How much nutritional benefit do you think your body gets from 33 calories of kale (roughly one serving) Vs 33 calories of refined sugar??
Your nutrition matters and while each person has individual needs, I think 95% of people practicing jiu jitsu just first need to focus on some key principles to feel and perform great, everything else is a just a bonus, focus first on strong basics, just like your Jiu Jitsu training. You’re putting a lot of physical demand on your body and with just some small changes, you can make a huge difference to how you feel and perform.
The hunt it, pick it, grow it principle
The main principle I follow with nutrition is, avoid processed foods. This will help you avoid most of the nutritional ‘dangers’ I’ll discuss. Yet, this can be confusing, so how do you judge what a processed food is??
However, foods such as bread, pasta, pre-made fruit juices, pre-made sauces, pre-made salad dressings, breakfast cereals, pastries, fast food, potato chips, biscuits etc are man made. You can’t guarantee the making processes, how much of the nutrition is lost and the ingredients in them……in particular, HIDDEN SUGARS.
I won’t bang on about how bad sugar is for you, you’ve heard it all before, plus it would take up the whole article. I will just leave you with the chart on sugar consumed per individual in the US and UK and the trend of obesity.
In summary: Stick to unprocessed foods so you know what is in your diet and if buying anything pre-made, PLEASE READ THE LABELS. Look out for sugars or any of the 56 names in the image below…...sorry the food industry is out to get you.
Don't be scared of fat....from the right sources
I’ll forewarn you, this section gets a little more technical. Yet, I highly encourage you to read it fully. I’m sure what most people have believe, is contrary to the evidence I’ll present. Read it through and I’ll try my best to provide an easy to follow summary at the end. This information will ruffle a few feathers, although VITALLY IMPORTANT that you read it...
….really important, some of this stuff is scary.
First, why do you need fat in your diet?
Fat is an essential nutrient. Your body can't synthesise fat on its own and it increases the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K.
Fat contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate. So, fat is a greater source of energy per gram, for low intensity exercise. An article presented by the NSCA shows in a fasted state and when exercising at low intensity, fat is used as a fuel source over carbohydrate. Even training Jiu Jitsu for one hour, five times per week, for most of your week your activity level will be low. Therefore, fat is far more likely to be a fuel source for your body than carbohydrates. Yes, you still need carbohydrates, although maybe not as much as you think. More on that later.
Bottom line, your body needs fat…..although from the right sources.
What is the common belief on good vs bad fats?
Taken from the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
- Avoid saturated fats: it raises LDL cholesterol which can put you at risk from heart attacks and other major health problems
- Eat more unsaturated fats: to help lower LDL cholesterol, the two types of unsaturated fat are
- Mono-unsaturated fats: olive oil, avocados and nuts
- Polyunsaturated fats: sunflower oil, corn oil, vegetable oil
- Avoid trans fats: this is when vegetable oil hardens through a process where hydrogen is added. Look out for “partially hydrogenated oils” and you’ll find it in many fried fast or processed foods.
This is the section that you really need to read.....carefully.
Some of the above I agree with. Some I’m strongly against. Let me present some evidence here and you can make your own mind up:
- Saturated fats: the view that saturated fat is a major risk factor in heart disease has been around for some time. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 that studied the effect of saturate fat on heart disease reviewed 21 studies across a group of 347,747 subjects, concluded that ‘There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD (Conorary Heart Disease) or CVD (Cardiovascular Heart Disease)". The British Medical Journal in 2015 looked at 'saturated fats and trans fats effect on heart disease and other major illnesses’ reviewing a total of 41 saturated fat studies and concluded that "Saturated fats are not associated with all cause mortality, CVD, CHD, ischemic stroke, or type 2 diabetes, but the evidence is heterogeneous with methodological limitations"
- Trans fats: in the same study mentioned above published in the British Medical Journal, a further 20 studies were assessed to measure the impact of trans fats. It concluded "Trans fats are associated with all cause mortality, total CHD, and CHD mortality, probably because of higher levels of intake of industrial trans fats than ruminant trans fats"
- Unsaturated fats: what becomes relevant here are the ratios of omega 6 to omega 3 in your diet. In the 2002 study ‘The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids’ stated the human diet has evolved with a ratio of roughly 1:1 between omega 6 and 3. Modern Western diets can be as high as 16:1, meaning omega 6 is 16 times higher in the diet than omega 3, when it should be at the same level. High ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 promote many diseases, including; cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. There is evidence that improving the ratio closer to 1:1 reduced the risk of those diseases. So, what is causing the high ratios of omega 6 in our diets. If we look at some very typical ‘healthy’ polyunsaturated fats we can see the ratios:
- Corn oil; 46 to 1
- Vegetable oil: is usually a combination of the above oils
- Other oils that have no omega 3 and high amounts of omega 6 are: Cottonseed, Sesame and Peanut
- Canola: 2.2 to 1
- Soybean oil: 7.5 to 1
- Safflower oil: has no omega 3 and is ~75% omega 6
- Sunflower oil: has no omega 3 and is ~65% omega 6
- Oxidation of polyunsaturated fat: I’ve found less studies on this, although I see it discussed online by Mark Sisson amongst others. The claim is that polyunsaturated fats are prone to oxidisation, in particular when these oils are subjected to heat via cooking or just during storage. I did find this study looking at 'intake of polyunsaturated fat and oxidative stress on the body’ and if you look at the 'impacts of oxidative stress’ it’s quite alarming. They are; neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, heart and blood vessel disorders, kidney disease, to name but a few. Even if more evidence may be needed, just another reason to steer clear of oils high in polyunsaturated fat; soy bean oil, corn oil and sunflower oil etc.
To summarise the above paragraph
- Saturated fat: evidence presented found no links between heart disease or rates of death from eating saturated fat.
- Trans fat: evidence presented found significant links between heart disease and rates of death being increased by eating trans fat
- Polyunsaturated: evidence presented shows eating a diet high in omega 6 is linked to several diseases and oils high in polyunsaturated fat (e.g. sunflower oil) have very high levels of omega 6. Polyunsaturated fat is more likely to become oxidised and oxidative stress in the body is linked to several diseases. This is the scariest part to me. There is evidence to show that some of the fats you’re encouraged to eat (e.g. sunflower, corn and vegetable oil) could in fact be linked to several diseases.
- Monounsaturated fat: no major evidence is presented against eating monounsaturated fats in the above evidence, although be careful its coming from natural sources, e.g. avocados, almonds, olive, as some sources like canola and peanut oil as they high ratios of omega 6.
If you want to go a little deeper on omega 3 and omega 6 ratios then you can read this great article by Chris Kresser ‘How to much omega 6 and not enough omega 3 is making us sick’ and another great article ‘Most processed vegetable oils are toxic’ released by Seattleorganicrestaurants.com, which goes deeper again on all kinds of oils and fats. For even more reading on the failure to demonstrate clear links of replacing saturated animal fats with polyunsaturated fats causing heart disease and the links between vegetable oil and cancer, then read ‘Good Fats, Bad Fats: Separating fact from fiction’ by Christopher Master John.
In summary: what is my advice in relation to eating fat?
- Don’t be scared of saturated fat if it comes from the right source: grass fed beef and butter from grass fed cows, free range (ideally organic) eggs, coconut oil etc, rather than processed foods.
- Eat plenty of foods with a higher ratio of omega 3 than omega 6: oily fish, flax seed, chia seed.
- Go easy on nuts and seeds: yes nuts and seeds have a multitude of health benefits, although some do have high levels of omega 6. Make sure you balance it out with saturated fats and omega 3 rich foods as mentioned above. In particular sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, pecans and pistachios have high ratios of omega 6 to 3. Chia seeds and flaxseeds are the reverse, they have a higher omega 3 than omega 6 content, so they’re a better option.
- Avoid oils high in omega 6: for this one see the table below.
- Avoid trans fats: margarine, deep fried food, fast food, pastries, donuts, biscuits, cookies etc…..the list could go on, just remember, stick to whole food ingredients
Eat more leafy green veg
Eating more of any vegetables is a great step. Why leafy green vegetables?
Quite simply, they are the most nutritious.
One study looked at 47 fruits and vegetables and measured their levels of Iron, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C and Vitamin K. They ranked them into the following order and the top 16 are all green vegetables…..bit of a pattern. Your body needs nutrients and if you’re training Jiu Jitsu on a regular basis you’re putting greater demands on your body. You're more likely in need of these nutrients to operate and feel at your best. I say ‘more likely’ only because most sports recovery studies are done based on carbohydrate, fat and protein intake, not micro nutrients you’ll find in vegetables. If anyone knows of relevant studies, please let me know!In terms of what vegetables to pick…..well look at that lovely list below for the top 20. You can get the full list here.
Get enough protein
Referring to the guidelines set out in the NSCA ‘Essentials of Strength of Conditioning’ the minimum amount of protein needed daily is 0.8g per KG of body weight (0.36g/pound of bodyweight). This applies for men and women. However, this guideline is for the general population. If you’re training Jiu Jitsu or strength training, then you’re requirements are going to be much higher.
A general guidelines for athletes is to consume between 1.5 to 2.0g of protein per KG of bodyweight.
Each individual’s training regime is different and drive different protein requirements. Aiming for this range is a good guide for most people. For example:
- Someone weighing 185 lb / 84 kg would require between 126 and 168 g of protein per day
- Someone weighing 125 lb / 57 kg would require between 85.5 and 114 g of protein per day
Isn’t that too much protein?
Before you pass judgement, measure how much protein you’re eating for two weeks, make sure it is in the right range and see how you feel and perform. According to the NSCA ‘Essentials of Strength of Conditioning’, concerns about eating more than 0.8 g per KG of bodyweight daily seems to be unfounded in healthy individuals. Excess protein gets broken down by the body and either used as an energy source, stored as fat or excreted. Only if you hit ranges of 4.0 g per KG of bodyweight do you need to be careful, although that would be one hell of a lot of protein to hit those levels.
What about the source of the protein?
I’m glad you asked! Animal proteins have a higher biological protein value and typically contain the complete profile of all amino acids (the building blocks of protein). It is recommended 65% to 75% of protein should come from animal sources; meat, eggs, fish, whey etc. If you’re eating a plant based diet you may need to work more towards the 2.0 g of protein per KG of bodyweight to ensure a high enough amount of protein is available to the body. Also ensure you’re getting a complete amino acid profile if eating only plant based proteins. You can read this article ’12 Complete vegetarian proteins’ for a good place to start on combining plant proteins.
However, remember the section of fats? Most protein sources have fat in them, so another consideration I recommend is to pick your protein sources to best balance the correct fats in your diet.
What about when losing weight?
Again, another great question. When losing weight, typically you’re going to be in calorific deficit. Some of the protein you consume is used by the body as fuel, rather than just growth and repair. So, you’re body is going to need more protein as a result. In those scenarios, consider adding a little more protein than usual to your diet to maintain your lean muscle mass and only lose fat.
Add salt to your water
Salt provides an essential mineral needed for bodily function, sodium chloride. Also, when we sweat we lose predominantly sodium chloride and to a lesser extent potassium.
It is recommended by the NSCA for athletes who sweat profusely (hands up if you sweat like mad in Jiu Jitsu?!?) to add more sodium (salt) to your diet or drinking water.
Which salt should you use?
Sticking to avoiding processed foods, I avoid table/regular salt, use sea salt for cooking add a pinch of Himalayan (Pink) salt to drinking water. Himalayan salt is shown to have traces of 84 different minerals (including potassium), quite impressive, and I notice a big difference in my hydration and energy levels when adding it to my water.
Time your carbs if trying to lose weight
Jiu Jitsu is not an aerobic sport, i.e. activities of consistent moderate to low intensity lasting 2 to 3 minutes or longer.
Second, outside jiu jitsu and strength training, most people lead a fairly inactive life. Either at work or travelling to and from work, your body is operating at a very low levels of intensity. So fat is far more likely to be used a fuel source. Even if you’re walking around, that is still a low intensity activity.
Third, your body is able to store between ~400g to 500g of glycogen in the body. This is what the body makes from carbohydrates and what is used as a fuel source during bouts of moderate to high intensity activity. These stores are quite easily restored for most activities within 24 hours, if you eat adequate carbohydrates within a 4 to 6 hour window after exercise. Between 0.7 g and 3.0g per KG body weight every two hours.
In summary: you’re not an endurance athlete and even if you train jiu jitsu 5 times per week, you’re sedentary for most of your time, so you don’t need to eat as much carbohydrate as you think. Carbohydrate is less likely to be used as a fuel source during periods of inactivity, eating excess carbohydrates are likely get stored as fat. Focusing on eating your carbs in the 4 to 6 hour window after you exercise should provide enough glycogen in the muscles. It will also be stored in the body for ~24 hours to be there for your next workout.
Focus on the 95%
Paraphrasing, 80% of your results come 20% of your efforts. Or, focusing on a few high impact items will drive most of your results.
My opinion in nutrition you can even further. I.e. 95% of your results come from a few simple principles. When I say focus on the 95%, focus on the changes to your nutrition that are going to provide your biggest results. Try not to worry about the minor things that will only impact about 5% of your results……make sense? I hope so and let me give you an example.
A recent client said to me “Should I eat almonds or walnuts? I was told walnuts have higher XXX in them and are better for you?” Then “Chia seeds are fat soluble and are better for removing toxins from the body. Should I eat more of those?"
Both may well be true. However, during the early stages of changing your diet, more nuts and seeds in general are great. Focusing on nuts and seeds will give you a far bigger impact than what type of nuts and seeds you eat. Another example, eating free range eggs or free range organic eggs. Eating mackerel or salmon. Focusing on whole food nutrition is more important than the types you choose within those groups.
I may be contradicting myself as I've gone into depth, in particular around fat. So these details are important. Although I know many people try to get everything done at once. They find healthy eating too hard and give up. If you just have to pick one principle at a time, then great. Fit the principle broadly into your diet and work from there. Each step will be a step in the right direction.
As you get results you will need to fine tune to further improve your diet. Take it one step at a time. Save yourself the stress and don’t get overly caught up in the detail at the start. Form these broad principles as a habit first. Basics first, detail later. Again, just like Jiu Jitsu.
Now, what were those principles again…...
- The hunt it, pick it grow it principle: avoid processed foods. Stick to whole food ingredients as much as possible.
- Don’t be scared of fat from the right sources.
- Fats to eat: saturated fat from grass fed, free range, organic unprocessed sources. E.g. beef, eggs, fish, butter, coconut oil. Also eat foods with higher ratios of omega 3 versus omega 6, oily fish, flax seeds, chia seeds
- Go easy on nuts and seeds: yes they have great health benefits, although some can have high levels of omega 6, e.g. sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, pecans and pistachios. Balance it out with the foods in the above point.
- Avoid oils and fats high in omega 6: safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, sesame, peanut, soybean, canola and walnut oils.
- Avoid trans fats: watch foods such as; margarine, deep fried food, fast food, pastries, donuts, biscuits, cookies etc.
- Eat more leafy green veg: all veg is good. Green and in particular leafy green veg tends to be much higher in nutrients.
- Get enough protein:
- Eat 1.5 to 2.0g of protein per KG of body weight per day if training jiu jitsu and / or strength training regularly.
- Animal sources of protein are more likely to be complete proteins and should make up 65% to 75% of your protein.
- If you are eating all plant based proteins, you may need to eat more towards the 2.0 g per KG of bodyweight.
- If you are eating all plant based proteins, combine foods to get a complete amino acid profile in your diet.
- Add salt to your water: when we sweat we lose sodium. If you avoid processed foods you may need to add salt to your water to help replace the lost sodium. Use either sea salt or himilayan (pink) salt, the latter has traces of 84 minerals
- Time your carbs if trying to lose weight: you probably don’t need as much carbohydrate as you think. Eating enough in the 4 to 6 window after you train should provide enough to recover and train the next day
- Focus on the 95% first: try not to lose yourself in the details. Basics first, details later.
Lastly a disclaimer.
I have based the advice in this article on either research or to a lesser extent personal experience. As a qualified strength & conditioning specialist I have been tested on key nutritional principles. However, I am not a medical professional. If you have specific concerns about implementing any of the above changes to your diet, please seek advice from a medical professional.