Pro Athletes Can Up Their Game by Adopting a Natural, Organic Lifestyle and So Can You

Story at-a-glance -

  • Eating real food is a foundational basic for optimizing your health and physical performance. If it’s beneficial for the “regular Joe,” you can be sure it’s going to be beneficial for athletes as well
  • A key factor that determines quality of animal protein is whether or not the animal was raised on pasture, opposed to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO)
  • Rather than loading up on carbs, loading up on healthy fats and small amounts of protein will typically improve athletic endurance

By Dr. Mercola

If you want your body to perform optimally, you need real food and all-natural nutrients. This is commonsense advice for everyone, but perhaps of particular importance for athletes.

Although you'd think professional athletes would know better, many still make unwise food- and lifestyle choices. This is largely related to the fact that they are mostly young and their body can compensate for foolish food choices (think Michael Phelps).

With all the exercise they get, the damaging effects of poor food choices tend to be held at bay longer than for someone who is sedentary, but sooner or later it does catch up with you, and athletes who take a more natural, whole foods approach usually find it really does give them an edge.

The fact is, a high-sugar, high-refined carb diet makes you more prone to muscle and joint deterioration and injury. Who knows how many careers have been cut short due to diminishing skills or injuries?

Right now, I'm thrilled for my hometown hockey team, which has performed exceptionally well, and I congratulate Duncan Keith on his personal achievements in particular.

Duncan is one high-level professional hockey player who decided to take control of his health, and is reaping the rewards of improved performance and well-being.

The Importance of Real Food

First and foremost, eating real food is a foundational basic for optimizing your health—and your physical performance. If it's beneficial for the "regular Joe," you can be sure it's going to be beneficial for athletes as well.

Choosing organic, whole (meaning unprocessed) foods, grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or genetically engineered organisms (GMO) is key, as avoiding toxins is just as important as getting a wide variety of nutrients.

While conventionally-grown and organic crops often contain about the same amount of nutrients, one key nutritional difference between them is their antioxidant content. 

Research1 has shown organic fruits and vegetables can contain anywhere from 18-69 percent more antioxidants than conventionally-grown varieties. Many of these antioxidants have been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.

Unfortunately, the nutrient content of foods has dramaticallydeclined across the board since the introduction of mechanized farming in 1925. As a general rule, it's the health of the soil that to a large degree dictates the quality of the food, 2,3 with healthy microbe-rich soil producing higher levels of nutrients in the crop.

Mechanical, chemical-based farming destroys the soil, thereby making it more challenging to grow healthy nutritious foods. Processing has further worsened the nutritional value of the standard American diet (SAD).

The sad fact is, most of the food consumed by Americans today is not real food—it's genetically engineered (GE), saturated with pesticides and added chemicals, and processed in a number of different ways. Many are so used to pre-packaged foods, they struggle to understand what realfood is.

How to Identify Real Food

If you fall into this category, here's a quick summary of real food versus the processed "food products" that most people eat:

Real food Processed food products
Is grown (above or below ground) in healthy microbe-rich soils that are being regenerated by sustainable land management practices Grown in depleted, chemical-doused soils, and/or produced or manufactured in whole or in part in a factory
Has variable quality, taste, and texture Has uniform quality, taste, and texture
Spoils quickly Can stay "fresh" for weeks, months or years
Requires preparation when cooking Quick, convenient, no-prep cooking
Is authentically flavorful and colorful Flavored and colored with chemicals
Has strong cultural connections and heritage Has no cultural connections
Grown without, or with minimal, agricultural chemicals Grown with chemicals
Not genetically altered Often contains genetically engineered ingredients
Contains no added growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs Grown with hormones, antibiotics, and/or other drugs
Does not contain artificial anything, nor chemical preservatives Contains artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, fillers, nano technology, and more
Grown with the laws of nature in mind (meaning animals are fed their native diets, not a mix of grains and animal byproducts, and have free-range access to the outdoors) Grown with profits and high-yield performance in mind
Grown in a sustainable way (using minimal amounts of water, protecting the soil from burnout, and turning animal wastes into natural fertilizers instead of environmental pollutants) Grown in an unsustainable way, such as large mono-crop factory farms, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that raise thousands, or tens of thousands, of animals in an unnatural factory-style environment

The Importance of Grass-Fed Meats and Wild-Caught Fish

While most will benefit from high-quality animal protein, it's particularly important for athletes. As a general rule, I suggest keeping your protein intake to one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass to avoid the risks associated with excessive protein consumption. Athletes (and pregnant women), however, typically need about 25 percent more.

