories of apple juice. Compare that to the 20 apples you’d need to eat to get 1000 calories of the raw fruit!
Nutrition Tip 5 – Workout Nutrition
For athletes the two most important meals of the day are what you eat right before training and right after training.
The first meal ensures that you have a good workout.
The next meal helps you recover and get ready for the next one.
These are also the times that it’s actually OK to include a bit of sugar in your food.
Normally when your blood sugar spikes your body pulls the excess sugar out of the blood and jams it into fat cells.
But if you’re busy working out then that extra blood sugar will get burned up. Of if you’ve just finished working out that same sugar will be used to replenish your body’s supplies of muscular glycogen.
When it comes to eating before a workout you have to experiment and find out what works for you. It’s a dance between having a full stomach (which would be bad) and having enough energy to train.
For me personally, a slice of whole wheat toast with almond butter plus about half a litre of water 30 minutes before training works great.
Other people prefer bananas and a protein bar, so you have to find out what works for you.
After your workout you’re usually depleted and dehydrated, so make sure to drink something and eat something as soon as possible after you stop exercising.
For water don’t just sip at the drinking fountain – that’s subjective and you probably won’t drink enough. Instead have a water bottle with you of a known volume and drink that: I typically guzzle an entire 1 litre bottle filled just with water right after a workout.
Food after a workout is also really important. Training damages your body and breaks down your muscles. Eating something with some protein and carbohydrates can actually jumpstart your recovery and start healing the little bits of damage you’ve done to yourself.
This way you’ll be able to train again harder and sooner.
To give you more specifics on this topic, here’s part of an article I wrote years ago on Grapplearts.com. Hopefully you’ll get some concrete ideas on what your pre and post workout nutrition might look like…
THE PREWORKOUT MEAL
(c. 10 minutes before exercise)
This is a chance to get some liquid, fuel (sugar and carbohydrates) and electrolytes into your body before your workout, giving it something to burn up and sweat out. The addition of a small amount of protein helps limit muscle breakdown. A typical preworkout meal might consist of:
12 oz of water
20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose and/or maltodextrin)
5 to 10 grams of protein (e.g. whey protein)
electrolytes (mostly sodium, potassium and magnesium)
THE POSTWORKOUT MEAL
(within 45 minutes of finishing exercise)
This feeding gets nutrients into your body at a time when it needs them most and also when it is most receptive to them (the ‘anabolic window’ window again). A typical postworkout meal might look like this:
Lots of water
20 to 30 grams protein
80 to 100 grams carbohydrate
electrolytes (e.g. sodium, potassium, magnesium)
These formulations have a lot of carbohydrates, and that’s not random or accidental. Many athletes are so fixated on protein that they overlook carbohydrates, but carbs help replenish your body’s energy supplies AND have stimulate your body to build more muscle.
If I had to choose between a postworkout meal consisting either of carbs or protein I’d go with the carbohydrates every time (but obviously having a mix of protein and carbohydrate is the best).