An obvious priority for all athletes is optimal muscle function. In particular, the connection between the brain and each skeletal muscle fiber throughout the body. Our muscles continually renew themselves, something that is more noticeable after a long or hard workout. Providing the body with the best nutrition, starting with making ideal food choices, should be a main concern. Virtually all of nature’s vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are required for this to happen. And, healthy fats are necessary too, along with phytonutrients from vegetables and fruits, all of which assist in muscle repair, maintenance, and avoiding chronic inflammation.
The earliest humans had a somewhat symbiotic relationship with other animals, despite being threatened by them. Large carnivores could easily tear an adult apart. While smarter humans could better survive, the animals killed other easier prey, feasting on the most nutritious parts—the liver, stomach, brain, heart, and other organs and glands. Humans sat by from a distance like vultures, waiting for the feast to end. What remained was muscle meat, and human scavengers had a more-than-ample source of rich, energizing food vital for better brain and body development. This nutrition source was essential for building their own muscles to better escape predators, and ultimately, as the brain evolved, improved knowhow for hunting and the creation of tools for added success.
Today, some things are not much different. We don’t have to wait for a lion to kill and splurge on an antelope, then drag the carcass off to munch on the meat. Instead, can go to a local farm or retail stores to buy our meat. We still tend to eat the less nutritious parts of animals—the muscle meat—and leave the high quality organs and glands for companies to make pet food.
Muscle protein synthesis—the making of new muscle fibers—is dependent upon amino acid availability. This starts with the selection and consumption of protein foods. The best meal for your muscles, if you are avoiding the organs and glands, may be muscle itself. This comes in the form of beef, along with other animal muscle sources.
Beef may also be one of our safest choices, if we go out of our way to find healthy versions. It may be from a local farm where animals are grass-fed and not given drugs, exposed to chemicals or treated inhumanely. Organic meats are a good option too, but are not guaranteed to be 100 percent grass fed.
The same issues apply to other meats including various types of fowl, pork, and venison. If available, fish from the far northern or southern cold water might be an option, but that is not readily available. Most other fish is too contaminated to eat with regularity. Cheese and other fermented dairy is a good option, but only if healthy milk is used to make it.
Overall, more healthy beef is readily available for more people compared to other quality sources. The one exception is eggs, which are also an excellent protein, and a near perfect food when the yolk is included.
More Than Meat
For many athletes, just eating these foods isn’t always enough. Modern humans must deal with a danger worse than predators: Stress. Charles Darwin said it’s not the fittest who survive nor the most intelligent, but those who can best adapt to their environment. Today, we refer to this adaptation as coping. But for too many people, coping with modern stress is unsuccessful, producing various consequences ultimately affecting our muscles.
Obtaining and properly preparing healthy food is a lost art in today’s hectic world where unfit fast food reigns. Too often, there just isn’t time to sit down to enjoy a great breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead, longer commutes, increased job hours, family activities, and trying to squeeze training into an already full daily schedule make it very difficult. Even when there is a meal to sit down to, mental stress can poke its ugly head.
Many of our stresses are ones we create ourselves, and therefore can also control. These include those that are physical, chemical and mental (see “Simplifying Stress”). Even if we consume the perfect diet for our particular needs, stress can impair the body’s ability to properly utilize the nutrients contained in it.
About a hundred years ago, medical student Hans Selye performed research to discover just what happens to the body under undue stress. Specific physiological functions start to break down with excess stress, beginning in the brain, adversely affecting the adrenal glands, and other body areas. This includes the muscles, which are both directly and indirectly affected. In fact, overtrainingfollows the same physiological patterns as other stress syndromes, whether they are calledburnout, or nervous breakdown.
One of the first casualties of too much stress is our gut, and its ability to properly digest food. In particular, reductions in the production of healthy stomach hydrochloric acid vital for digestion of protein foods and its preparation for amino acid absorption.
