Most athletes are looking to improve their diet and overall nutrition. However, many individuals fail to recognize the role of gut health in their overall health which can be directly affected by our food choices. The gut contains 70-80% of your immune system and is considered a microbiome that needs to be nourished and supported. Gut health is associated with digestion, nutrient absorption, and immunity. For athletes, this boils down to energy and performance since nutrients in food provide fuel for the body. When gut health is compromised, it increases the likelihood that nutrients are not absorbed properly, and athletes may experience GI distress and/or an inability to meet performance goals.
What you eat can either compromise or support the health of your gut. For example, eating a lot of sugar can overwhelm the stomach and give rise to the growth of unhealthy bacteria (candida). “Bad bacteria” can smother the intestinal lining. Refined carbohydrates and processed grain products, as well as some refined vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory to the gut. The best way to support gut health is by eating fermented food along with fresh fruits and veggies. Eat fruit that is low on the glycemic index list and ideally choose cruciferous veggies. Fish and ancient grains, beans, and seeds are other good options to support gut health.
Here are some simple ways to support the gut everyday:
- Chew your food; slow down; digestion begins in your mouth
- Take probiotics or eat probiotic rich food (such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, beet kvass, and other cultured vegetables)
- Take 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (mix with water if needed) prior to your largest meal of the day
- Eliminate triggers and irritants
- Eat seasonally and locally to increase the diversity in your microbiome
- Increase fiber intake (aim for 25 grams or more per day)
- Eat whole, real foods; stay away from processed foods
- Get restful sleep
- Manage stress (Yes, even on race day – have everything ready to go the night before! Additionally, plan out your pre-race meals. This will also reduce your anxiety.)
- Have an environmentally-friendly home; use “green” beauty and cleaning products
- Give the GI system a rest through periodic fasting
Adjust these factors pre-, during, and post-workout to support gut health:
- Go easy on dairy
- Go easy on fat
- Reduce fiber
- Don’t eat anything new
- Drink water; stay hydrated
- Monitor sodium intake
- Realize that liquids and gels trickle into the small intestine at a faster rate than solids; if you take in more than what the stomach can digest at its normal rate, this may lead to GI distress. Use training runs to experiment with the amount that is right for you.
- Don’t expect too much from your belly immediately after a race or hard workout. Try to push n some fluids with an electrolyte mix, eat foods that are low fiber, avoid beer, and when you’re ready to eat, listen to your gut and have a recovery meal that keeps the belly happy.
Katina Sayers is the owner/operator of Katina’s Nutritional Coaching Corner. She has an extensive background in health and education that began with degrees in exercise physiology, health and physical education, community health, and culminating with a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction. She completed an advanced certificate of study in Integrative Nutrition and Health Coaching from the renowned Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in New York City. For the last four years, she has worked one-on-one with clients, presented a multitude of nutrition topics for large and small audiences, contracted with businesses to implement worksite wellness initiatives, and currently manages day-to-day food service operations at a local non-profit agency, as well as directs activities related to nutrition and health. Katina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.