Courtesy of Mikki Williden
By default, I’ve been in the sports nutrition world more than usual over the last couple of weeks. The Eat Well Live Well topic at New World (where I’m on hand to give nutrition advice and share good choices for foods), and a sports nutrition talk during the week to a bunch of athletes have reminded me that the ‘real food’ nutrition choices are not mainstream yet. And have a way to go before they will be.
It’s still common for athletes to smash food straight after training (to make the most of the ’30 min window of opportunity’, to base their meals around processed carbohydrates (cereals, breads, pasta, rice) and to follow an eating style that didn’t allow for adequate delivery of fat and protein across the course of the day, so they are left irritable, tired, and hungry. The problem isn’t carbohydrates per se. It’s that processed carbohydrate has pervaded the diet to the extent that we now view it as an essential part of every meal at the expense of fat and protein which provide essential fatty acids and amino acids for healthy growth, development and recovery. This is especially true for children. It can get confusing though when cereal companies spend the big bucks persuading the consumer that products such as Nutrigrain or Special K are a nutritious, substantial start to the day. Such examples include:
- They fortify their cereals with micronutrients and can then sell them as a substantial source of vitamins and minerals, whereas we don’t know how effectively these are absorbed in the body. Nature is really smart at packaging nutrients in the correct ratios for maximum absorption when we eat, say, an apple. There’s so much about nutrition we don’t know, I doubt that Kellogg’s has cracked that nut yet.
- They pump their products with additional gluten and soy and can then promote them as being ‘high protein’ and ‘plant based’. A lot of people are sensitive to gluten and processed soy is far removed from the soy which is attributed to the many health benefits of a traditional Asian diet. And ‘plant based’ is bandied around so much these days, as if to insinuate it is nutritionally superior to a diet that contains animal protein. The opposite is true, given that many minerals and vitamins aren’t able to be as readily absorbed because of the phytic acid and other anti-nutrients which bind them.
- They put dried fruit and ‘ancient grains’ in their products, call them ‘Nourish’ and then sell it as real food. All this does is load them up with additional sugar.
- They pay sports stars and other influential people good money to front their ad campaigns. Even if you can do 12 Weet-bix in one hit, I’m picking that you’re not going to be able to do much else for the rest of the day if you make a habit of it.
- They compare a product to something else that we perceive as being healthy or nutritious – for example, Up and Go being marketed as having as much ‘fibre, energy and protein as 2 Weet-bix and milk’. For the record, 2 Weet-bix and milk doesn’t have much fibre, protein or energy – but you wouldn’t know that from this claim which is what Sanitarium is counting on. There is 4.3g of fibre in a 250ml serve of Up and Go, and 19.3g of sugar. And a bunch of other additives, preservatives and vegetable oils to go with it.
How many ways can you say sugar? There’s 5 right here.
The cereals I’ve mentioned above are as good (or bad) as junk food. But, do any of my points really matter if your kid is super active? They can’t just eat more of it, right? Hmm. I’ve recently been reminded that there is a real culture in sports that suggest people who are active can ‘get away’ with eating high sugar junk food, and kids especially can eat sugar (I’ve heard some suggest they NEED sugar) as they can ‘burn it off.’ Nothing is further from the truth. Despite what the sports nutrition resources tell you, or what you might learn in a nutrition talk at the sports club, or see advertised on television, they don’t need additional sugar to make up for energy burnt during their practices or games.
Sports drinks, white bread jam sandwiches, 2-3 jet planes aren’t necessary straight after exercise and are best left out of a young athletes menu. The ‘window’ of opportunity of replenishing carbohydrate stores has been a convenient theory for sports nutrition products to justify their use, but we have since discovered the body can adequately restore carbohydrate up to 48 hours after a match or training. Unless, of course, there is a multi-day or multiple events on one day that requires a quick refuel, but even then there are options that allow for quick refuelling that are real food options.
A calorie is not a calorie, and active kids need more attention paid to their diet because of the heavier demands placed on their growing bodies. This expands their micronutrient and energy requirements. However, because we use body size as the main marker (or for some, the only marker) of health, we look at kids who are active and thin as ‘healthy’ without giving consideration to other equally (if not more) important indicators. I’ve worked with a number of adults who are prediabetic, yet have been fit and active their whole life, and a blood sugar screening reveals their metabolic state is probably worse than if they didn’t do any activity at all. A contributing factor to this is the carbohydrate-dominant diet that has fuelled them through the preceding years, and not just the additional treats they may have eaten because they could ‘eat what they liked.’ To the body, a high carbohydrate load is a high sugar load, regardless of where those carbs come from, because it’s broken down to the same single glucose unit.
So to save your active kids from the same fate, we need to set them up right from the get go.
Now I got a bad rap last year when I suggested that the new Weet-bix campaign that provided a ‘better brekkie’ was anything but. Weet-bix have long been the staple kiwi breakfast and growing up in winter, I had mine with hot water, warm milk, raw sugar, (because it was healthier*) and the aroma of a Gregg’s instant coffee with a freshly lit cigarette (it was the 80s, after all). Even now that combo conjures up that warm snuggly feeling of familiarity in me. The problem is that Weet-bix, or any cereal, isn’t typically a great vehicle for a nutrient dense, energy filling breakfast. Even with the campaign to make them a ‘better brekkie’. Most of the recipes on Sanitarium’s website sound amazing, but better breakfasts they are not.
So I offer a few suggestions:
- Better breakfast shake: swap out the dates for an egg and add a tablespoon of peanut butter or tahini ( for a nut-free variety). We’ve lowered the sugar content and upped the fat, protein and calories. This will at least keep them awake for a little longer.
- Power porridge: swap the apple juice for grated apple. Use actual coconut milk (and not coconut flavoured milk), up the amount of rolled oats to a cup and add ¼ cup sunflower and pumpkin seeds. We’ve added more fibre, protein and lowered the sugar content.
- Weet-bix winter warmer: swap the trim milk for full fat (so much better for growing kids and adults alike actually) – or coconut milk, up the oats, add a few tablespoons of sunflower or pumpkin seeds and ditch the dried fruit. Stir through an egg before taking off the heat.
- Hot Weet-bix apple crumble: add ¼ cup shredded coconut, ½ cup roughly chopped mixed raw nuts – which you microwave with 1 Tbsp butter or coconut oil to make a crumble-type mixture.
Any of these would be okay if your kid feels a bit nervous before an early weekend sports game and just wanted something small. Otherwise, they will probably need some more food to go alongside the ideas above. Some good examples would be:
- Leftover cooked sausages or other meat leftover from dinner
- Scrambled eggs
- Hardboiled eggs (you’ve boiled these the night before)
- This tahini chia loaf with some nut butter spread on it
- Kumara ‘toast’ – slice and toast as you would your bread and top accordingly (mine took a couple of goes on high to get it to a cooked but still firm stage. So easy!)
- Three ingredient pancakes made with banana and eggs
- Peanut butter or tahini with chopped fruit
- Baked kumara or potato with butter
- Chicken drumsticks
- Glass of full milk and a banana