Why is tracking your food intake so beneficial? Expert nutritionist Dr. Krista Austin has the answer! In this episode, podcast host Andrew Harley and TriDot coach Elizabeth James ask Dr. Austin about tracking nutrients and how to make sure you're eating the right foods to fuel your triathlon training. Dr. Austin also outlines important considerations for the timing of your meals (and snacks) and adjusting your caloric needs to match your training.
TriDot Podcast .051:
Bite It & Write It: Nutrition Tracking for Triathletes
Intro: This is the TriDot podcast. TriDot uses your training data and genetic profile, combined with predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to optimize your training, giving you better results in less time with fewer injuries. Our podcast is here to educate, inspire, and entertain. We’ll talk all things triathlon with expert coaches and special guests. Join the conversation and let’s improve together.
Andrew: Welcome to this episode of the TriDot Podcast! Interesting topic today so I’m glad you’ve joined us for it! Many, many times on the podcast on our nutrition episodes in particular, we’ve talked about nutrition tracking apps such as Cronometer and My Fitness Pal and they’ve come up in conversation on these episodes. Today we’ll be talking about how to make the most out of these great tools at our disposal.
Our key guide to the nutrition world is our resident nutritional expert Dr. Krista Austin. Krista is an exercise physiologist and nutritionist who consulted with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the English Institute of Sport. She has a PhD in exercise physiology & sports nutrition, a Master's degree in exercise physiology, and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. Krista, welcome back to the podcast!
Dr. Krista Austin: Hey, thanks for having me again! I’m glad we get to dive into this a little bit deeper today.
Andrew: Also joining us is pro triathlete and coach Elizabeth James. Elizabeth came to the sport from a soccer background and quickly rose through the triathlon ranks using TriDot--from a beginner to top age-grouper to a professional triathlete. She is a Kona & Boston Marathon Qualifier who has coached triathletes with TriDot since 2014. Elizabeth, thanks for coming on!
Elizabeth: Always my pleasure, Andrew. I’m excited to be here.
Andrew: And who am I? I am your host, Andrew the average triathlete. Voice of the people and captain of the middle of the pack. Today we’ll get going with a warm-up question before moving on to our nutritionally helpful main set. Then we’ll cool down with a question for Dr. Austin from a TriDot podcast listener. It’s going to be a great show. Let’s get to it!
Warm up theme: Time to warm up! Let’s get moving.
Andrew: Everyone loves going to the movies. A staple of the movie-going experience are movie snacks. Now today, of course, we are talking about tracking our calories. So assuming, of course, you are heading to the theater to treat yourself and you are not going to log those snacks into your tracker for the day--what is your go-to movie snack to treat yourself to? Dr. Austin, we’ll start with you.
Krista: You know, I can’t remember exactly what they call it, but it’s this popcorn where it’s got different types of chocolate over caramel popcorn.
Krista: Yeah. That’s my treat when I decide to have something at the movie theaters. I can’t remember what they call it, though.
Andrew: So that’s hitting your...the popcorn is the salty, but you also put your chocolate on it, so it’s hitting multiple pleasure cravings all at once, right?
Krista: Yeah, pretty much.
Andrew: It’s hard to argue with that, Elizabeth, but what is your pick? Is your pick something different?
Elizabeth: Wow, yeah. I was going to say that I’m all for the snacks and I absolutely love sweets, but your typical movie theater treats like the popcorn and the candies don’t have much appeal for me.
Elizabeth: But what Dr. Austin was talking about with chocolate drizzled popcorn...I’m second-guessing. I’m like, “Hm...that sounds good!” I’ve also heard there’s some fancier movie theaters that have more of a menu and the possibility to order a milkshake or get a bowl of ice cream. So I’m thinking that sounds good, but I have to find the right place to go.