But what constitutes "high quality"? One key factor that has a tremendous bearing on the quality is whether or not the animal was raised on pasture, opposed to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). Hence you'll want to look for organic grass-fed and finished beef, and organic pasture-raised, aka free-range pastured chicken.

These animals eat a natural wholesome diet, which optimizes the nutritional composition of the meat, unlike CAFO animals that are fed an unnatural diet of glyphosate-contaminated GE corn and soy, along with growth promoting drugs, hormones, and/or antibiotics. Besides destroying your gut flora, both glyphosate and antibiotics also promote antibiotic-resistant diseases that now kill an estimated 23,000 Americans each year.

When it comes to fish, which is another good protein source, the consideration is two-fold: first, I recommend opting for wild-caught rather than farm-raised (as aquafarms are associated with the same health- and environmental problems as land-based CAFOs), and second, you need to take pollution levels into account. Mercury contamination is a serious concern when it comes to fish these days, so ideally you want to look for fish high in healthy fats and low in mercury.4 Wild-caught Alaskan salmon and sockeye salmon fit the bill here, as do smaller fatty fish such as sardines, anchovies and herring.

Besides protein, fish is also an important source of healthy fats like omega-3, which many are deficient in. To ensure you're getting a healthy amount of animal-based omega-3 each day, you may want to consider taking a supplement like krill oil, which is better absorbed by your body than fish oil. Krill oil also contains vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin D, and canthaxanthin, which is a potent antioxidant. The astaxanthin found in krill oil also provides added protection against ultraviolet light and UV-induced skin damage when you're outdoors. This potent antioxidant also has performance-boosting properties5,6 and help reduce lactic acid in muscle tissue, which is an added boon for athletes.

Reports of significant health improvements from astaxanthin supplementation have come in from athletes all over the world. For example, Tim Marr, a professional triathlete in Honolulu, Hawaii, suffered from overuse injuries and sun overexposure from rigorously training in the intense Hawaiian sun. Since starting a natural astaxanthin supplement, he's experienced significantly fewer overuse injuries and fewer adverse reactions to the sun. Marr credits astaxanthin with helping him achieve his goals and says the supplement is now one of his favorite tools.

Whey Is an Excellent Post-Workout Recovery Meal

High-quality whey made with unpasteurized (raw) milk from organic grass-fed cows is another excellent protein source that can be particularly beneficial as a recovery aid after a strenuous workout. You need to supply your muscles with the appropriate fuel at the appropriate time to provide them with the proper signals and building blocks to build new muscle tissue, and this is where whey protein, which is often referred to as the gold standard of protein, comes into play.

Ideally you'll want to consume the whey about 30 minutes before your workout to help increase both fat burning and muscle building. The whey meal will stop the catabolic process in your muscle and promote protein synthesis towards recovery and growth. If you have done a strength training workout you can repeat the dose about one hour later. Be aware that there's only a two hour window afterexercise that allows your body to fully use the proteins you ingest for optimizing muscle repair and growth, so it is important to get the timing right here.

One of the reasons whey protein works so well is that it is a protein that assimilates very quickly, and will get to your muscles within 10-15 minutes of swallowing it, supplying your muscles with the right food at the right time. A study7 published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise showed the amino acids found in high-quality whey protein activate certain cellular mechanisms, including a mechanism called mTORC-1, which in turn promote muscle protein synthesis, boost thyroid, and also protect against declining testosterone levels after exercise.

Probiotics Help Strengthen Your Immune Function, and Much More

Strenuous training can affect the immune system and make athletes vulnerable to infections like coughs and colds, but research8 has shown that taking probiotics more than halves the days endurance athletes show symptoms. If you eat properly, meaning an organic whole-food based diet with plenty of traditionally fermented and cultured foods added to the mix, you'll automatically support the colonization of beneficial microbes in your gut, and you likely won't need a probiotic supplement.

