For years the mantra of many dietitians, nutritionists and doctors has been that fat makes you fat, calories are king and too many eggs will land you in trouble with your cardiologist.

Although nutrition science has moved forward, the thinking of many health experts is stuck in the past, and many of us are still following outdated ideas when it comes to our diets.

From the six-meal myth to the truth about butter, we sort the science from the hearsay and debunk the diet rules that could be stopping you from maximising your performance and health, both on bike and off.

Forget a diet of Twinkies and margarine 
- fat is back and wholefoods are in.

Eggs

  • Then – No more than 2 eggs per week
  • Now – Eggs rule OK

The science
Conventional ‘wisdom’ that the cholesterol in food raises the cholesterol in your blood led to a global veto on eggs, based on the idea that a diet high in cholesterol rich foods would raise the risk of heart disease.
Luckily for egg lovers everywhere, these recommendations are now as retro as the cabbage diet with leading experts agreeing that the cholesterol in food has little if any discernible effect on blood cholesterol levels, with studies failing to show any correlation between dietary cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

Furthermore, data from numerous large-scale clinical studies have failed to find any link between egg consumption and heart disease or strokes, even in ‘at risk’ individuals.

Upgrade your diet
The amnesty on eggs is great news for cyclists – a great source of high quality protein for veggies and meat eaters alike, eggs contain all of the essential amino acids, including leucine, which is important for the synthesis of new muscle protein.

Scrap the limit on eggs and include as part of your post-ride meals to aid recovery — a three-egg omelette or scramble contains the recommended 20 grams of protein to support muscle repair.

Those trying to lose weight will also benefit thanks to the appetite-regulating power of eggs – in one US study, those swapping breakfast cereal for eggs had lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Make them a regular breakfast option by boiling half a dozen at the start of the week and slicing onto toast for convenience, or whizz with a couple of bananas for a flour-free pancake mix.

Fat

  • Then – Fat makes you fat
  • Now – Eat natural fats to fight 
the flab

The science
Since the 1980s, government authorities have been waging a war on dietary fat in the hope that it would diminish rates of heart disease. In subsequent years, advice to limit fat intake has been the cornerstone of pretty much every weight loss programme, based on the premise that at nine calories per gram, fat is the most calorific macronutrient of them all.

Fast forward 30 years and not only have our waistlines continued to expand (we’re officially the fattest nation in Europe), but evidence linking fat and saturated fat intake to cardiovascular disease has become progressively ambiguous, with experts calling for a rethink on guidelines regarding fat.
Evidence backing low-fat diets for weight loss is also increasingly shaky.

In a 2012 study from a Boston children’s hospital, researchers pitted a low-fat diet against a low-carb and low glycaemic index diet in overweight adults. After 10 weeks, those on the low-fat diet experienced the biggest slump in metabolic rate – the speed at which they burned calories. They also had the greatest levels of hunger hormones, and the least favourable levels of blood fats.

Upgrade your diet
If you’ve become fat-phobic, it’s time to rebalance your diet. Yes, fat can be highly palatable, but usually when it’s combined with sugar and additives. Advice to reduce trans (or hydrogenated) fats is still sound, and although most manufacturers have now sworn off the use of trans fats, it’s still worth checking the label as they can be found in cheaper peanut butters and 
processed foods.

Rather than avoid fat, add healthy fats to your diet and meals – according to Team Sky’s nutritionist, Sky riders eat around 100 grams of healthy fat per day in combination with good quality carbohydrates and proteins.

Include olive oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocados and rebalance the amount of omega 6 to omega 3 by swapping vegetable and seed oils for olive or coconut oil and include more oily fish.
There’s also no need to fear butter – it’s one of the few sources of dietary vitamin D, contains fat soluble vitamins and is a natural unprocessed fat.

Eating

  • Then – Graze throughout the day
  • Now – Eat according to your needs

The science
Although our paleolithic ancestors were more likely to follow a pattern of feast and famine, our ‘ready to go’ culture means that we’re never too far from food. Coupled with the idea that grazing is beneficial for everything from metabolic rate to appetite and weight control, recommendations to nibble all day have become synonymous with good health.

Although this might seem sensible advice, the evidence just doesn’t stack up, with numerous controlled studies failing to reveal significant benefits in regard to calorie burn between those who follow a nibbling or gorging pattern.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that weight loss is improved by increased meal frequency, provided total calorie intake is the same. In a 2013 study from Colorado, investigators compared the effect of three v six meals a day on fat oxidation and hunger in normal weight subjects. They found no difference in energy expenditure or fat oxidation, but an increase in hunger and desire to eat in the six-meal group.

Upgrade your diet
Granted, we’re not suggesting you do skip breakfast if that means you end up face down in the biscuit barrel by 11am, but it does mean that if you’ve eaten a decent slow-release breakfast, you don’t necessarily need to snack just to ‘keep your furnace burning’.

The idea is to make it practical for you – -if you fare better on three large meals, stick with it. Similarly if you find that a regular snacking pattern helps you with your energy levels or appetite, then go 
with that.

Remember to take your training into account and plan meals accordingly – during intense training you’ll probably fare best on six meals a day, but as training volume reduces, you can decrease meal frequency. And by teaming slow-release carbohydrates with good quality protein and healthy fats, you’re less likely to need to snack.

Those wanting to shed pounds minus the restrictive nature of a seven-day diet might consider a period of intermittent fasting. Typically this involves restricting your calorie intake on two days out of seven to just 600 for men, or 500 for women, with research suggesting this is as effective as a continuous seven-day calorie restriction in regard to weight loss.

