Do the quality of your nutrients really affect your gains? Our columnist Ben Coomber is a performance nutritionist, coach, speaker, consultant and writer. He investigates how additives could be taking away from your performance in a face-off between natural vs junk food.


The problem with natural vs junk food

The problem with nutrition and sports performance is there’s a whole world of unknown: the grey areas, the it-depends and the maybes. Research might indicate something, but in practice us coaches see different and in application it isn’t always relevant to our scenario. So we are always making a best guess with the knowledge that we have about what you might need to do.

This is the perfect way to look at the topic of junk food and sports performance. There are many people that are high performing on what is viewed as a junk food diet. And I always ask myself the question, ‘What if their diet was better, “cleaner,” more nourishing, what could they achieve then?’

See, when you eat junk food there is a whole world of unknown: there are additives, preservatives, rancid fats and mini man-made monsters that we just have no idea what they are doing to the human body long term.


Long-term safety of junk food

Many of these compounds are proven as safe short term, but not many compounds or additives have been tested long term on humans. Most know short term they are fine, we don’t keel over and die after a Big Mac washed down with a McFlurry, so why should we be worried?

Despite us hitting what we might need in terms of our calorie and macronutrient requirements to fuel recovery and performance, what else is coming along for the ride? Well, we don’t know. This is where we are guessing as coaches. We are making the assumption that whole, natural foods that don’t contain additives and preservatives could be better for our performance. They don’t contain chemicals, which we could argue, despite amounts being known as safe at this point in time, will allow the body to work in a more optimal state.

Think of carbohydrates. If we compared a portion of brown rice to a portion of processed carbohydrates, such as a bowl of high fibre breakfast cereal, what effect could that have on our mitochondria and its optimal function?


natural vs junk food



Mitochondria – fuel for the body

See, the mitochondria fuel our bodies. They are the powerhouses, and need a combination of carbohydrates and fat to make the energy that gets you to work optimally. So, can we argue that the quality of nutrients will affect your performance ability with the quality of food that we eat?

The answer lies in a food’s effect on our blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates not managed in meals effectively, like our cereal, will feel like they affect your sports performance in a big way. But if your blood glucose level raises quickly due to junk or simple carbohydrates then it will fall quickly. Thus if you exercise two to three hours after eating that meal you’ll be training right when your blood glucose is taking a nose dive. And that’s going to make you feel like there is nothing in the tank.

This is why more complete and balanced GI carbohydrates, like our brown rice, are often recommended. We can get a better energy release that makes us feel higher performing.

And we’ve all been there feeling tired going into training not knowing why, and our answer is just to reach for a cup of coffee or a pre-workout drink as a solution. Except the problem was in your pre-workout meal: the carbohydrates may have been too simple, there may have been too many carbs, the carbs may have been too processed even though they are high in fibre. Getting the balance is key.


Natural foods – a better solution

And here’s the thing: natural foods leave next to no room for error. However you can’t be sure if a processed food has the precise balance of macro and micro nutrients that are on its label because of all those ‘unknowns’ we covered earlier.

So work out what the ideal ratio of carbs, fats and protein is needed for you to perform optimally in training or in your sport. It’s trial and error, but worth it because performing optimally is what creates lasting results and long-term motivation to succeed.

Think about that next time you’re staring at the bottom of an empty cereal bowl.