Food. It is the stuff of breath and bone and tissue. Amino acids, the foundation of life over the period from primordial existence to the appearance of man, and all the stages of evolution encompassed therein. We are built by our own consumption.
It is no surprise, then, that much of my life is spent thinking about food. A vegan. An athlete. A diabetic. My food is either the antidote to my ills, remedy for my muscles and inhalations as I run and ride, or the toxicant that will slowly kill me.
Before the advent of insulin, diabetics were placed on starvation diets to manage blood glucose levels. Too much food or a morsel of the wrong sort, and the individual risked imminent death. Too little food, and the subject withered and died. Diabetes perched itself on the apex of oblivion, where satiety and starvation were at opposite ends of daily life. The arrival of insulin means I can eat until full…but never without mindfulness.
Our food affects our body in the same ways that our attitudes about ourselves are reflected in the foods we seek. Diabetes has made me more conscious of my consumption, as the ripples of each bite are measured by a finger stick, a droplet of my own blood, a number on a meter. As an athlete, I have to eat to fuel my activity and, as someone with diabetes, I have to eat to control my blood sugar. I’m not just consuming to feel full but, rather, I’m eating to feed my muscles and tissues the nutrients they need to help me perform at my best and remain healthy. So, too, are those athletes without diabetes.
- Muscles burn glucose for fuel and to make sure the body has enough energy to meet demands, it stores glucose in the form of glycogen. That glycogen can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need a boost during periods of sustained athletic efforts.
- For the most part, the body can store enough glycogen to support an hour and a half of moderate-to-intense activity. If the activity is more strenuous, or if the period of exertion is longer than 90 minutes, the body needs additional glucose in order to sustain those same efforts.
- Carbohydrates can be quickly and efficiently broken down by the body into useable glucose. For that reason, most endurance athletes eat a lot of carbohydrates in the days leading up to a race or ride, and carry extra carbs in the form of fast-acting goos, gels, bars and snacks for consumption during the sporting event.
- Without the added energy source, athletes risk a pronounced loss of strength, reduced awareness of what’s going on during the race, and increased irritability and hostility, all combined with the feeling that finishing the ride is an unbearable and impossible task.
- Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains and vegetables are preferable to simple carbohydrates from refined sources because the former are easily digested, providing a slow, steady supply of glucose to the body. At the same time, complex carbohydrates contribute other essential nutrients such as the vitamins and minerals needed for energy metabolism. They prevent the kind of rapid spikes in blood sugar that are problematic for all athletes, and even more so for those with diabetes.
- When you eat processed grains, such as refined flour, the starch quickly turns to sugar. By contrast, complex carbohydrates keep you fuller for longer periods of time, and provide a source of lasting energy for the body.
The best way to load up muscles with energy is by carefully choosing the foods you put in your mouth. The amount of carbohydrates consumed will vary based on individual needs and the physical demands of the activity. A three-mile walk after dinner is less strenuous than a 50-mile road race. The important thing is to work your diet around the amount and the intensity of the exercise you choose, and to tailor your foods to meet those demands.
My favorite pre-workout meal is a simple, nutritious porridge loaded with protein and carbohydrates, as well as heart healthy fats:
- 1 small apple
- ½ cup raw almonds or walnuts
- 3 tbsp of chia seeds
- 3-4 fresh figs
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp alcohol-free vanilla extract or the scrapings of one vanilla bean
- 5 tbsp of hemp hearts*
Combine the apple, nuts, chia seeds, cinnamon, vanilla, and figs with about three tablespoons of water in a food processor. Once it is well combined and smooth, pour it into bowls and top with hemp hearts and some fresh almond milk. The chia and hemp hearts provide a complete protein and good fats, while the apple and figs provide the carbs you need for short-term fuel. Cinnamon greatly reduces the speed at which carbs are converted to glucose, as does the good fats in the meal, so you won’t get a big spike and crash.
*Hemp hearts are shelled hemp seeds, and can be easily found in health food stores. If you cannot locate them, feel free to substitute cooked quinoa.