The Standard American Diet and Its Effect on Athletic Performance

Story at-a-glance -

  • Professional athletes need real food to maximize their performance. Compelling evidence also suggests eating a low-carb, high-fat diet is far more beneficial for athletic performance than carb-loading
  • McDonald’s is an Olympic sponsor, and there’s typically a McDonald’s restaurant on the premises in the Olympic Village. The fact that many Olympic athletes get their meals there says quite a bit about their naiveté about performance nutrition
  • Once he moved to the U.S., Russian Olympic swimmer Arkady Vyatchanin gained 25 pounds in a few short weeks during his first season’s training break — a surprising development he blames on the standard American diet
  • The dogma in sports nutrition for the last four decades has been that to maximize performance, athletes need to carb-load before, during and after exercise. However, in more recent years, the understanding of how low-carb diets can augment performance is starting to catch on
  • Athletes who want to switch to a ketogenic need to plan ahead and give their body time to adapt during off-season, as it takes four to six weeks before your body will burn fat efficiently. In the interim, your performance may be impaired

By Dr. Mercola

That your body needs real food to perform optimally should be common sense, yet many ignore this foundational aspect of health. Even professional athletes sometimes fail to grasp the link between their diet and athletic performance. In this interview, Olympic swimmer Arkady Vyatchanin discusses the effects of the standard American diet, colloquially referred to as SAD, on sports performance.

Vyatchanin represented the Russian swim team at the Olympic Games in 2004, taking fourth place in the 100-meter medley relay, and 2008, taking bronze medals in 100 meter and 200-meter backstroke. In 2013, he announced he would no longer represent the Russian swim team.

Instead of going to the World Championships, he participated in the U.S. Open that summer, and ended up with the second-fastest time in the world. Last year he took home silver and gold medals in the AT&T Winter National Championships for the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke respectively.

Therapeutic Use Exemptions Versus Natural Treatments

In professional sports, there’s something called a therapeutic use exemption, which is part of the protocols created by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This exemption allows professional athletes to continue taking their medications while competing professionally. The problem with this exemption is that many of the medications taken are otherwise banned for healthy athletes.

For example, asthma medication is not permitted for healthy athletes, as it may give them an unfair advantage. Since it opens up the airway, it allows for easier breathing. Interestingly enough, a disproportionate number of professional athletes apparently have exercise-induced asthma, and the therapeutic use exemption allows them to take otherwise banned asthma medication while competing.

“When you’re swimming, you’re kind of losing your breath a little bit, so you’re breathing erratically and deeply,” Vyatchanin says. “In my mind, if people who don’t know the effect of fast swimming and fast-paced running or doing whatever exercise is losing their breath, then they might think, ‘Oh, I might have asthma. I better go talk to my doctor about it.’

The doctor will probably end up writing a prescription for medication. It’s kind of ridiculous … It’s kind of scary how many [athletes] are actually using this [medication]. Basically, I was trying to explain to a lot of people that it is possible to fight these conditions with natural remedies.”

Standard American Diet Quickly Resulted in 25-Pound Weight Gain

When Vyatchanin and his wife first came to the U.S. in 2011, they (as most immigrants) adopted the standard American approach to their diet. In Russia, they would cook their meals from scratch nearly every day. While there are many supermarkets selling processed food in Russia today, in the past there were very few, and most people would buy their food at the local fresh food market.

Contrary to the U.S., whole food is less expensive than processed food in Russia, which certainly shapes people’s choices as well. Eating real food is a foundational key to optimizing your health. “Also, people have to understand that it is actually really satisfying to make food and then eat it, because it’s something that you made on your own. It’s delicious,” Vyatchanin says.

Unfortunately, while it’s a simple enough concept, it’s rarely applied in the U.S., and our disease statistics reflect Americans’ preference for processed food. Vyatchanin also suffered the ramifications of his dietary switch.

“After completing the first season here — from September of 2011 until August of 2012 — I noticed that, while being on a break, I started to gain a lot of weight. In a short few weeks, I gained 25 pounds or something like that. My wife and I also noticed the change in our cats, which we brought with us. The thing is they were eating the same brand of dry food in Russia.

