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:

  • Sugar

  • Brown sugar

  • Corn syrup

  • Molasses

  • Glucose

  • Sucrose

  • Galactose

  • Maltose

  • Ribose

  • Fructose

  • Lactose

  • Glucose-Fructose

  • Cane Syrup

  • Cane crystals

  • Cane sugar

  • Rice syrup

  • Rice malt

  • Anhydrous dextrose

  • Corn sweetener

  • Corn syrup solids

  • Dextrose

  • Evaporated cane juice

  • Fructose sweetener

  • Fruit juice concentrates

  • High-fructose corn syrup

  • Honey

  • Liquid fructose

  • Malt syrup

  • Malt extract

  • Maple syrup

  • Pancake syrup

  • Raw sugar

  • Concentrated fruit juice

  • Diglycerides

  • Disaccharides

  • Evaporated cane juice

  • Fructooligosaccharides

  • Maltodextrin

  • Malted barley

  • Raisin syrup

  • 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

BEVERAGES

  • 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

  • Gatorade 78

  • 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

GRAINS

  • Pearled barley, average 28

  • Sweet corn on the cob, average 60

  • Couscous, average 65

  • Quinoa 53

  • 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

  • Shortbread 64

  • 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

FRUITS

  • Apple, average 39

  • Banana, ripe 62

  • Dates, dried 42

  • Grapefruit 25

  • 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

  • Raisins 64

  • Watermelon 72

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

SNACK FOODS

  • 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

VEGETABLES

  • Green peas, average 51

  • Carrots, average 35

  • Parsnips 52

  • Baked russet potato, average 111

  • Boiled white potato, average 82

  • Instant mashed potato, average 87

  • Sweet potato, average 70

  • Yam, average 54

MISCELLANEOUS

  • 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).

Trifecta Martial Arts