Opinion | New food science concepts are powering up the human body
By Augustus K. Yeung
Jaw-droppingly inspired by China's Olympic Games, especially its recent Beijing Winter Olympics, coercively pushed by the pandemic, and the legendary lure of the science-based diet trends, people all over the world are becoming sporty, health-conscious and plant-based food picky as never before.
What comes next is the source of extra or extraordinary power: Just as an advanced industrial and climate change conscious society ultimately requires nuclear power that can only be provided by safe nuclear reactors, so does the human body that necessitates new food concepts to energize the integrated bone-blood-flesh frame aimed at meeting or exceeding the "the extra mile" challenge.
But how do you fuel your body for trail running, for example, which makes extraordinary demands for energy? Or, if you are an elderly person, how do you expect yourself to be sporty, healthy, or energetic?
With demand, comes supply: this is the Newtonian economic principle. The demand for extraordinary energy leads to creative ideas from Asian food scientists who coin new concepts in 21st century.
What's on the Menu?
Mr. Denise Tam, a holistic nutritionist at Food for Life, a Hong Kong online food store, says a well-planned, whole food, plant-based diet can adequately support someone new to running or an athlete training for even a marathon.
Macronutrients – "macros" for short – are the three categories of nutrients we eat the most and that provide most of our energy: protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
"The diet, in terms of macros, would not be any different to a person eating animal products. The only difference is finding healthy plant-based alternative to protein, such as nuts and seeds, and plant proteins like hemp or peas, that are easily digestible," Mr. Tam says.
Easily digestible whole food carbohydrates in fruit, vegetables and legumes are best for running and should be the focus of a vegan diet instead of processed meat alternatives.
Raw-food chef Miss Iris Mak, who was a silver award winner in the 2017 Hong Kong 100km trail race, says plant-based proteins such as beans and other legumes, and soy products such as tofu, along with healthy fats derived from oils, nuts, seeds and avocados are the best ingredients for a well-balanced diet.
Going the Distance
During training, Miss Mak recommends eating more complex, low-GI [glycaemic index] carbohydrates that are higher in fiber, such as brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, pumpkin, and fruit, all of which can be eaten one to two hours before exercise.
Protein can be obtained from eating buckwheat, hemp seed, goji berries and spirulina. It is best to eat complete proteins which contain all nine essential amino acids. Soaking, sprouting and fermenting nuts, seeds, beans and grains before eating them – raw or cooked – can boost protein absorption.
Mr. Tam also recommends making your own running snacks rather than relying on ready-made gels. Nutritious foods to eat on long runs instead of processed gels include home-made energy balls made from a mixture of oat flakes, nut butters and coconut nectar, or bananas and dried fruit.
"It's important to keep your glycogen tank filled in any endurance sport. However, I prefer eating more regularly over reliance on gels, which can be full of sugar and missing other important nutrients, like magnesium and potassium," Mr. Tam says.
Teaching your body to stop burning glycogen and switch to burning for energy is a key component of training.
Mr. Tam advises adding healthy fats such as plant-based omega 3 oils, coconut oil or MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil into the diet while depleting the body of glycogen, so that it eventually uses the extra fat as fuel.
"This way, during a marathon, if your body is running low on glycogen fuel, which is used up very quickly, [it] can quickly tap into the fat stores to keep you running," Mr. Tam says.
Supplementing Your Diet
In general, vegans should look to supplement their diet with iron and vitamins B12 and D, regardless of whether they are on an intensive training program or not.
For athletes, and female athletes in particular, replenishing iron and B12 is very important.
Iron is a key nutrient for athletic performance, as red blood cell production increases during training to help transport oxygen to cells. But vegans can only find non-heme iron, which is difficult to absorb.
"Soy contains a high amount of iron, but in realty we may only be absorbing a small percentage of that iron," Mr. Tam says.
Foods With Benefits
Apart from quicker post-race recovery, some athletes find several other benefits from a vegan diet.
"You have better digestion, a better immune system because fruit and vegetable intake provides vitamins, minerals and prebiotics. You also have higher energy level as less energy is needed [than] for digesting animal meats, plus clearer skin, more restful sleep and lower cholesterol levels," Mr. Mak says.
A new generation of Chinese food scientists have confirmed that vegan diets deliver high energy levels, less inflammation, faster muscle recovery times and even glowing skin.
Record-setting elite athletes in Hong Kong, China who have competed in many ultra-marathons – races of any long-distance over 42km – believe a plant-based diet enhances performance.
Anecdotal evidence from runners suggests being vegan helps athletes recover more quickly, while their speed and endurance are on a par with those of omnivorous runners.
Finally, a word of warning: "You should not blindly follow diet trends or eat a certain way just because someone else is," says Cyrus Luk, a dietitian at Matilda International Hospital, and an executive committee member of the Hong Kong Dietitian Association. "A diet or meal plan that works for one person may not yield the same results for you, dur to differences in age, gender, life-style, and so on.
The author is a freelance writer; formerly Adjunct Lecturer, taught MBA Philosophy of Management, and International Strategy, and online columnist of 3-D Corner (HKU SPACE), University of Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
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