Andrew: I will tell you, Elizabeth, that 1.8 miles from my house...I know this thanks to my runs on Strava, of course...there’s a movie theater called Movie House & Eatery that is one of those movie theaters that has full-on meals, quality food, made in a kitchen with actual chefs, and not warmed up somewhere, and they have milkshakes and caesar salads and all sorts of stuff. So the first time I went there I ordered a caesar salad. We went there thinking this is great. They have actual legit food. We’ll watch a movie, have our dinner. We’ll do the dinner and a movie date without having to go to two separate places. So I order the caesar salad and it was delicious. But if you’ve ever tried eating a caesar salad in the dark, it is very difficult because you’re trying to bring the fork to your mouth. Salad is a weird shape. Every bite is a little bit different. It was hard to figure out if I was actually getting any chicken or croutons in a particular bite because I couldn’t actually see the dish. It was challenging. If you go to the Movie House & Eatery, I do recommend you get a milkshake and not the salad because it’s going to be easier to take in. For me, I like the classic popcorn. Even days we go to the movie and my wife wants to get some I’m like, “Oh, I’m not really feeling it, just get a small.” I always end up eating popcorn even when I think I’m not going to be in the mood for it. I’ve accepted that and we always get it. The other treat that I’ve really been enjoying from the Movie House & Eatery that I’ve talked about...they have their own brand of gummy bears. I don’t know. I just really like those. It’s a nice little sweet, chewy treat. If you’ve had gummy bears, they’re not easy to eat a ton of them. You can have just a few of them and get that candy feel without having a ton of candy. I don’t know, I just really like them. We’re going to throw this question out to all of you in podcast-listening land. I know for a fact that we have omitted one of your favorite treats. Some of you guys or athletes have to go to bat for your Snow Caps or your Bunch a Crunch or whatever it is you enjoy at the theater. We’re going to throw this out on the I Am TriDot Facebook group and we’re going to ask you to see what movie snack you like to indulge on when you head down to the cinema.
Main set theme: On to the main set. Going in 3…2…1…
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Andrew: The famous saying is “You Are What You Eat.” And it only takes one time of eating an Oreo cookie before training and then feeling like an Oreo cookie the entire workout, to understand the truth to this age old phrase. Tracking our nutrition is a great way to make sure we are fueling properly day to day and having accountability for everything we consume in our day. Dr. Austin several times has referenced nutrition tracking apps in her time on the podcast, and with more and more athletes getting on board we decided a conversation about the nuances of nutrition tracking would be a great one to have. So, Dr. Austin, I think we would all acknowledge that tracking our nutrition, what we’re putting into our bodies is a good thing. Expound for us as a professional on the ‘why.’ Why is tracking your food intake so beneficial?
Dr. Austin: The biggest thing about being able to track our food intake and really break it down based on the micronutrients and quality of our macronutrients is it’s going to provide insight as to the quality of what you’re actually eating. Calories are not always the greatest indicator of whether or not we’re doing right by our health and also our performance. At the end of the day I try to encourage people to take at least one snapshot of 3-7 days where they take a good look at what they actually fuel their bodies with prior to engaging in any training cycle or even before they start to go in and make changes to their nutrition program. The other thing it helps many people do is to hold them accountable in how they implement their actual behavioral change. So the big thing about nutrition is that it’s really a behavioral health aspect that you have to want to take on board. So if you don’t have objective feedback, oftentimes it’s very difficult to hold yourself to it. So that’s some of the benefits that we can always see outside of just the standard energy in, energy out when it’s used appropriately. However, I will say that it’s not something that is for all athletes.
Elizabeth: I’m really glad you brought up that last point there. For me, personally, I would like to interject and add that I’ll track my nutrition periodically, but not all the time. In fact, this is something that I honestly have to be very mindful and careful about because it has become a negative thing for me in the past, creating this hyperfocus and then somewhat negative attitude toward food and fueling. You’ve mentioned some of these fantastic benefits from tracking and to all of those I agree and I encourage my athletes to do that as well. But if you could maybe expand on if or when this could become more of a negative than a positive for an athlete or something that might not be appropriate for them. I think that would be great, too.
Dr. Austin: I think for a lot of athletes what we have to be cognizant of first and foremost is the context in which we’re putting the whole concept of tracking our food. I’ll give you an example of one athlete I’ve worked with over the years that when she was first asked to track her food it was because her coach thought she needed to lose weight and lean up. The process in and of itself was purely about body weight and composition. It wasn’t focused on performance. It wasn’t focused on her health. She ended up being asked to go to some real extremes and to track every single day for a very unhealthy purpose. I think we always have to sit back and say, “What is the context in which we’re doing it?” Know that some people can take a snapshot. They’d rather develop patterns and learn the patterns and then put the tracker away and that’s absolutely okay. Even with some of my clients they’ll say, “Hey, Krista, I’ve had a bad experience with tracking my food. Can you do the assessment any other way?” I actually have them take pictures of what they’re eating and then I do it on the back end so they don’t sit there and look at numbers. They use a far more qualitative approach, typically, toward working on their nutrition habits or just implementing small things like hydration or a couple servings of fruit into a fruit bowl that they snack on during the day to help them redirect and work on their nutritional intake rather than being too obsessed with the numbers. So if it’s in the right context it’s a good thing, but if it’s ever placed in the wrong context that’s when we have to be careful because it can actually send athletes down a very wrong road, which is becoming too obsessed with body weight, body composition, or just how clean can they eat even. So a good point that we should always put it in the right context and not do it in a manner that becomes harmful to our health.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s a great point that I’m glad you guys both brought up. I know for me that the context of...because, again, on the podcast you’ve mentioned Cronometer several times. Elizabeth actually, being on those episodes with me, she started using it before I did. A tipping point for me was when we were talking about micronutrients and trying to balance those and we’re talking about sports, dietary supplements, and talking through do I need to take a supplement. You told us if you’re doing your nutrition right you probably don’t need to take a supplement. So I downloaded Cronometer because I wanted to take a look at my micros and see is there anything that I’m not getting enough of that I can make some tweaks to my diet to not need different dietary supplements. What I found when I started using Cronometer is that I honestly haven’t even looked at the micronutrients yet because I found very quickly I have so many carbs in a day and I have such a lack of protein and fat in a day that I’m now just focusing those three right and balancing the macros. I feel like once I get the macros a little bit better then I’ll move on looking at the micros and then maybe after that once I’ve learned the lessons, maybe doing what you guys are suggesting and putting it away. So for folks that have heard us over time talk about it, what are the primary nutrition trackers out there that you recommend athletes look at first?
