When a fit and healthy person is facing ongoing problems that the medical world can’t explain, it’s time to take a hard look at diet.
Throughout my career as a professional athlete, eating well has been key to my performance.
My diet has always been composed of healthy foods, and for most of my life I have stuck to a healthy balance of the widely recommended low-fat foods, including grains, pasta, couscous, whole-grain bread, and tortillas, as well as lots of fruits and vegetables, fish, meats, and nuts. I ate very few processed or packaged foods, in part because I have always enjoyed cooking from scratch and shopping at farmers markets.
Despite my best efforts to maintain a healthy diet and compete professionally, several years ago I began experiencing problems. My fitness and preparation were as good as they had ever been, but I found myself not feeling as good come race day. I was experiencing bloating, greater water retention—giving me a heavy, puffy feeling—increased lethargy, and shortness of breath. There was no reasonable explanation, at least in my mind—my fitness, health, and mental preparation were good going into the races. Per sports nutrition recommendations, I did change up my healthy, clean diet in the days leading up to a race by eating less fiber and fat to reduce the potential for gastrointestinal issues. Instead, I ate more refined carbohydrates: sweets, breads, and sugared sports drinks.
Because the most acute problems were happening when I raced, I figured they might be related to the carbo-loading I was doing prior to race day—which was often heavy on gluten-containing breads or cereals. So I cut gluten out of my pre-race diet.
Right away, I felt like I could breathe better on race day—it was somehow easier.
Because of the improvement, I didn’t see a need to make additional changes to my daily diet; I simply focused on eliminating bread, pasta, and wheatbased cereals. I still ate some packaged foods with trace amounts of gluten, but I wasn’t overly strict. In other words, I was confident I did not have celiac disease but understood that a low-gluten diet seemed to work better for me. As time went on, I continued to notice a difference, although it wasn’t as pronounced as it had been at first. The difficult breathing episodes seemed to abate, but my on-again, off-again habits were bringing new issues to my attention. If racing was going to be my livelihood and profession, I knew I needed to figure out exactly which foods were leading to setbacks.
I began researching food intolerances and their effects on the body, eliminating specific foods in a more conscientious way, and taking note of the different impacts those dietary adjustments had on my body, mind, and athletic performance. This wasn’t an entirely random process, as I drew on my scientific nutritional education and knowledge in combination with personal experience. By strictly avoiding all inflammatory foods and my own identified “trigger foods,” such as gluten and grains, and by reducing my reliance on carbohydrate-heavy foods, I found that my body weight was easier to maintain. The headaches I had endured for years lifted, along with the brain fog, which did wonders for my mood and encouraged me to continue to make better food choices. I focused more on proteins such as fish, poultry, and meats and included plenty of healthy natural fats along with an abundance of vegetables and fruits. The improvements were obvious.
To my surprise, I didn’t miss eating grains, and I found myself to be less hungry in general. I felt physically and mentally strong when I ate the right foods.
Looking back, I believe there were other signs of my food intolerances and sensitivities, starting with those headaches I had endured for years. I assumed everyone experienced a headache at some level from time to time, so unless the severity ramped up, headaches really didn’t bother me. At one point they were so frequent, almost constant, that I couldn’t remember not having one. Because I tend to hold tension in my neck and shoulders, tightness through these areas would cause my headaches to worsen. But even with massage, stretching, physical therapy, and strict attention to postural habits, the headaches persisted. I had my eyes checked, my hearing and balance checked; I even had some other scans and tests done just to make sure the headaches weren’t the result of some other medical issue, but all the results came back showing nothing was wrong.
Despite relatively low running mileage, I suffered from multiple stress fractures. As I met with success on the track, I took a more conscientiously focused approach to my training, but the stress fractures only increased. The problem persisted as I started competing in triathlon, despite no identifiable cause.
I have always had access to extremely good doctors, but they had no satisfactory explanation for my stress fractures, iron deficiencies, or any of my other symptoms. When a fit and healthy person is facing ongoing problems that the medical world can’t explain, it’s time to take a hard look at diet.
For me, this exploratory journey became both personal and professional. Through formal study, including a master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics, as well as credentials in sports nutrition and dietetics, research, and experience working with others, I have found that changes in diet can have profound effects on health as well as performance. I have also discovered that sometimes the results of dietary changes can’t be confirmed through definitive tests. But the proof really lies in the individual’s response, whether it is a significant change in body weight and composition, reduction or complete elimination of long-term troubling symptoms, or the results chalked up on race day.
My new book The Athlete’s Fix will help you find your problem foods—and the foods that make you feel and perform your best. The Athlete's Fix offers a sensible, three-step program to identify food intolerances, navigate popular special diets, and develop your own customized clean diet that will support better health and performance.
Find The Athlete’s Fix in bookstores; bike, run, and tri shops; and online from VeloPress, Pip Taylor (Australian orders, please), Fishpond Australia, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and your local independent bookseller.