Calories

  • Then – A calorie is a calorie
  • Now – Not all calories are 
created equal

The science
The system used to estimate calories in food was developed in the 1900s, and although it’s a useful method for measuring the energy in food per se, it doesn’t take into account the way in which different foods and nutrients are processed and utilised by the body, and the impact this has on body composition and performance.

For example, the body uses more calories to digest protein than it does fat or carbohydrate. In addition, protein has the biggest effect on satiety, which goes some way to explaining why a higher protein intake can be beneficial for those looking to lose weight.

Processing grains into cereal products (ie breakfast cereal) also means they’re more rapidly digested and raise blood sugars more quickly than foods where the wholegrain is intact, which means that cornflakes will leave you foraging in the cupboards after an hour, while steel-cut oats provide better staying power.

The recognition that not all calories are created equal has even led commercial weight loss companies to review their approach – last year WeightWatchers ditched its old eating plans for a more scientific programme which assigns points based not just on calories, but also the amount of protein, carbohydrate and fibre in foods.

Upgrade your diet
The quality of the calories you’re eating matters as much as the number of calories – put simply, you can’t get away with eating rubbish, even if you’re in energy balance.

Although it’s useful to have a ballpark figure for total calories, such as 2,000 a day, remember that the calculations used to determine requirements are approximations only, and should be only used as a reference point.

Instead of getting fixated on calorie counting, focus on removing refined carbohydrates and processed foods in favour of a nutrient-dense diet. That means a high intake of fruit, salad and vegetables, wholegrains and good quality protein and fats.

Supplements

  • Then – Dietary supplements 
= better performance
  • Now – Eat wholefoods to benefit

The science
For years experts have debated whether those involved in regular sport need dietary supplements, based on the notion that exercise increases the need for certain nutrients. The fact that exercise increases oxidative stress has also led to the theory that antioxidants can protect against exercise-induced damage.

But despite widespread supplementation among athletes, evidence supporting performance enhancing benefits is lacking. 
So what’s going on? Scientists point to the fact that the antioxidant theory is based on original research using dietary compounds in their natural and not synthetic state, ie those from fruits and vegetables rather than vitamin pills.

Research also suggests that antioxidant supplementation may actually blunt the body’s natural adaptive processes – in a 2010 Spanish study from the University of Granada, cyclists displayed a natural adaptive response to an increase in training load, which meant they were able to regulate the increase in oxidative stress, which prevented a large increase in inflammatory markers.

Upgrade your diet
Whereas you may have popped a pill in the past to support your training, the emphasis is now on the use of wholefoods to boost your natural defences.

In a 2012 study from Edinburgh University, researchers found a daily serving (85 grams) of antioxidant-rich watercress was effective in counteracting the DNA damage caused by short bursts of intense exercise, whilst scientists from Germany found that those with a high intake of fruit and vegetables (equal to five portions) had significantly higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of free radical damage than low consumers (equal to one to two portions).

Put simply this means consuming lots of bright and densely coloured fruits, vegetables and nutritious wholegrains and proteins. Aim to include a nutrient dense salad or vegetable dish such as a watercress or spinach salad after a training session, and think about making small adjustments to meals and snacks to increase nutrient density – add cinnamon, flaxseeds or goji berries to porridge, dress salads with olive or walnut oil and seeds, and add leafy greens or a teaspoon of high-quality cocoa powder to smoothies.

Willpower

  • Then – It’s all about willpower
  • Now – It’s all about your environment

The science
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply improve your diet to boost your performance in the saddle, the old-school style of thinking was that your ability to diet or eat well was all down to willpower.

Aside from the advances in nutritional science regarding the importance of diet quality, contemporary psychology has recognised that when it comes to reaching your health and performance goals, your environment is every bit as important as your shopping list.

Dine in front of your PC or laptop and you’ll end up consuming more, and feel less satisfied for it. Studies show that when we combine eating with other activities, our brains miss the subtle signals that tell us we’re full.

Research also shows that the larger the bowl, plate or package and the more you’ll eat – in one study from Cornell University, cinemagoers ate a third more popcorn when it was served in a bigger container – even though it was stale.

Upgrade your diet
Adopt some simple strategies to improve your eating environment. Ban (or at least limit) yourself from desktop dining or eating in front of the TV.

Rid your cupboards of the foods you find hard to resist – or if you can’t bin them put them in an opaque container out of sight. Stack healthy options at the front of your fridge – you’re five times as likely to eat the first thing you see than the third thing, so give the nutritious stuff the priority spot in your fridge.

This article was first published in the May 23 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!

  • Sue Gilmore

    This is a well thought out article and one that many club cyclists would do well to use as a starting point to improve performance. Quality of food is essential, especially when the body is expected to perform at levels most people would find impossible to sustain. Supplementation has it’s place, but without the foundation of understanding what we are eating and its effect, buying pills can be at best a shot in the dark and at worst very expensive.

    This article does not address hydration, so my thought would be to give some consideration to the choice of sports drink and the reason why riders consider it necessary to always have some supplementation during training or an event. It is not always necessary in my opinion and can be a trigger for weight gain and dental caries (also expensive!). Exercise periods of up to an hour would rarely demand a sports drink during that time, especially if the rider has prepared well before and replaces the energy used after the event or training. Everyone is different, so listen to the body.