Dr. Austin: You’ve already mentioned the most common tone that I use with my clients. The other one that’s very prevalent is one by My Fitness Pal. There’s another app called LoseIt that I know Elizabeth has mentioned that she’s used in the past. Then there’s always the good old My Plate app that is out there. I can’t remember exactly what it’s called. At the end of the day, I will tell you there is a plethora of them and you need to find one that really works for what it is you want to achieve.
Elizabeth: I love how in addition to the apps you also mentioned taking pictures of food and being mindful of that. That was one of the questions that I was going to follow up with and you’ve already touched on it a little bit. For athletes that maybe don’t want to use an app, are there other resources that you would suggest for them to be mindful about what they’re putting on their plate, but not necessarily tracking the specifics of the macros or the calories?
Andrew: Great question.
Dr. Austin: One of the things we’ve used over the years and I know we implemented this back when I was with the United States Olympic Committee. Even going forward I think groups like USA Triathlon have adopted it. We’ve used a My Plate that we have divided up into easy days, moderate days, and then hard days. I typically have my clients put a rating of perceived exertion next to their workouts. I’ll say do it based on the workout that you’re getting ready to do. If you’re getting ready to do an RPE of 7+ then make sure whatever you eat before, during, and after it matches that RPE, which is hard training. So they can go after a plate model that actually helps them manipulate the caloric density, really, of their food intake just based on how hard they’re working. It’s a more simplistic approach. You can tell people, “Keep eating until you’re on full.” The biggest thing you have to be cognizant of (and I know we’ve talked about this before) is that training can inhibit appetite. So at the end of the day you just want to make sure that over time you’re not dropping weight just because you do feel full. We can look toward an athlete’s plate kind of model where we do it based on how hard you’re training. I think that’s an easier way for many. Or you can come to someone like myself and they’ll say, “Look, Krista, I just want a pattern. Help me develop three to five breakfast, lunch, dinner meals for the different intensities. Help me develop snacks at a certain caloric range and give me a nutrient timing pattern that I can follow and get everything in that I know I need to be getting in. So I think there’s a variety of ways to get in what we need. We just need to be flexible and know when tracking is appropriate versus a more qualitative approach being appropriate.
Andrew: So in getting started using a nutrition tracking app...My app took my weight, height, etc. and gave me a BMR or a Basal Metabolic Rate. Tell us what that means and is the number of calories an app estimates for us accurate?
Dr. Austin: When you put in your information to the app they’re going to give you a Basal Metabolic Rate that is dependent on whatever information you give them. For the everyday person typically it’s pretty accurate. The thing about athletes is that if you have a higher level of lean body mass it may underestimate your Basal Metabolic Rate. So the key really is to make sure that when you’re using these apps whether it’s for weight loss or weight gain that you don’t ever let yourself drop below that Basal Metabolic Rate. I know at times their equations when you’re losing weight may do that just because of the functions that they use in terms of estimating weight loss. But at the end of the day, for most people it will be accurate as long as you choose the right activity factor as well. So I know for myself when I choose my activity factor, I go in and say here’s my height and weight and I’m going to choose sedentary because it’s going to take my Basal Metabolic Rate and multiply that by 1.2 to give me my base caloric intake. Then I’m going to connect my activity monitor--my Garmin in this instance--to actually feed in whatever it is I’m burning for the day. That’s how I get my total caloric burn. That’s how most people should be getting it. On the whole it’s a relatively accurate means for us to understand at least how much we should on average be taking in in comparison to what we put out.
Elizabeth: I think that’s a great thing to give people a better understanding of how some of those numbers are calculated and what they should be looking for in terms of how much to be fueling each day. What might be some warning signs that an athlete would not be fueling enough even if they’re hitting what those recommended numbers were for calories or macronutrient percentages?