So, we started to research. Little by little, we came to realize that it’s all [about] our diet. It was quite a process. I’d say it took maybe a couple of years for us to [get] a full picture of what’s really going on and how the system works here. But we’re truly grateful to the information we found, especially on your website … We actually started visiting your site and reading about all this stuff and watching the interviews.”

Fast Food and Professional Sports

As noted by Vyatchanin, McDonald’s was an Olympic sponsor, and in addition to the local cuisine being served at the Olympic Village, there’s typically a McDonald’s fast food restaurant on the premises. The fact that many of the athletes would get their meals there says quite a bit about their naiveté about performance nutrition. The American team actually brings its own cooks, but Vyatchanin still questions the quality of their meals.

“I’ve been to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It’s a great facility. Great pool, great gym, great everything, but I’m not sure about the food. They have little charts there hanging up on every dish that is offered. Almost all of them say 'soy' listed as an ingredient. I’m wondering why you would put soy in the majority of the food.”  

Indeed, unfermented soy products are best avoided, even if you’re not an elite athlete, as the health risks associated with soy far outweigh any benefit. For example, soy contains high levels of phytic acid, which inhibits assimilation of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc. Trypsin inhibitors in soy interfere with protein digestion and may cause pancreatic disorders, while soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and promote breast cancer and thyroid dysfunction.

Soy also increases your body’s requirement for vitamin D. Processing of soy protein also results in the formation of toxic lysinoalanine, carcinogenic nitrosamines and free glutamic acid, a potent neurotoxin. Vyatchanin is wise to be suspicious of soy-laden foods. Unfortunately, soy (just like sugar) is an extremely common ingredient in processed foods.

Aside from not taking diet very seriously, Vyatchanin also notes American athletes by and large tend to dismiss holistic medicine — natural remedies such as herbs — massage, sauna and other natural treatments as a good way to improve athletic performance.

As just one example, in Russia, it’s common practice to jump into a cold pool after sitting in the sauna. This is a form of thermogenesis, which has a number of beneficial effects, largely thanks to the fact that it improves mitochondrial function and induces greater amounts of brown and beige adipose tissue, thereby reducing your risk of diabetes and other chronic disease.

“My father used to do that a lot,” Vyatchanin says, “and he would make me do it when I was a little kid. It’s really good for your body … I was born and raised in the far north. It was really an extreme place, very similar to Alaska … It’s right on the border of Siberia, at the Ural Mountains.”

Cancer — A Diet-Driven Epidemic

In 2014, Vyatchanin and his wife had their eyes opened by a documentary called “The Truth About Cancer,” particularly as it related to hospital nutrition. U.S. hospitals are notorious for serving junk food to ill patients, whereas in Russia great attention is given to hospital nutrition — especially cancer patients. “In Russia, they give [cancer patients] steamed fish. There’s no junk food. They give other much healthier options that are not offered here in America,” he says.

It is my firm belief that a major contributor to the cancer epidemic in the U.S. is in fact our diet, as it is excessively high in processed sugars and exceedingly low in healthy fats. This is the topic of my latest book, “Fat for Fuel,” which was in part written to provide a solution to the cancer epidemic.

Research shows having the metabolic flexibility to burn fat for fuel is crucial for mitochondrial health and disease prevention. It’s also a critical component if you’re struggling with excess weight. Most Americans are burning sugar as their primary fuel, as they eat a diet too high in sugars and too low in healthy fats.

The key to becoming an efficient fat-burner is to reverse the ratios between these two nutrients. In other words, to regain the metabolic flexibility to burn fat, you need to significantly restrict net carbs and eat higher amounts of dietary fats.

Cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s and many other chronic diseases, are actually metabolic diseases that are primarily caused by a high-sugar diet. Unfortunately, most dietitians and physicians still do not understand this, and continue telling patients — including diabetics — to eat a high-carb diet.

They’re practicing with outdated, incorrect information, which is actually accelerating the death of most of their patients. At the same time, an enormous amount of money is spent treating diet-related health problems such as Type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Low-Carb Benefits for Athletes

Getting back to athletic performance, Jeff Volek, Ph.D., is a professor in the human science department at Ohio State University and author of “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” — a diet book geared specifically toward athletes. Volek has done pioneering work in the field of high-fat, low-carb diets, investigating its effects on human health and athletic performance. Results have proved quite positive, despite running counter to everything he was taught about diet and performance in school.

