At The Performance Kitchen, we had the opportunity to chat to popular scientist & chef, Toral Shah, and put to her some of the more awkward questions that pop up around nutrition for professional athletes, most notably, how nutrition & diet can affect performance when a woman is on her period (what some consider the last taboo in sport).
Toral, there are so many food fads & trends out there, and some are quite famously very bad for you; have any jumped out at you as being particularly unhealthy? "There are so many fads... just last week the thing that caught my, and other trained nutritionists, attention was the Protein Haus "Thigh Gap Diet", just because it is so ridiculous.
Essentially it goes against any school of thought; and you can't advertise that by eating their food you're going to get this kind of 'gap'. I mean, a) who says that's healthy anyway, and b) [a thigh gap] is totally dependent on the shape & size of your pelvis. So you could be really, really slim but you're never going to have a thigh gap.
We have so little education in schools, and people just believe bloggers and instagrammers, and non-trained people. There are lots of people out there who believe these things, and that is terrifying.
The 'detox diet', is another one that [stands out], because what does 'detox' mean? Our liver and kidneys do that role for our bodies. If, by detox, they mean that they are just cutting out certain foods, and focusing on particular nutrients, then that's totally different, but that's not what they are saying. They're saying that through these juices, and similar you can get 'clean', or 'cleanse' your body.
I wouldn't want a nanny-state, but how do you stops these products or diets making these sorts of claims when they're not true?
Another one I noticed last year, a company launched a product called a "fat blocker"; they had these scientists and doctors behind them, and I kept asking them questions about how it could be healthy? Firstly, a lot of vitamins are fat soluble, so how do you ensure you're getting adequate amounts of those because we need those to stay healthy, and support our immune system. Where does the fat go [when you use a fat blocker]?
In 2015, Wimbledon Ladies Champion Petra Kvitova talked openly about how women can struggle to perform at the elite level when they are on their periods. Indeed, in a study a couple of years ago by UCL, they found that a significant number of female athletes felt they performed worse during their time of the month. Other athletes have since come out and said that during this time every month, they can struggle to focus or perform.
You've written in the past about diet/nutrition & periods; what dietary information should athletes keep in mind, when they are competing & training whilst on their period?
"It really depends on what the athlete is doing, if we say for arguments sake the athlete is a runner, they need to make sure they have enough energy, because if you are running 5-10k per day, you need a lot of energy to do that. It's also important to make sure the energy is coming from the right source, so that might be a mixture of slow and fast release carbohydrates.
For someone that is competing, that may mean taking a number of gels & sachets, which can release sugar & carbs really quickly; which may not be necessary for someone doing a casual jog around the park.
When it comes to periods, everyone is different, but there are some vitamins & minerals we need more of around that time. So how do you manage that? Ideally eating iron-rich foods, so red meats, or some dark leafy greens with some vitamins (maybe with some citrus juice over the top for some extra vitamin C).
I wouldn't necessarily recommend supplements if someone hasn't had them before, because iron supplements can wreak havoc with your stomach, and for someone that is training at an elite level, or competing, that's going to be really important. Taking a supplement that could give you stomach cramps is not going to be a good idea.
I appreciate that some people are vegetarian or are vegan, so it's important to consider, how do you build up your iron-stores throughout the month, so you're not just scrabbling around at the end of a boost. How can you make sure you are eating iron rich foods regularly. It may be that some sort of supplement would be beneficial, but athletes should be taking them throughout the month, or well ahead of a race/competition to ensure their body has had time to get used to it and any possible side-effects have had time to be ironed-out.
If you're going to do some high altitude training, you need more blood cells as your body adapt to that level of intense training, so you have to take on more iron. This is probably one of the most fundamental things.
And with vitamins B12, eating food rich in this, and there is a huge variety, but particularly chickpeas.
A lot of athletes talk about the importance of hydration, is this something that should be at the front of their mind during this time of the month?
"It's a tricky one; during this time you'll experience bloating and water retention, so there is an argument that the more you drink, the less your body will attempt to retain water. Will it make a huge difference to your overall performance? It's hard to say. Obviously the more you drink, the more you'll have to nip off to the loo which won't be practical during a race-meet. It might be more practical to drink extra through the week, rather than just on race day.
It's important to consider your sodium levels too, and what sugars you are taking on board, as that's going to affect your hydration. If you are drinking plenty of water, you've got to manage it alongside the rest of your nutrition strategy, it cannot be considered in isollation.
But the athletes are right to stay hydrated, it has such a huge affect not just on your body, but on your brain too. Being de-hydrated by 2% can negatively affect your brain power by up to 10%; given how important an athletes mindset is to their performance, lower brain power can make a huge difference.
Do you think there should be any foods that should be avoided, or perhaps just eaten less of, during this time of the month?
"everything in moderation; a lot of women, during those few days, will crave sugar and fats,so its important to consider what your diet is like the rest of the time. If you have a massive binge once a month, that's not going to help your training, but if you have an extra piece of chocolate, etc during the month, then your diet will stay relatively balanced.
Allowing yourself the space in your eating plan to have treats like that is a good thing, because if you deny yourself something you'll end up wanting it more & have less control when you eventually cave in yo your craving.
Toral, moving on to you as as scientist & chef: what is your cheat meal?
"errm, I like cake [laughing], there's a lot of cake on my instagram feed, and I love cheese! I don't really agree with having a 'cheat' meal, or a 'cheat' day; It's all about building the naughty foods you like in to your diet. That being said, chocolate cake, a brownies & cheese will be my downfall. You know, you can have healthy foods & treats together.
So whats the most common meal you make at home?
"oooh, wow, I will often have some sort of salad, I really eat a lot of salad, which is why there are so many on my instagram feed. I really love Middle-Eastern food, so at the moment I'm eating a lot of middle eastern flavours with squash, and potatoes, and grains. In the summer I love having poké bowls and things like that.
I'm usually having 25-30 different fruits and vegetables every week, because that is where you are getting your micro nutrients, and what is helping your metabolism, your immune system, etc. It supports your gut health, which in turn, supports your overall well being.
Any foods you particularly avoid?
I don't tend to have too much ready made, or processed food, mostly because I just don't know what is in it. Otherwise, I don't tend to avoid anything, it's all about balance.