The Importance of Raw Foods for Athletes

5 05 2011

By Adam Kelinson
For Active.com

I always enjoy responding to those who tell me, “I don’t have time to cook.”

“That’s great,” I say. “You do have time to eat, so incorporate raw foods into your diet. You’ll have better digestion, absorb more nutrients, diminish your cooking time, prevent injury and increase your performance by developing a strong foundational diet to build upon.” Sound good?

Unfortunately, in today’s world the concept of diet has extended beyond what one eats to how they live and the identity that gets associated with it. In a lot of ways, what you eat is how society places and categorizes you. When considered in this way, the idea of eating raw foods as an athlete becomes more of an emotional response than one rooted in resourceful thinking about how to improve health and performance.

However, for you as an athlete, when you examine your reasons for eating, the main purpose is to absorb nutrients from food to be converted into energy. The problem is that without the necessary enzymes that come from raw foods, the body has to produce them on its own. The more the body has to produce, the less energy it has for performance and maintaining overall health.

When considering their importance, enzymes could very well be the most underrated and under appreciated elements the body needs. It’s easy to focus on the macro systems of the body (cardio, immune, etc.) as well as the major organs, but its critical to recognize that any cellular activity taking place in the body at any given time is being facilitated by the work of over 5,000 enzymes. They are essentially catalysts responsible for almost every biochemical process that happens in the body and facilitate those chemical reactions quickly so the cells can do their work. However, the majority of this activity, specifically for athletes, is dependent upon the presence of quality vitamins and minerals within the body that is sourced from food.

Enzymes are comprised of up to 1,000 amino acids, hence they are actually complex proteins, that are strung together in varying unique shapes that allow them to perform specific functions. There are three major classifications of enzymes: metabolic enzymes, which assist in all bodily processes such as breathing, moving and the maintenance of the immune system; digestive enzymes, which are manufactured, mainly, in the pancreas, and aim to break-down the partially digested food exiting the stomach; and food enzymes, which are abundantly present in the majority of raw and fermented foods. These food enzymes begin the digestive process in the mouth, via saliva, and stomach and are then completed by others in the body.

There are obvious relationships that these have to athletes but in more specific ways food enzymes include proteases for digesting proteins; lipases for digesting fats; and amylases for digesting carbohydrates, the macronutrients that athletes need in their diet. These can get even more specific, such as when, after the amylases break down starches into smaller sugar molecules like, for example, maltose, which is present in many sports fueling products, and needs the enzyme maltase to help convert those molecules into glycogen so that it can be absorbed by the body and preferentially used by the muscles to support your athletic pursuits.

As definitively linked all of this is to one’s performance it might be a long cast that is difficult for the mind to reel in. So let’s get even more specific for athletes and consider glycolsysis, the metabolic process that converts glucose into pyruvate during which ATP, the only energy source that drives muscle contraction, is released, is controlled by 10 specific enzymes. Another eight enzymes control the Krebs Cycle, which help to convert macronutrients into usable energy. Without the necessary enzymes to stimulate these reactions your race calendar would be nothing but a blank page.

So where do these enzymes come from? The ones for an athlete to focus on are the food enzymes because these are the ones that, although the body can produce, need to be sourced from our diet in order to prevent the pancreas from having to deplete its cache of reserves. For once this storage bank of enzymes are gone one’s health begins to diminish, energy is depleted and lifespan becomes drastically reduced. It is within raw foods, particularly those that have undergone a process of lacto-fermentation that contain the abundance of enzymes necessary to stimulate and sustain the absorption of nutrients and the production of energy.

This is not a prescription for maintaining an exclusively raw foods diet by any means. In fact, it’s important to recognize that there are no traditional cultures whose diet is composed of solely raw foods. However, it’s equally important to recognize the balance of raw and fermented foods contained within traditional diets across the globe and the residual health benefits as a result. This is a diet that the athlete and those living active lifestyles can really benefit. One that is primarily plant-based, having a percentage of cooked foods no higher then 50 percent, and being complimented by an assortment of raw, fermented and sprouted foods. This is also not a carrots-and-celery-stick diet either, but one that can contain an abundance of diversified foods, textures, flavors and techniques that do not have to be a meal unto themselves but can accompany cooked foods in an effort to help aid in their digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Some of the whole plant based foods that contain greater amounts of enzymes and can be eaten raw are: pineapple, mangoes, bananas, papaya, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, raw honey, figs, dates, olive oil, sesame oil, and grapes. All fruits and vegetables contain some enzymes in their raw state, its just that the above listed are more beneficial for digestion. For these vegetables, however, they can undergo the process of lacto-fermentation to increase their availability of enzymes, a technique employed by almost every traditional culture across the planet. These are your pickles (cucumbers, carrots, radishes, green beans, beets), kimchi, sauerkraut and miso. The distinction made by the lacto-fermentation uses only salt (not vinegar), water, time and the presence of natural bacteria and yeasts to breakdown starches and convert them into beneficial nutrients that aid in digestion and the production of energy.

Grains, seeds, and nuts also contain beneficial enzymes but need to be soaked and sprouted to remove their protective mechanism and allow their nutrients to be released. Soaking mung beans in water for 24 hours and then rinsing them daily for a few days will produce micro-sprouts and release all the nutrients necessary to produce a mature plant that the body can thus benefit from as well. The same is true of any whole grain or nut as well, although they only need to be soaked to allow their nutrients to become available.

Animal proteins can also be eaten raw or fermented such as kefir, the lacto-fermentation of raw milk, or raw cheeses or raw milk on its own. The fermentation of cod liver is an age-old technique employed by sea-faring societies and consumed for its immune system properties and antioxidant levels. Other animal organs (heart, liver, kidney, brain, testicles) are also consumed in their raw state for their associative benefits to the human body. And of course there is sushi the more popular of the raw proteins eaten but lest not forget that of beef tartare as well.

What I tell all my athletes to remember is this simple mantra: always eat something cooked with something raw. The more you begin to do so the more you will open yourself up to the diversity of raw foods that are out there. The next thing to remember is: if you can’t soak it, sprout it or ferment it, then buy it. There are multitudes of products on the market that one can choose from to help support their intake of enzyme-rich foods. The last key to remember is that the more raw foods you incorporate into your diet the less you will have to take the time and effort to prepare them. Ah, so for all those who have to say, “I don’t have time to cook.” Eat raw!

For more ideas on how to prepare raw foods and incorporate them into your diet grab a copy of The Athlete’s Plate: Real Food for High Performance or visit www.organicperformance.com.

Here is a great raw enzyme-rich smoothie for anytime of the day:

Coconut-Pineapple Sassy

1 fresh coconut, water and meat

1 ½ cups pineapple, chunks

1 banana, medium

1 cup raw milk or yogurt

2 tbs Udo’s 3*6*9 oil

1 tbs raw cashew nut butter

1 Tbs raw honey with propolis

2 heaping tbs of sprouted barley powder

2 tsp raw mesquite powder

pinch of sea salt

4 to 5 ice cubes

Add all ingredients to blender and process until it becomes a smoothie.

Adam Kelinson is the creator of Organic Performance, an innovator in helping athletes eat for a competitive edge by providing personalized guidance for shopping, food preparation and maintaining health. A lifelong athlete himself, Adam is a three-time Ironman finisher and has competed in many backcountry endurance events. Recognizing that people with active lifestyles were calling for help and guidance with their nutrition, Adam has written The Athlete’s Plate: Real Food for High Performance, published by Velo Press in December 2009.

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