We live in a society where stomach acid is seen as a bad thing, with billions of dollars spent on over-the-counter and prescription drugs to treat intestinal symptoms—most being unsuccessful. The fact is our stomach acid is necessary for many functions, including digestion and absorption of nutrients from food, preventing intestinal infections, avoiding cancer, and others.
Low levels of stomach acid, called hypochlorydria, increase with age. This is partly due to the accumulation of stress. It’s also associated with other illness. For example, the problem is common in those with asthma and allergies, even in children. Likewise for anemia, gastritis and other gut conditions, too. Hypochlordydria is common in some people with H. pylori and other infections.
More serious reduction in stomach acid—or the production of none, called achlorhydria—is seen in serious illness such as intestinal cancer. (The condition of too much stomach acid is much less common.)
The use of a dietary supplement called betaine hydrochloride, which quickly converts to hydrochloric acid when consumed after a meal, is a longtime treatment for those with reduced hydrochloric acid. (Adding an oregano oil supplement in cases of H. pylori can work wonders—see your healthcare professional.)
How does all this relate to our muscles? As stress levels rise and stomach acid drops, digestion of protein foods is significantly reduced. While this has been known for decades, a recent study reminded us of its significance. It was demonstrated that ground meat was better digested than eating a whole piece of steak. No surprise here as many people don’t digest well due to stress. Also measured were the amino acids absorbed from the beef, and it was found that less was in the bloodstream in those who ate streak versus the ground meat.
This does not mean we should eat only ground meat. The real problem is poor digestion, and if stress is the cause, reduce it! But there is another important aspect of eating that can help our muscles.
A key component of good stomach function involves chewing our food. The mastication of meat, for example, allows the stomach to better digest it, resulting in more amino acid absorption. With improper chewing and inadequate stomach acid, we may not obtain the nutrients in the food—as if we were not even eating a healthy meal.
In addition to reductions in normal stomach acid with aging and stress, muscle mass commonly reduces over time, a condition called sarcopenia. We can slow this process significantly by being healthy, properly using our muscles, and consuming quality protein foods, primarily animal sources.
If you have an athletic body, even though it is full of meat, it is not easy being a vegetarian, or especially vegan. It is certainly possible. But the real question is this: Can one reach his or her athletic potential without consuming animal products?
It is a very difficult task—actually impossible—to obtain all the necessary nutrients, considering how many are not available in a strict vegetarian diet. These include vitamins A, B12, the amino acids such as cysteine and creatine, and more.
Some argue that mushrooms, tempeh, miso and sea vegetables provide some vitamin B12, for example. But these sources may not prevent deficiency because they contain an inactive form of B12 (unlike the active version in meat). Likewise with other nutrients such as iron, found in spinach, but not as useful for humans due to its lower rate of absorption. And, while fruits and vegetables contain a lot of beta carotene, that must be converted to vitamin A, something that is not very efficient in humans. The same holds true of the important omega-3 fat EPA—the only high quality source comes from animals, especially fish. The amino acid glutamine—used as a primary energy source for the gut, is found in high amounts in meat sources, as long as one does not cook it much (rare beef is best). Read “Vegetarianism” for more information.
Bad Food Combo
Around the same time Selye was studying stress, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was researching human digestion, and how certain combinations of food interfere with it. The most dangerous combination is eating concentrated protein and carbohydrate at the same meal. The modern meat and potato-type diet can impair digestion, with the potential of not obtaining the amino acids for muscles (not to mention indigestion). Likewise for a ham and cheese sandwich, spaghetti and meatballs, or just having dessert after a steak and salad. In fact, many of today’s protein products even contain added sugar, including many deli and packaged meat and fish items (see, “What is Junk Food”). Avoid combining meat, eggs and cheese with concentrated carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread, potatoes, cereal, and all those products made with sugar. (Fruit and honey are monosaccharides and won’t interfere with protein digestion.)
Many of the topics mentioned here are discussed in more detail in my recent books, and on this Web site: