The saying “use it or lose it” certainly applies to our body, since exercise strengthens bones, muscle, the immune system, life quality and even lifespan. On the other hand, exercise produces free radicals, which damage us and may cause aging. Antioxidants, which eradicate free radicals, are produced by our body and are consumed in the diet. But when consumption is low, an active body cannot keep up: A study comparing the free-radical exercise damage in athletes when following their regular diet versus when restricting their produce intake (1 fruit and 2 vegetable servings per day, which was 3 times less than typical), showed that low produce intake raised exercise damage by 38, 45 and 31% during submaximal exercise, at exhaustion, and after 1 hr of recovery*. In other words, anti-oxidants from plants fight damage both during and after exercise, cutting down the free-radical attack by at least 1/3. When eating more plants, the athletes also felt less pain (perceived exertion), but this did not improve performance significantly during the approximately 40-minute exercise regimen.
Clyde’s Thoughts: Being alive is toxic to our body because we have to breath oxygen, which helps produce free radicals, and our cells have to do things (digest stuff, send signals, move around), which also produces free radicals. And yet doing more (like exercising) makes us healthier. This assumes that we provide our body what it needs. But defining what we “need” is difficult. The more obvious athletic needs are calories, amino acids, and unsaturated fats. These are the macronutrients, and you can get them from an energy bar or in a microwave meal. But it turns out that complete sports nutrition requires plants. Of all the athletes I have worked with at Stanford, Cal and throughout the Bay Area, nearly all who were over-trained were not eating many vegetables. While it is standard “aging” practice in America to not eat salad, it is particularly harmful for the athlete as their body struggles with a tough exercise program. It is interesting to think that exercise with vegetables might lengthen life, while exercise without might shorten it.
Clyde’s Advice: Don’t waste your time with iceberg lettuce or plant products like supplements and fruit juice. Processed powders and liquids are generally 10 times lower in quality than the real foods they come from. Whole grains and fresh fruits are a great start, but only vegetables pack the punch against free radicals produced in hard training. Have a dark salad (e.g. mixed greens or spring mix) with at least 2 veggies on top (e.g. carrot, tomato, red pepper, broccoli, etc) with every lunch and dinner. At the very least, order your burrito or sandwich with extra veggies, at least as a symbolic gesture towards supporting your body.
The Bottom Line: Vegetables are a critical part of sports nutrition.
Reference: “Antioxidant restriction and oxidative stress in short-duration exhaustive exercise.” Watson TA et al., Med Sci Sports Exerc 37 2005 63. Paper quality: 2