That said, if you're just starting to make healthy changes to your diet, or suffer from chronic disease, it may be beneficial to reseed your gut with a high quality probiotic supplement for a few months. Your microbiome—those trillions of microbes living in an on your body—outnumber the cells in your body by about 10 to one, and they have a wide variety of functions that impact your weight and general health, both physically and mentally. So paying careful attention to your gut health is a foundational component for optimizing your health. There are two major ways you can throw your bacterial balancing act off kilter, both of which you'll want to avoid, in addition to adding probiotics via your diet or a supplement:

  1. Antibiotics. Antibiotics are indiscriminate killers that destroy ALL bacteria, both good and bad, which is why side effects from taking antibiotics frequently include gas, cramping, or diarrhea.
  2. Eating too much sugar causes over-growth of "unfriendly" microorganisms, such as disease-causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and parasites. This is often the case if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, Candida, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease), H. pylori infection, periodontal disease, vaginal infections, or other common stomach or respiratory infections. A high-sugar diet is the most common culprit, as sugar is an incredibly efficient fertilizer for bad bacteria and yeast in your gut. On the other hand, when you eat a healthy diet that is low in sugars and processed foods, one of the major benefits it produces is that it causes the good bacteria in your gut to flourish, thereby preventing the proliferation of health-harming bacteria.

Don't Underestimate the Importance of UV Exposure

A robust and rapidly growing body of research that clearly shows vitamin D is critical for good health and disease prevention. I firmly believe UVB exposure is the healthiest way to optimize your vitamin D levels, but if you can't use the sun or a tanning bed, then it's certainly advisable to use an oral supplement in combination with vitamin K2. Vitamin D supplements are among the least expensive, and the health impact of deficiency is so broad and detrimental that it simply makes little sense to avoid them.

Part of the reason I recommend getting your vitamin from UVB exposure, either from the sun or a tanning bed opposed to orally, is because you'll reap additional benefits above and beyond the vitamin D. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation has been used since ancient times to treat various diseases, and it's known that a large number of molecules in your skin interact with and absorb UV light.9 Peter Robert Ebeling, head of the department of medicine, School of Clinical Sciences and professor of medicine at Monash University, suggests that sunshine may have largely unknown health effects, such as impacting your body's biological rhythms, reducing physical stresses on your body's cells, and increasing heat production.

Sun exposure also alters the activity of your immune system in a way that reduces inflammation and likely helps protect against certain inflammatory diseases.10 Sun exposure also has pain-killing (analgesic) properties,11 and research12 suggests UV exposure converts to metabolic energy (i.e. we may "ingest" energy directly from the sun, like plants do). Duncan mentions "improved energy" as a benefit from optimizing his vitamin D using a tanning bed, and most people would agree that spending some time outdoors on a bright sunlit day provides a near instant boost of energy. There's little doubt in my mind that measuring your vitamin D performance and taking steps to optimize your level is one of the easiest and least expensive things you can possibly do for your health.

Four Simple Energy Rules for Athletes

Energy and stamina doesn't come from sugar. Taking in simple carbs like sugar, corn syrup, pasta, or bread before an event will tend to cause a quick spike in your blood sugar followed by a corresponding fall, making you feel more exhausted than before. More than anything, simple carbs and excess complex carbs will make you sluggish and hamper your performance. If you want to create energy naturally—and this certainly applies to non-athletes as well—here are four simple rules to follow:

  1. Just before a game or hard workout, eat a little bit of fruit, such as an apple, plum, pear, citrus fruit (not juice) or berries. They're great right before a game or workout, as they give you a small spike without the massive plummet.
  2. Two to three hours before a game or hard workout, complex carbs, fats and a small amount of protein will do the trick. Sweet potatoes, brown rice, olive oil, almond butter, flax oil, walnuts, almonds and eggs are all easy to digest and can give you more sustained energy.
  3. Post exercise, your body is nitrogen-poor and your muscles have been broken down. That's why you need amino acids from animal proteins like chicken, beef and eggs, as well as vegetable carbohydrates. Whey protein is another excellent choice here.
  4. Although many experts still recommend carb-loading before an endurance event, the fact is, burning sugar is not what happens over long distances. Carbs are stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen that your body uses as fuel. Once this fuel runs out, fatigue sets in and your performance suffers. Your body actually starts burning fats after a short period of time, so therefore, rather than loading up on carbs, loading up on healthy fats and small amounts of protein will typically improve athletic endurance.
  5. Some athletes, including basketball superstars LeBron James and Ray Allen,13 have started taking this advice to heart—with excellent results. Other athletes jumping onto the high-fat, low-carb diet include Ironman triathlete Nell Stephenson, pro cyclist Dave Zabriskie, ultra-marathoner Timothy Olson, and former Ironman triathlete Ben Greenfield, who is said to have followed a ketogenic diet while training for the 2013 Ironman World Championships.14