Dr. Austin: The biggest thing we’ll notice first and foremost is that they’ll get so hungry that they end up eating well past those calories. They say, “Why am I so hungry? Why do I keep going over?” That’s one of the first things that I always notice. Typically that comes down to when they tell it that they want to lose weight. Interestingly enough, sometimes those apps will take you below the Resting Metabolic Rate when it runs its equations. If you tell it I want to lose a pound a day or two pounds a day it says okay I need to lose 3500 calories per pound that they want to use. So, unfortunately, sometimes that results in them going below the Resting Metabolic Rate. The first sign I get from everyone is that they end up overeating the estimated calories that it gives you. It also starts to disrupt sleep and then as a result both of those we start to see a compromise in training. If they can’t train then we know that we’ve taken a step in the wrong direction.
Elizabeth: So one of the questions that I’ve come across very frequently with athletes I’ve been working with is can athletes have both? Can they fuel their bodies well enough to sustain a half Ironman/Ironman training load while also losing weight?
Dr. Austin: Absolutely! The biggest thing is if they can accept the rate of weight loss that they can safely achieve by actually exercising off the weight that they want to lose then they can get there. It’s just oftentimes athletes turn around they want to lose the weight so quickly it’s an “I want it now” mentality that they won’t accept the rate at which they need to lose weight. With my clients I’ll say, “Look, we’re not going to lose more than a pound a week.” You’ll say, “That’s kind of slow, Dr. Austin. I wanted to lose 10 pounds this month.” I’ll say, “You might want to go down the street because we don’t do that here.” That’s the biggest thing I run into is that people want very quick results. If they can accept that it’s going to be a slow and steady process that’s what’s going to allow them to actually maintain the quality of the training. Oftentimes if they’re smart about it they’ll periodize their nutrition so they lose that weight during the early part of the season so they’re not in the most intense components of their training when they’re really hungry and more than likely to overeat if they put themselves in any caloric deficit. So as a result I say, “Let’s do this early on whatever you want to try to lose for the year. Even if it’s 10 pounds let’s try to get this done in the first three months.” So that’s what they have to realize is that periodization of weight loss is very crucial to doing it well and also training well for a half Ironman or Ironman.
Andrew: So you referenced a moment ago our--Chronometer in my case--but whatever...if it’s a quality app it’s going to give you that Basal Metabolic Rate. You said that you...the optimum setting to put it on is to tell the app that you’re sedentary then allow your Garmin, your fitness tracker, to feed in how many calories you’re burning for the day. How can we adjust our caloric needs for exercise? Are we trying to replace all of the calories we burn in training or are we trying to go over that, under that? What’s the best way to approach how many calories you’re taking in versus how many calories you’re burning?
Dr. Austin: If you’re trying to stay weight stable, we want to try and meet the calories that it sums up for us. What’s interesting for many athletes is that they find when they do that that they’re missing anywhere from 300 to 800 calories. They go, “Oh! I didn’t know I was burning that much!” So what I always encourage them to do is to slowly build up into the calories that it suggests and they’ll say, “Why am I staying the same body weight? I’ve actually eaten more.” It’s just because they’re suppressing their actual metabolism. Whereas if someone comes and says, “I want to lose weight.” For the majority of us--unless we just have a horrific diet--we’re going to have to end up exercising off those calories. A lot of people come to me and they are taking in their Basal Metabolic Rate x 1.2 and I say, “That’s great. We’ve got to hold on to that and make sure you don’t lose it because that’s typically your highest level of energy expenditure.” Then I say, “Let’s take a look at what you can lose in the form of exercise each day.” A lot of people can lose about 500 calories each day if they spread it out correctly. Especially if they’re doing it as aerobic exercise that doesn’t cost them too much in terms of intensity or they’re just careful with the amount of intensity that they put in. Then they will lose up to a pound a week. But I try to encourage them to do it from the exercise side of the coin rather than trying to restrict too much. Now there are those athletes that when you take a look at what they’re taking in versus what they’re putting out, they’re consuming maybe a thousand calories more than what they actually need. That’s when they turn around to me and say, “Oh, is this that bad?” That explains probably why you’re putting on weight and we should slowly taper those calories back so that you’re in balance and let’s see how far just putting you in balance actually gets you. That’s one of the things I’ve done with many people over the years when they want to lose weight. We take a look at that first and say, “By chance are you just overconsuming a lot of junk food?” Just that in and of itself will start to pull the weight off. So we have to be careful as to which side we’re going to pull it from. It’s very dependent on whether or not you’re the person that’s overconsuming fuel, whether you’re the person that is consuming just enough fuel, and you have to then turn around and exercise it off. So I think that’s where that energy in versus energy out becomes very useful because all of a sudden you see where the glaring component actually is.