As noted by Volek, humans evolved to primarily burn fat as fuel — not carbs — and yet that’s not how we’re feeding our bodies. “We’re running into a lot of metabolic problems because we’re constantly inhibiting our body’s ability to burn fuel that we evolved to burn,” he says. The most efficient way to train your body to use fat for fuel is to remove sugars and starches from your diet, and according to Volek, this is a beneficial move for everyone — including elite athletes.

The dogma in sports nutrition for the last four decades has been that to maximize performance, athletes need to consume high amounts of (non-vegetable) carbs before, during and after exercise. However, in more recent years, the understanding of how low-carb diets can augment performance in certain athletes is starting to catch on. It has certainly gained a great deal of traction in the ultra-endurance world, where athletes are exercising continuously for several hours. As noted by Volek in a previous interview:

“[Endurance athletes are] challenged from a fueling perspective, because if they’re eating carbs, they’re inhibiting their ability to burn fat optimally. They’re putting themselves in a situation where they’re increasingly dependent on more carbs.

You can only store a limited amount of carbs in your body as glycogen, about 2,000 kilocalories, and if you’re exercising for more than a couple of hours, you’re burning through the majority of that stored carbohydrate. That’s when an athlete hits the wall.

We know that’s associated with obvious decrements in performance. How do you avoid that? You can carb-load. That’s been the traditional recommendation — to pack even more carbs into your muscles … but that will only delay exercise fatigue by a half-hour or so.

That doesn’t really solve the problem. It actually exacerbates the problem in some ways. The alternative is to train your body to burn more fat. If you’re burning fat and sparing carbohydrates, you don’t hit the wall. That’s one of the most commonly perceived benefits of a low-carb diet for athletes.”

Athletes who adopt this strategy can become exceptionally good at burning fat. Even if they’re not eating during exercise, lean athletes have at least 20,000 to 30,000 kilocalories on their body in the form of adipose tissue that they can access during exercise. That’s more than enough to finish even a 100-mile race.

So, from a fueling perspective, it makes sense that you’d want to burn fat rather than glucose. Ultra-endurance athletes who have switched to low-carb, high-fat diets are now winning races, and in some cases, setting new course records. They’re also experiencing other benefits, such as speedier recovery rates, improved metabolic health and leaner body composition.

Many Athletes Now Vouch for Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet

In the past few years, a number of athletic superstars have embraced the low-carb, high-fat diet, including NBA players LeBron James and Ray Allen,1 Ironman triathlete Nell Stephenson, pro cyclist Dave Zabriskie and ultra-marathoner Timothy Olson. Former Ironman triathlete and good friend of mine, Ben Greenfield, is said to have followed a ketogenic diet while training for the 2013 Ironman World Championships, reporting improved stamina, stable blood sugar, better sleep and less brain fog.2

Former Ironman triathlete Mark Sisson is another tremendously fit athlete who has reported improved athletic performance, body composition and energy levels after ditching carb-loading for a high-fat, low-carb Paleo diet. He subsequently went on to write the popular book, “The Primal Blueprint.” Even more interesting, he reports getting fitter on this diet while simultaneously exercising less.

As I’ve discussed on many occasions, high-intensity interval training can cut your workout routine down from an hour to about 20 minutes, three times a week, without any reduction in efficacy. On the contrary, you can reap better fitness results by exercising this way, and that’s exactly what Sisson experienced as well.

A consideration worth mentioning here is that not all fats are good for you. Most Americans consume harmful fats like processed vegetable oils, which will invariably worsen health. So, please be mindful of the fact that when we’re talking about eating a high-fat diet, we’re referring to natural, unprocessed fat found in real foods like seeds, nuts, butter, olives, avocado, raw cacao and coconut oil, just to name a few.

How to Get Started

For a quick and concise overview of the basics involved in a cyclical ketogenic diet, detailed in far greater depth in my book, “Fat for Fuel,” please watch this short video. Next, check out “A Beginner’s Guide to the Ketogenic Diet.” Now, if you are an athlete, keep in mind it will take at least four to six weeks for your body to enter into nutritional ketosis where you are burning fat efficiently.

During this time, your body has not yet adapted to using fat as an energy source, which may impede your performance in upcoming athletic events. So, if you want to take advantage of the ketogenic diet, give your body time to adapt by planning ahead during the offseason.

+ Sources and References