Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breakfast of champions: part 1 of 2

Huh--this series is turning out longer than I thought...

A normal, balanced diet (whatever the hell that means nowadays) will suffice if you are your average Joe, working out three, four, five times a week and otherwise keeping fit. But every four years, we get inundated with patriotic voyeurism as the lives of the athletes that are competing in the Olympics gets scrutinized as the celebrities they are, even if it is for the fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds, of fame, and we start to wonder--what the hell is in the water?

The science of sports nutrition is as old as the Olympic tradition itself, beginning in ancient Greece. Of course, they didn't have electronic treadmills and sensors to gauge their autonomic responses, nor lab notebooks to record the athletes' responses to various diets, so the "recommendation" of meat and wine must be taken with a grain of salt (perhaps an entire saltshaker). Obviously, these days, our understanding of physiology and nutrition are much better. The athletes are told to go easy on the alcohol and the best athletes have their carbohydrate, protein, and fat intakes carefully calibrated for them.

What makes sports nutrition so difficult to analyze objectively: 1) most theories floating around these days only came about in the last century, which is also when physiology was refined as a science, and materials science developed the stuff that many athletes take for granted--plastics for oars, rubber for running shoes. If there was any improvement by any group of athletes over the years, how are we to tell whether it's from better food, training, or materials? Reason 2) is that anybody who's seriously done any sport for any amount of time has probably worked out his own ideas of what's right and what's wrong for him, and God help the doctor who tries to tell him he's wrong. As irrational as this is, there is a certain amount of sense to sticking with what works, even if it shouldn't. For elite athletes, the win or loss is rarely about ability--at the Olympian level, the abilities of all are pretty comparable--but rather about the head game, what goes on in your head. Psyching oneself up--or out--can be as easy as sticking to your morning oatmeal (and adding raisins for luck).

The biggest problem, though, is that compared to other sciences, nutrition--never mind nutrition and sports--is newbie on the science circuit. Every other day we're told that product X is good for us, or bad for us, depending on which news outlet we follow, which scientist published his results in which journal, whether the journalist has any idea what the hell the paper is about (and many of them don't), whether anybody looks over the statistics, and so on. Science, for the most part, moves in one direction, towards more complexity, but nutrition tends to backpeddle, stagnate, and eventually become even more muddled as we seek to define the roles of genes, diet, and environment.

And undoubtedly, there is a large genetic component to who becomes an elite athlete and who doesn't. Whether diet makes or breaks the deal...?

Tomorrow: a brief glimpse into the (pseudo)science behind

1) L-carnitine
2) Carbohydrate loading
3) Protein requirements

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