The younger an athlete is the less effect a poor diet has on performance. The older an athlete is the more critical diet is to performance. At least that is what I have observed over the years. It’s strictly my opinion. There is no research on this topic. But I’ve seen this phenomenon in athletes of all ages and in myself as an athlete for most of my 66 years here on the planet.
I really don’t know why, but this appears to be the case.
Perhaps it’s because young athletes generally train with a higher workload than older athletes. Maybe that has something to do with it. Because they train more they also burn more calories. And burning more calories means they eat more food – perhaps mostly junk food. When eating a poor-quality diet that has lots of calories they simply may get enough of the micronutrients necessary for optimal health and performance. That’s the Wal-Mart model: A small percentage of a large volume may be the key for the younger athlete.
It also may be strictly a health issue. It could be that the young athletes’ systemic defenses are so effective that it doesn’t take much to maintain a sound body. The older athlete may simply need a greater amount of vitamins and minerals to stay healthy and physically sound. Their immune systems are weaker.
So if you’re an older athlete could you eat more junk food and just use supplements to get what your body may need? I don’t think so. There is some evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective and may even be harmful. For example, vitamin E in food has been shown to be an effective antioxidant. But as a supplement several studies have shown no benefits. Here’s another interesting one. Beta carotene when eaten in a carrot has been shown to be quite good for your health. But when the beta carotene is removed from the carrot and taken as a supplement it actually has negative consequences for health in the form of greater risk for heart disease. If you’re taking pills to boost health and perform better you may be accomplishing nothing or even doing harm. You’re much better off getting the micronutrients you need from real food rather than supplements.
I only recommend two supplements to those I coach. The first is omega-3, usually taken in a fish oil capsule. The Western diet is poor when it comes to omega-3 and it has potential benefits not only for performance, but also for health. The other is vitamin D to be taken in the winter by athletes who live in cold places, usually above of 40-degrees north latitude. Our bodies make their own vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. But in cold weather athletes either train indoors or cover up when outside. Once summer rolls around again there is little reason to continue vitamin D. Is taking these supplements the best option? No. I’d much rather my clients got both of these from eating a lot of fish and spending time in the sun. It’s the second-best option. Are they guaranteed to produce the desired results? No. We’re still waiting for that research.
Of course, there is also no research showing that a “healthy” diet is beneficial for performance. But there are a few things the research generally agrees on when it comes to diet and health. The most obvious is the benefits of vegetables and fruits. I have absolutely no doubt that the health of an older athlete who has a poor diet will improve if he or she simply eats more of these two food groups. I’ve seen that happen. But I wouldn’t expect to see a significant difference in a younger athlete who made the same change. The older athlete may even see a positive shift in performance from eating more vegs and fruits. It may be a direct performance benefit or indirect. For example, being healthier means fewer breakdowns due to illness. That makes training more consistent. Consistent training is far more effective for performance than inconsistent training.
I suggest to the athletes I coach that 80% of what they eat should be vegetables, fruits and lean meats, especially fish, game and free-ranging animals. The other 20% are mostly foods eaten immediately before, during and right after a workout to promote performance and recovery. I also tell them they don’t have to be perfect. It’s ok to cheat a little. Just make sure that it really is only “a little.”
Vivekananthan DP, Penn MS, Sapp SK, Hsu A, Topol EJ. Use of antioxidant vitamins for the prevention of cardiovascular disease: meta-analysis of randomised trials 2003 Lancet 2003 June 14; 361: 2017–23
Yusuf S, Davaenis G, Pogue J, Bosch, J, Sleight P. Vitamin E supplementation and cardiovascular events in high-risk patients. The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation Study Investigators. New England Journal of Medicine 2000 Jan; 342(3):154-60