Elizabeth: That’s great. Yeah. How would you help athletes establish a goal for their body composition? For example, how does an athlete know if they should lose weight maybe? Or gain weight through some muscle mass? Or that they should just maintain their current weight, but maybe clean up their intake a little bit?
Dr. Austin: The first thing that I think as everyday people that we have to look at is first and foremost: how is my overall health? Do I have good cardiometabolic health? Do I have good heart health? What is my BMI? Am I possibly obese and carrying too much body fat? For the everyday person I actually do go down that road just initially to say by any chance are we possibly compromising our health? Once we’ve checked those boxes then I turn around and say, “What are your training goals?” If your training is being met and accomplished and you’re at a health body weight, you’re at a healthy body composition...the way I define that is typically based on reproductive health and psychological health and bone density...so that way women are having their menstrual cycles, right? Every month. People are sleeping well. Their sexual health is good, which is important because that’s how guys are going to judge those things. If that’s all in tact then I say, “Let’s stay here. You’re hitting your workouts. Let’s find out how well this body weight is working for you.” On the body composition side we can go down and measure it. We can go get a DEXA. The question is do we really need to do that? Or can we just tell as we move along that okay we are leaning up. Are we hitting our workouts? If that’s not enough and they say, “What if I were 5 pounds lighter?” Then I say, “You know what, let’s choose some key workouts in each discipline. In the case of triathlon it’s swimming, biking, and running, and I want you to use these as test sets. We’ll lose the 5 pounds, but each of these tests needs to show a significant benefit because you did lose those 5 pounds or you did drop body fat percent by anywhere from 2 to 5 percent.” I use those types of markers to say, “Yes, we have in fact gone in the right direction.” So I think it’s a number of things that we need to take a look at to know if we should manipulate body weight and body composition. But I’ll be transparent--when I have athletes that are going well and they’re at a certain rate and body comp, I tend to leave it alone and hope that they can accept that and just make sure that they come to the line well-fueled for every training session and getting the most out of themselves.
Andrew: So the primary thing athletes will see tracking with each of their meals are the amounts of macronutrients that make up what we ate. What role does each of these three play in our bodies and why is it important to get enough of all three?
Dr. Austin: All three technically are fuel sources that the body will use based on exercise intensity. Really the two main ones are in fact fat or lipids and carbohydrate. Each of them also plays a key role in health, whether it’s the amino acids, the protein that we take in helping us to maintain lean body mass, or it’s the role of carbohydrates in maintaining immune function so we aren’t compromised from the intense training that we’re doing. Without any one of the macros the others can actually become limited in many metabolic processes. We have to realize oftentimes that the body doesn’t work well if one is out of sync with the other. So what I always recommend to athletes is to remember that it’s important to get all three because the three of them are dependent on each other. I think if we remember that we tend to honor and respect each of the macronutrients.
Andrew: Yeah. That definitely gives us a good way to look at the three. They all work in harmony together and each one is limited in how much it can actually help you without the presence of the others. I found...and I alluded to this earlier in the episode...very quickly when I started tracking was that it was way harder than I thought it would to balance the three macros. Getting carbs is very easy. Dr. Austin, there are things in my diet that I looked at that I thought were just super healthy (and they are healthy) but have more carbs than I thought. So, for example, my lunch every day...my standard lunch is some lean turkey sandwich meat with some carrots and an apple and something like cheez-its or pretzels or a nice little crunchy carb on the side. In my mind I was like, “There’s some lean meat and I’m having a vegetable in the carrots. I’m having some fruit in the apple. I’m having some lean meat in the turkey.” I found that carrots have way more carbs than I thought they did. Apples have way more carbs than I thought they did. I walk away from that lunch and Cronometer tells me you had a little lean protein and you had a lot of carbs. So I’m learning on my own how to balance the three and how to get more fat and more protein. So for anybody out there that’s like me that they find themselves struggling to get enough fat in their day or carbs in their day or protein in their day--what are some of your suggestions for each of the three and supplementing if you find yourself lacking in a certain area?
Dr. Austin: On the protein side I try to highlight people that you’re going to get your most robust amino acid profile from items like lean steak, grilled chicken, and fish--especially one like salmon. Then on the carb side you can go after ones like quinoa or lentils where you’re going to have carbohydrates but it will give you a slight amount of protein and fat as well. Then there are ones like baked potato or oatmeal that have other factors to them in terms of content that will give you something that’s maybe a little bit more robust than a Cheez-It, per se. Putting a fruit and a vegetable is really important.
Andrew: Here she is attacking Cheez-Its.
Dr. Austin: Well, it’s kind of interesting. Sometimes people don’t realize how much they’re allotting to carbohydrates that we love and even I love Cheez-Its, too. But they go in and consume so many of our caloric intake. All of a sudden people turn around and go, “I didn’t know I had 500 calories in Cheez-Its today.” If you look at...You know, it’s kind of like what I envision Andrew doing is sitting there with a box of Cheez-Its. Then they realize they had a whole bunch of carbs and fat and forgot the protein. At the end of the day it’s about finding the highest quality wants that we possibly can and making sure that those are focused. On the fat side, I’ll tell ya--I try to let it come in naturally with other sources, whether it’s from the meats I consume or the types of carbs or what I’ll put on my carbs. Like if I put on some avocado or mix in olives into something that I’m having with the protein or the carbohydrates. Maybe I mix it into a salad or putting nuts on the salad. I think that’s oftentimes the easiest way for the fat to come into it. And then at times I tell people, “Look, you do sometimes find it easier to supplement your diet.” Sometimes things like protein powder makes for a much higher quality snack like in a smoothie. Especially if it can have something like MCT oil added into it to help give us the actual balance in protein and fat that we’re looking for. Then I also go after our nuts and nut butters to help fulfill the fat content while also giving myself protein intake. So that’s the type of fuel we want to turn towards. I think what you’ll notice about all of those is that for the most part it’s not processed foods. I think that’s one of the biggest things people can learn is that if you take a look at your intake and you’re like, “How much of this is processed foods or I had to go to a chain restaurant and pick it up?” Oftentimes you’ll find that the quality you’re consuming isn’t what you thought it was.
Elizabeth: So then the next breakdown that we’re likely to notice in these apps are the micronutrients. Once we’ve got the balance of the macros, what is the added value in getting the proper amount of those micronutrients?
Dr. Austin: Usually this should help us optimize our macro intake. In other words, you might end up taking in more fruits and vegetables the more non-boxed foods from the grocery aisle. It really holds us accountable for what we take in. This is where being accountable to ourselves, I think, and looking at the value of each food item--what is it bringing to us helps us refine our nutritional intake. I’ll give you an example from my nutritional intake that I know helps me. I’ll take the app Cronometer...and people love to bring me something that they know I love for breakfast, which is an Asiago cheese bagel.
Dr. Austin: I know, right? And I love them! I really do. But they’re about 300 calories. If I take a look at those 300 calories and I compare it to maybe the really good smoothie I could make with some flax seed milk that’s going to give me a whole bunch of omega 3s. A smoothie with a couple servings of fruit in it. Maybe I put half a scoop or a scoop of protein powder in and a greek yogurt and I blend that up and I look at the nutrition that’s in that smoothie of 300 calories. I compare those and I go, “I love those Asiago cheese bagels, but in all reality it’s far better for me to have that smoothie.” I think it’s where I help myself get honest with the foods I love but also balancing it with the foods I need to take in.
Andrew: Is flax seed milk your go-to type of milk for smoothies?
Dr. Austin: It’s one of the ones I will rotate over to for making smoothies. Especially fruit smoothies because it helps me keep some of the sugar content out and it does give you the omega 3s. It’s something I’ve gravitated towards. I don’t know if it’s for everybody, but it seems to work for me.
Andrew: So my nutrition tracker has a long list of vitamins, minerals, lipids, etc. that it breaks down in my nutrition report. Sometimes when I look at the list it just seems impossible to get 100% of my targets for all of them. Are there certain micronutrients that you would advise us to focus on more so than others?
Dr. Austin: There’s no one that I would tell you to focus on. Honestly, we should be able to achieve them all. Maybe there’s one or two that we can’t get to if we’re diligent with our nutrition. The one endurance athletes tend to fall short on is actually Iron if they’re not careful. It’s mainly because they require a good bit more of that nutrient than most other people. But on the whole the goal should be to improve the quality of your food intake so that you meet all those micronutrients. I can acknowledge that one or two of them might be low, but on the whole we should be able to fill those bars and make sure that the quality of what we’re taking in is appropriate.
Andrew: So if we find ourselves for days and weeks at a time lacking in some of the micros we probably need to be examining the quality of each of the macros we’re taking in. Is that right?
Dr. Austin: Yes, absolutely. You’d be amazed at how much that will change your nutritional intake, too.
Andrew: So you did reference that it’s okay to supplement some of the certain micronutrients that you’re just consistently not getting enough of. We did a whole podcast with you on supplements. At what point should an athlete consider taking a supplement if they’re not getting a certain micronutrient over time?
Dr. Austin: First and foremost it should be because we need it to maintain our health. If there’s something that we’re missing and it’s going to impact health, that’s when we know we do have to pursue the use of a dietary supplement. Second, it might be to help us fulfill a goal intake. Again, that goes back to health. But third, sometimes (this is where we just have to be honest) is that not everyone eats a hundred percent dedicated to filling out those bars in the micronutrients and what have you. They do it from the perspective of convenience and reaching the intake they need to be having. So that’s one of the things that we have to accept about nutrition is that sometimes we can’t be a hundred percent perfect on that. I’ll give you for example getting the right amino acid profile in. Oftentimes protein powder is something that I’ll turn to and, really, these days it’s produced as a food product. It has a nutrition facts label on it. But it’s still a form of a supplement. It’s a good example of one that we may rotate in to help us achieve all of our amino acid profile that we want while at the same time balancing the fact that we need to eat real food, get it from whole food sources, and knowing when to supplement. So it’s one of those things we have to look at each of our situations and know when can we improve food intake and when do we need to turn to an actual supplement to fulfill everything we’re looking at?
Elizabeth: Diving a little bit deeper into some of the features of these apps, I know in some of the premium versions of them (such as Cronometer) a time stamp can be added to each entry in your food diary. Why would this be beneficial and what considerations should we be making in the timing of our meals and snacks?
Dr. Austin: When I use something like a time stamp from a nutrition app, oftentimes it’s because I want to take a look at when an athlete is consuming the majority of their calories in relationship to when they’re actually burning them. Oftentimes this helps many of the athletes I work with to minimize the caloric depth that they go into with the training that they do. So they’ll go out and they’ll burn 50-60% of their total daily energy expenditure by 12 p.m. in the middle of the day. I said, “Well, you’ve only had 700 calories by that point in time and yet you’ve burned 3,000. Let’s take a step back and see how you can better distribute it.” The other thing it will let you do in an app like Cronometer is take a look at what are you having at each of those time points. I’ll ask them to hit something like 20 grams of protein every 3 hours. The question is can they hit that every 3 hours throughout their 12 hour window typically that they’re eating and getting all the protein that they need? We’ll take a look at that. We’ll also take a look to see if they’re consuming adequate carbohydrate prior to a training session and whether or not they’re refueling quick enough based on their actual training program. Are they getting enough carbohydrate in prior to a second session or quick enough to help restore them prior to the next day’s session? So I like looking at it for those types of readings. The other thing that people have used it for is to help them with what’s known as partitioning. Partitioning means putting in certain types of foods throughout the day to help you manipulate some physiological signal that your body is giving you with regards to food intake. Oftentimes this comes along the lines of weight loss. We tell people to eat like a king in the morning at the meals and then to eat like a pauper otherwise because you actually want to taper back the caloric intake throughout the day. So with the clients that I have we’ll focus on more complex carbohydrates early on in the day and we’ll tailor back toward fruits and vegetables later on in the day because they’ve done the burning of most of their calories up front. Conversely, you may have an athlete that has a very high caloric burn. They do get hungry when they’re trying to lose weight. They’ll turn around and say, “By the time I reach 7 o’clock at night I’ve had all my calories, but I’m still hungry. How do I help mitigate some of the hunger that I’m experiencing?” I’ll say, “Well, let’s take your distribution and leave x amount of calories for dinner time and make it very volume metrics based, but substantive enough so that you don’t get hungry before you go to bed. So there’s a lot of benefits to taking aspects of apps and trying to use them from a timing scenario. Whether it’s the quality of what you’re taking in or it’s actually helping you fulfill your overall goals of weight loss or hunger control.
Elizabeth: That’s awesome. One feature there in terms of the time stamp and there’s a lot of possible benefits to that. Some very important things that we as athletes could consider.
Andrew: I have a time stamp. I haven’t really paid that close attention to it other than looking back and saying, “What time did I have lunch again? Can I have a snack yet?” So knowing that I’m empowered with those strategies, it’s definitely going to help.
Elizabeth: Shifting focus a little bit here--some folks out there will incorporate scheduled fasting into their normal routine. Whether it’s fasting on a particular day or particular meal from here to here. So two things with this. From a performance standpoint--is there a benefit to incorporating fasted workout sessions? And from a nutritional tracking standpoint--how would those factor into the caloric intake and expenditure equation?
