These 4 Nutrition Myths Are Holding You Back

From eating after 8 p.m. to swearing off gluten forever, some dietary "rules" for triathletes are more fiction than fact.

Photo: Getty Images

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It seems like we’re bombarded with nutrition information these days, from every front. Instagram, podcasts, Facebook, your fellow athletes – there’s no shortage of nutrition “experts” at the ready, full of advice on things you must do (or never, ever do) when it comes to fueling as an athlete. Nutrition beliefs that were previously passed through word of mouth now spread like wildfire through these channels, so it’s no surprise that every time you enter a question into Google (“What is the best energy gel for triathlon?” or “Should I go low-carb?”), you’re presented with a multitude of answers – each one claiming to be fact.

There’s a lot of bad sports nutrition information floating around, but there are also some great tidbits to note and apply to your fueling and nutrition. Let’s cut through the pseudoscience behind four common nutrition myths for athletes, and find the truth about how to fuel your body for maximum endurance performance.

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Nutrition Myth #1: Eating at night is bad for you

You’ve probably heard you shouldn’t eat after a certain point in the evening – after sunset, after dinner, after 8 p.m., it depends on the source, but the general sentiment is that eating at night makes you pack on the pounds and ruins your sleep. But for hard-charging athletes, restrictive ideas like this can be dangerous. “Can I eat again after dinner?” Yes, certainly you can. And in some cases, you should.

Many athletes need extra calories, and and there is only so much you can stuff in during the daylight hours. We have plenty of research to show that under-fueling (when athletes consume too little energy through their diet in comparison with their training volume) can result in performance and health concerns, including premature fatigue during workouts and increased breakdown of muscle and bone. If you have not already met your caloric needs earlier in the day, the chances of a pre-bedtime snack resulting in weight gain is pretty slim. Consuming food late at night does not equate to excess fat storage on your body unless you are consuming more calories than you’ve expended for the day. It’s fairly simple math.

It’s important to note that most adverse late-night eating studies have been conducted on the general population, with conditions like obesity. When nighttime feeding is combined with high-volume exercise training, any adverse effects are more likely to dissolve. One study in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise showed that protein consumed shortly before bedtime is properly absorbed and digested and can increase muscle protein synthesis during the night, allowing for enhanced exercise recovery in athletes who work out later in the day. For an endurance athlete gearing up for an early morning workout, a strategic snack at bedtime can help bolster carbohydrate stores for the next day.

As for messing with your sleep, there is a dearth of adequate research to show that eating a reasonable amount of food later in the day results in a poor night’s rest. Certainly, going to bed with a growling tummy is not going to be conducive to a good slumber.

The truth:

Rather than focusing on the time of eating, many athletes would be better served simply making sure they are meeting their overall nutritional needs, regardless of whether some of these calories come when it’s dark outside. So if you are training hard and find yourself holding a bowl of cereal at 10 p.m. don’t beat yourself up over it.

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Nutrition Myth #2: Athletes must carb-load

For many triathletes, carb-loading before a big race is a popular plan of attack and a familiar ritual. But most often, it’s an unnecessary nutrition strategy for performance gains.

The idea of carb-loading is to fill your body’s glycogen stores (in other words, stored energy) to the fullest before a long workout or race. But as long as an athlete is eating sufficient amounts of carbs in their day-to-day diet, then piling on heaps of extra spaghetti on the dinner plate the night before a race to “carb up” is not required. If you’re already eating a fairly high carbohydrate diet (5-10 grams per kilogram of body weight, with the amount needed based on training volume and intensity), adding in extra carbohydrates beyond this amount will likely have minimal impact on your race-day performance. After all, there is only so much glycogen your muscle cells can hold. This is especially true if your workout or race won’t push past the 90-minute mark, but the effect of carb-loading is minimal even in longer races, when adequate carbohydrate is consumed – for an example of this, check out our Half-Ironman (70.3) Nutrition Plan.

The truth:

Eating a greater volume of food than you are used to can bring on stomach and digestive woes, which is no fun to deal with before an important event. If you’ve been eating a lower amount of carbs than what is optimal leading up to the long workout, increasing carbs above normal intake can be quite useful. Otherwise, you probably don’t need to worry too much about topping off the carbohydrate tank with plates upon plates of pasta.

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Nutrition Myth #3: Run away from gluten

Gluten is a protein found in various grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. If you believe the critics, gluten is the enemy. There’s no shortage of athletes who blame gluten for driving up inflammation, causing digestive hell, increasing brain fog, and a host of other ills that can hinder your athletic pursuits. These days, it seems like there’s hardly a minor health or physical performance issue that can’t be fixed by bidding adieu to gluten.

But here’s the rub for gluten haters: research shows most people who believe they are sensitive to gluten can actually eat this wrongly-maligned protein without issue. Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you can likely keep on eating bread and pasta that isn’t labeled “gluten-free,” as the benefits of going gluten-free are dubious. There’s nothing inherently bad about gluten.

Ditching gluten also isn’t the panacea some profess it to be. A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise of endurance athletes (without celiac disease) found that a gluten-free diet failed to improve the athletes’ energy or strength, nor did it reduce their levels of inflammation. Although more studies would be welcomed, this puts at least one nail in the coffin for gluten-free diets and performance.

Blaming digestive troubles on gluten is easy, but there can be another explanation. There are those who experience symptoms when eating wheat, not because of gluten but because of a group of carbohydrates known as FODMAPs — short-chain sugars in foods like legumes, apples and milk which can be poorly absorbed, leading to digestive problems including gas, bloating and pain. This report in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition found that athletes typically consume high FODMAP foods during pre-race dinners and breakfasts and more frequent sports nutrition product use was often related to increased frequency of GI symptoms – perhaps because many of the items the participants were using during exercise were high in FODMAPs. So in these cases, it’s not the gluten, it’s the FODMAPs.

For certain athletes, a low FODMAP diet a few days before a competition or long training session can help curb intestinal distress. A small study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that cutting out specific FODMAP-containing foods for a week alleviated exercise-related gastrointestinal issues including cramps and bloating in 69% of people who experience these when they workout, and also improved a person’s perceived ability to exercise. The study authors speculated that this outcome is likely explained by a reduction in intestinal water volume and gas production, caused by fewer indigestible carbohydrates available for fermentation in the gut. Following a period of a FODMAP-free diet, foods are slowly reintroduced to see what, if anything, is problematic.

The truth:

If you were to try to unnecessarily live without gluten and replace all of your conventional bread, pasta, and baked goods with gluten-free alternatives, you’d see a spike in your grocery bill without actually doing anything to improve your nutrition. Yes, there are some athletes who genuinely feel better on a gluten-free diet, and they might have some sensitivity that has yet to be defined. But this is the exception, not the rule.

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Nutrition Myth #4: Processed foods are always bad news

In pursuit of podium finishes and lasting health, numerous athletes will strive to “eat clean” and tout how they are steering clear of processed foods, as if all processed foods are nutritional boogeymen. But processed foods don’t have to disappear from your diet. Some can help you eat healthfully, boost your performance and keep your food budget under control.

How many triathletes rely on a cup or two of morning coffee (processed), a bowl of dinner pasta (yep, processed), or a scoop of post-workout protein powder (definitely processed)? We shouldn’t be so quick to dump these items into the no-no category. A so-called “processed food” is one that has been changed from its natural state using one or more of these processing methods: washing, freezing, chopping, milling, heating, pasteurizing, dehydrating, fermenting and packaging. That means items like rolled oats, frozen berries, extra-virgin olive oil, canned fish, yogurt and dried fruit are processed foods – yet they can certainly help an athlete meet their nutritional needs. Also, processed foods can lend an assist to an athlete who is lacking in the time and energy to prepare meals from scratch, but who still desires to eat well. If processed foods like canned beans and frozen vegetables help you consistently put meals on the table without overtaxing your time, energy and capability in the kitchen, that’s to be celebrated, not frowned upon.

It’s important to know that not all processed foods are equal. Bags of greasy chips, sugary boxed cereals, fruity yogurt and fast-food burgers are considered “ultra-processed” because they have gone through multiple steps which can strip natural nutrition and add in less-nutritious ingredients, like sugar and salt. Mounting research has linked higher intakes of ultra-processed foods with a host of ailments, including heart conditionsdiabetes and certain cancers.  When the amount of ultra-processed foods in a diet increases, it crowds out more-nutritious processed foods, resulting in a net loss of items like fiber, vitamins and minerals from the diet.

But there is even room in a well-balanced diet for ultra-processed foods. These can bring joy to eating and also provide valuable calories for calorie-crushing athletes. Remember, under-fueling can be problematic to health and performance. There is no proof that eating small amounts of baked goods or deli meats is going to harm your health and performance. Plus, items like gels, sports drinks and energy bars can be lumped into the ultra-processed category, yet they have a place in an athlete’s diet to support training needs. At the end of the day, a sugary gel is going to get you to the finishing line faster than a handful of kale.

The truth:

While some forms of processed foods are certainly best eaten in smaller amounts, many others should not be feared as some diet-pushers would lead you to believe. Welcoming processed foods into your diet can help forge a healthier relationship with eating and make you a better athlete.

Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D., is an author and journalist who specializes in sports nutrition and is the recipient of the 2013 James Beard Award for Food Journalism.

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