Nutrition myths busted!

Does coffee help you lose weight? Will eating lots of protein make you look like Arnie? Our nutritionist Nigel Mitchell is on hand to debunk the old wives' tales of sports nutrition...


Possibly next to training loads and which Strava records you’ve thrashed, diet and nutrition are many triathletes’ favourite topics of discussion.

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Because we talk and think about food so much, it’s no wonder that there are so many myths and misconceptions surrounding nutrition – especially when it comes to the best advice for athletes in training. So this month we examine, explore and even explode the top five nutrition myths:

1. Protein makes you massive

A lot of people believe that by eating extra protein their muscles will get bigger. However, for muscle growth (hypertrophy) you need to get the right stimulation, which is achieved through resistance (weight training) work. Exercise provides this stimulus and protein is then required for the muscle to grow. But eating protein alone does not increase muscle size.

Endurance athletes such as triathletes still require higher levels of protein intake than sedentary individuals, as one of the outcomes of endurance exercise is an increase in protein synthesis resulting in the biogenesis of mitochondria, which can be considered as the body’s power station for producing ATP (the energy ‘currency’, adenosine triphosphate). An athlete in hard training requires around 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight, so a 70kg athlete would need approximately 100g of protein a day.

2. All fat is bad for you

Fat is a really important part of the diet. Used as a source of energy, fat also has important physiological functions in the body, such as forming part of many hormones and steroids which are a critical part of the body’s natural response to stress. The real issue, however, is the types of fats that we eat.

The modern diet is much lower in omega-3 fats than that of our Neolithic ancestors and it’s believed that this is one of the contributors to the increase in modern diseases within western society. The fats we should aim to eat come from sources such as olive oil, oily fish, avocado and seeds such as flax.

3. You need meat to be healthy

A lot of people think that you need to eat meat to supply the nutrients that the body needs. However, a vegetarian or a well-planned vegan diet can supply all of the nutrients the body requires. The main nutrients that meat supplies in abundance are quality proteins and minerals such as iron. Dairy foods such as milk and yoghurt supply great proteins; eggs are good for both protein and iron.

From a vegan perspective, soya, quinoa, seeds and nuts are good sources of proteins. Food like dried beans and green leafy vegetables such as spinach (Popeye was onto something) are good sources of iron, and the absorption is increased by having vitamin C, so consuming fresh tomatoes with your meal will help with the iron uptake.

Soya, quinoa and seeds are great natural sources of protein

4. Coffee helps weight loss

When people think about coffee and weight loss they’re really talking about the caffeine in coffee. This is an interesting debate. Caffeine can increase the mobilisation of fat in the body and may increase metabolism slightly. But there’s little evidence that it actually increases body fat loss. Caffeine acts as a diuretic, so most weight loss from caffeine will probably be from dehydration. From a positive point of view, however, caffeine can help exercise performance and increasing exercise may help with weight loss.

5. Athletes need nutritional supplements

Nature is fantastic in that it provides great foods that contain the nutrients we need. The problem can be that if we eat a lot of processed foods then we can have energy-dense but nutrient-deficient foods. Athletes on the whole require more energy and, if they eat good-quality foods, this should provide the energy and nutrients that they need. A lot of athletes and non-athletes choose to use supplements and this is often as an insurance or because their diet is compromised by time constraints – although there are a few exceptions where a supplement can make it much easier, such as omega-3 fish oils, probiotics and iron.

I advise athletes to stay away from products that provide ‘mega doses’ and I only recommend products that are on the Informed-Sport programme. This is a quality assurance process that helps to manage the risk of contaminants.

3 new things to try

Add lucine

Having lucine after hard training may improve recovery – many recovery drinks have additional lucine and dairy protein is a good, natural, food-based source.

Choose protein

Fasted steady-state training can enhance the endurance training effect. However, having protein such as eggs for breakfast doesn’t blunt the training effect and may help protect the body.

Go for colour

Brightly-coloured foods such as peppers and tomatoes are great sources of natural antioxidants and vitamins – try to include a wide rainbow at every meal if you’re aiming to achieve a balanced diet.

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For more nutrition tips and training advice, head to the training section on our website