To preface this article, I would like to start with one of my favorite food mottos: “all foods fit!” Yep, that’s right. All foods have a meaningful purpose in the right time and place. Some foods are good at providing essential nutrients to maintain our body’s natural functions & processes, others for providing energy, aiding athletic performance, and some for nourishing the soul. So if you find yourself wondering if a specific food should or should not be in your diet, remember the motto: all foods fit.
Caffeine, Chocolate And Wine
Caffeine, chocolate, and wine are some of those foods that you may find yourself questioning from time to time. Is this really good for my body? Am I getting any nutritional benefit from this food? Why do I want this food so much? How much is ok to consume on a day-to-day basis?
Let’s go through each of the three foods/substances and discuss their pros, cons, and where they optimally fit in our day-to-day nutrition.
Caffeine is a substance found naturally in the fruit, leaves, and beans of coffee, cacao, and guarana plants. It’s commonly added to beverages like coffee, soda, and tea. Many sports nutrition products contain caffeine. You can find caffeine in gels, chews, and electrolyte beverages. Other foods, like chocolate, naturally contain small amounts of caffeine in them.
Consuming caffeine can improve cognitive function & attention – a useful tool to help when you’re studying for finals, trying to stay awake at work, or staying alert while biking on the roads after a long work day. Caffeine is not a source of energy, but it does delay our perception of fatigue. For athletes, this phenomenon improves athletic performance by 2-4%! You’ll be able to run, swim, and bike faster & longer before hitting the pain cave.
For athletes, consuming 3-6 mg/kg of body weight is ideal for performance (for a 160 lb. person, that equates to 218-436 mg of caffeine during an endurance event). Practice with caffeine in key workouts before racing so that you can know the right dosage for your specific body type. Having too much caffeine can lead to GI distress, increased heart rate, jitteryness, etc. It’s important to know how certain doses of caffeine will affect you personally before trying it in a race.
Daily consumption of caffeine in moderate doses is considered safe, but may blunt the performance enhancing effects of caffeine during key workouts or races. Optimally, reserving caffeine intake for days you want to feel your absolute best will provide you with the best results.
Personally I think chocolate should have it’s own category on “MyPlate” or the “Food Pyramid,” but maybe that’s just me! Chocolate is made from ground-up cocoa beans and is found in a wide variety of foods – dessert, baked goods, drinks, bars, protein supplements, etc. It’s delicious and more nutritious than you may have originally guessed.
One phytonutrient in the cocoa powder of chocolate is nitrate. Nitrate is converted to nitric oxide in our bodies which can increase blood flow & enhance athletic performance (in really high doses). Flavonoids are also found in chocolate and have specifically been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. The other ingredients found in chocolate obviously contain calories & are a good source of carbohydrates → two things athletes need to perform optimally. Adding bits of chocolate to your baked goods or in your oatmeal can be a great way for athletes to ensure they are getting an adequate amount of calories and carbohydrates in their diet.
Really the only “con” to chocolate is the tendency for people to restrict their intake of it, which can lead to more negative behaviors surrounding chocolate-y foods (discussed in more detail below).
Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes. Grapes contain a high amount of a compound called “resveratrol” which is protective against cardiovascular disease. However, the alcohol found in wine can prove to be problematic for athletes when used at the wrong time.
As athletes, we are constantly striving to improve our muscle strength and endurance – a process that happens as we work hard and recover from those hard efforts. Alcohol, especially when consumed in large amounts (5 or more beverages in one sitting) can affect your brain and ability to perform physical activities for up to 3 days afterwards. Additionally, alcohol impairs your body’s ability to grow and repair damaged muscle tissue. Thus, negating the main purpose of our athletic efforts.
Alcohol is also a powerful diuretic, which can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Athletes are at a greater risk for cramps and muscle pulls/strains when they are dehydrated. Alcohol provides calories, but our bodies do not have a pathway to convert those calories into energy. So you may feel full, but not energized. Vitamins B12, B1, folate, and zinc are also less able to be absorbed when alcohol is present.
In a nutshell, the timing of wine consumption is paramount to your ability to perform as an athlete. Avoid consuming wine for at least a week before important races, and consider avoiding wine for the majority of important training cycles so you can get the most out of your training. Choose to enjoy wine (and other alcoholic beverages) for the base phase of your training cycles.
Developing A Healthy Relationship With “Off-Limit” Foods
So how can you really make “all foods fit” without overdoing it? Especially with tasty foods like chocolate, coffee or wine?
First, accept that foods that feel “extra tempting” to indulge in are probably the foods you should focus on including in your diet MORE frequently rather than less frequently. This helps you avoid the binge-restrict cyle: do really good at avoiding “x” food for a month, get to a point where you allow yourself to have some, find yourself not able to be satisfied with a “normal” portion of the forbidden food, feel guilty about it, and start restricting all over again.
Phenomenon Of Habituation
If you have ever found yourself in the above scenario, the phenomenon of habituation will be helpful for you. Think of habituation like this: the first time your significant other told you “I love you,” you probably felt overjoyed and told all of your close friends and family members about it. Overtime, the meaning of “I love you” from the same person is still meaningful, but not as dramatic of an event. You aren’t spending every waking moment waiting and wishing for those words to be spoken, and when they are, you can just appreciate them for what they are.
We want the same phenomenon to happen with our food choices. Focus on including one of your forbidden foods in your diet in normal and natural ways: grab a donut in the breakroom at work, celebrate with birthday cake at your nephew’s birthday party, buy a package of reese’s peanut butter cups while standing in the grocery store line. Eventually, if you do it right, you will get to a point where your forbidden food will be less prominent on your mind, you’ll eat it in smaller portions, and be more easily able to say “no” if you aren’t hungry or needing that particular food at that given time. You’ll be more able to focus on the optimal timing of foods/substances like caffeine, chocolate, and wine without second thought, thus finding a space where “all foods fit.”
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