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Health Tips & Advice

Debunking Sports Nutrition Myths

By Leslie Beck, RD Medcan’s director of food and nutrition

Two nutrition experts correct or confirm popular notions about performance and diet.

Plenty of information exists on the internet about what you should eat and drink to optimize athletic performance. But you can’t believe everything you read. I recently spoke with Dr. Stuart Phillips, a global expert on nutrition and performance adaptation who runs McMaster University’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence, to sort through sports nutrition facts and fallacies. Here are four so-called truisms we discussed.

Chocolate milk is the best recovery drink after a hard workout: TRUE (or at least, it’s on the list)

The idea that chocolate milk is an ideal post-workout drink for muscle recovery has been out there for years. Turns out, the nutrient composition of chocolate milk supports this.

An intense workout like HIIT (high-intensity interval training), or an endurance workout (e.g., running, cycling), burns muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores and, to a lesser extent, muscle protein. The longer you work out, the more glycogen and protein your muscles break down for energy.

Chocolate milk supplies 3 grams of carbohydrate for every gram of protein, a ratio thought to be optimal for rebuilding muscle glycogen stores. Plus, the beverage delivers fluid to rehydrate along with electrolytes (e.g., sodium, potassium chloride), which are lost in sweat.

Over the years, Dr. Phillips has conducted pioneering studies on protein and performance adaptation—so I asked for his take on how chocolate milk stacks up against other recovery drinks. He told me that he and a McMaster colleague have discussed the benefits of chocolate milk and concluded that, if you factor in the cost as well as the drink’s nutritional benefits for recovery, the beverage is hard to beat.

“I don’t know if it’s the best,” he says. “I could probably concoct some sort of whey protein, high-carbohydrate beverage, and say it’s better, but it’ll also cost a lot more than a carton of chocolate milk.”

To build muscle, plant-based eaters need to eat more protein than meat eaters: FALSE.

The notion that animal protein is superior to plant protein for making strength and muscle gains stems from the fact that animal and plant proteins contain different compositions of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Animal proteins contain all nine “essential” amino acids in sufficient quantities to support growth and repair and maintain body tissues. (The body can’t make essential amino acids on its own; they must come from diet.) Plant proteins, on the other hand, are low in one or more essential amino acids. As well, plant proteins are digested less well than proteins in animal foods.

“Ten years ago, I’d have told you that people who are on plant-based diets need to eat more protein,” says Dr. Phillips. However, recent nutritional science research has prompted Dr. Phillips to change his mind. For example, a 2021 study in Brazil compared strength and muscle growth in healthy young men who undertook a 12-week resistance training program. Half of the men in the study were habitual vegans and half were omnivores. All consumed a higher protein diet to support their workout program (1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day). After three months, both groups showed similar improvements in strength and accumulated muscle mass.

Bottom line: as long as you’re getting the amount of protein (and calories) you need each day, a plant-based diet works just as well for building muscle. “Now, I think that if you’re pretty judicious about how you plan your diet, you can probably eat…about the same amount of plant protein as animal protein, and you would be fine from a muscle-building perspective,” says Dr. Phillips.

For sedentary adults, the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, if you’re looking to gain muscle, you need 1.6 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. To slow the muscle-declining effects of aging, older adults should consume 1.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight daily.

Sports drinks are the best way to hydrate: TRUE, in certain cases.

Sports drinks are formulated to provide fluid (e.g., water) and electrolytes that are lost through sweat during prolonged exercise. Some are sugar-free and others contain 6 to 9 per cent carbohydrate in the form of liquid sugar to provide energy for working muscles. Numerous studies have shown that the fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrate in sports drinks delay fatigue, enhance physical performance and speed recovery in athletes. “Particularly if you’re racing or trying to compete… there are lots of circumstances where sports drinks outperform water,” says Dr. Phillips. “What there aren’t, are studies where sports drinks deleteriously affect performance. So, it’s either a neutral effect, or a win.”

The question is, do you need a sports drink? If you engage in long bouts of exercise like running, cycling and sport tournaments, you can benefit from a sports drink. If you’re working out for less than one hour, water will do just fine. Evidence also shows that sports drinks can enhance the physical and mental performance of individuals who engage in team sports that are played for a short duration, but intensely.

Caffeine can enhance athletic performance: TRUE.

Many of us are aware that caffeine increases our mental alertness. But you might not realize that it also affects how our muscles work during exercise. In fact, the scientific understanding of that effect has changed over time. Researchers used to think that caffeine boosted the capacity of muscles to burn fat as fuel. “We now think it pushes on a specific receptor in our muscle that actually allows the muscle to generate a little bit more force, and for longer, so it’s a sort of an anti-fatigue-type mechanism, as opposed to a substrate shifting mechanism,” says Dr. Phillips.

The evidence of caffeine’s effect on human performance is consistent. “Hands down, if you want to compare whatever new supplement comes out on the market, compare it to caffeine—because caffeine works,” says Dr. Phillips.

How much do you need? According to a large scientific review published last year, caffeine has been shown to improve performance when consumed in doses of 3 to 6 mg per kilogram of body weight. For most people, that’s about 200 to 400 mg of caffeine. Dr. Phillips puts the minimum effective dose at 1 to 3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. For reference, one 250 mL can of Red Bull contains 80 mg of caffeine, while a medium Tim Hortons coffee contains around 200 mg of caffeine.

Seeking nutritional advice to optimize your athletic performance? Arrange a consultation a with Medcan Nutritionist.

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