Dr. Austin: To answer your first question, the benefits of fasted workout sessions are very dependent on your goals. I think we have some people out there that they almost have to learn to function without anything so that when they do get into these prolonged endurance events and they are in an energy deficit, their body knows how to keep going. So even at the elite level, sometimes we have to taper them back a little bit from eating so much prior to going into a training sessions so they know what it’s like to do even easy training on empty, in essence. There are benefits to it. It might result in a little bit more fat oxidation. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to get an increase in the capacity of the body to utilize fat as a fuel source. But for some people who need improved insulin regulation, who need improvements in fat oxidation on the whole, instead of giving them oatmeal prior to the session we might say go do it fasted. Or we’ll manipulate the macronutrient they have before it and say, “Have some scrambled eggs. Or have some protein powder or something of that nature.” So they do get that differential oxidation in fat carbohydrate to improve possibly what they’ve done in the past. So those are some of the benefits to fasted training. It’s typically for those that don’t have that side to them. I know some athletes over the years, they’ll drink a carbohydrate sports drink for even easy runs and I’m like, “Why are you having that?” Even if you go to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute they’ll be like, “You’re not supposed to drink that while you’re doing an easy run.” I know they’ve told myself and elite athletes I’ve taken there for their program, they’re like, “Look, you need to learn to run on empty a little bit and teach your body to cope with that.” So there is a purpose to it. Then from a nutrition tracking standpoint, the goal is to make sure that you fuel your body with the calories that you really do need. At the end of the day, just make sure you don’t come up too short. If you’re gonna fast for 14 hours out of the day and only eat in 10, just make sure with those 10 you achieve everything you need to achieve to make sure you stay producing good workouts. So it’s not really about planning for it, but rather about making sure that you get everything in. What you would see in an app that has a time stamp is that you don’t start eating until later in the day. Maybe you only eat from 8 to 6 at night. Or from 10 until 5. And that’s what your food log is going to reflect.
Andrew: Drinking water is obviously something that adds zero calories, which is sometimes wonderful. It adds zero macros and zero micros into our food diaries. Is there any additional benefit to tracking water intake?
Dr. Austin: It depends on the person. I’ll tell you that some people just don’t like to drink water. We’re supposed to consume a certain amount every day to stay hydrated, especially at meals. With my clients who say, “I just don’t like the way water tastes,” or, “I don’t like to drink fluids,” that’s when I will employ those aspects of an app to see if we can’t hold them a little bit more accountable or get them engaged with how much they need to do hydration appropriately. Similarly on the flip side of that I have some athletes that drink way too much water. I’m like, “Why are you drinking this much water?” They say, “I’m always thirsty!” I say, “Okay. That means we’re not balancing your fluids that have electrolytes in them and we need to balance that instead of just drinking pure water.” Sometimes it helps us find that ideal ratio of fluids that need to contain electrolytes, maybe even electrolytes and carbohydrates and those that can be just water. Some of those are the key reasons to actually track it.
Andrew: Yeah, that tracks with my experience because I was definitely someone who was an over-water drinker. My daily trips to the bathroom would reflect that. Just starting to look into why and how much I was drinking and seeing that it can have some negative impacts. I started mixing in some UCAN Hydrate into some of those water bottles and definitely have found the appropriate amount. I’m glad I’ve naturally done what you’ve just advised everybody to do. That’s a great point. Let’s, Dr. Austin, end the main set here. For folks who really...they got on whether it’s an app or a personal diary or working with a nutritionist...once they get consistent and make this a daily habit and we can look back on the last couple days, weeks, months of what we’ve eaten and what we’ve put into our bodies--what are some of the trend lines that we should be looking to improve upon once we actually have data patterns over time?
Dr. Austin: When we take three to seven day averages, which is typically what I encourage athletes to do...what we want to see is a convergence on the number of calories being appropriate with regards to intake versus output and the overall distribution of the macronutrients and how well are we actually fulfilling now the micronutrients that we need. Oftentimes it’s nice to have a visual to show you that you really are doing something that much better. I think that’s the benefit of it. I also use it with coaches so that they know where their athletes are at and the progress that they’ve made or even that they’ve not made and where we’re trying to get those athletes to. So over time you should be able to see the changes take place and actually show yourself, “You know what, I am achieving what I set out to achieve.” That’s the benefit of actual tracking is that the changes should match performance changes. They should match your overall goals that we have for nutrition.
Cool down theme: Great set, everyone! Let’s cool down.
Andrew: For our cool down today we have a great question that came in from one of our athletes after listening to episode 38: ‘Nutrition Supplements for Performance. Fact or Fiction?’ Dr. Austin, one of the supplements we talked about on that episode is caffeine. Kelly from Texas had a great follow-up question about the use of caffeine mid-race.
Kelly: This is Kelly from Argyle, Texas. I’d like to hear Dr. Austin’s opinion on drinking energy drinks that they provide on the course during race days. At Ironman sanctioned events, Red Bull is usually one of the bigger sponsors. They’re passing out samples at the packet pick-up. Is there an advantage to consuming energy drinks such as Red Bull, say prior to a workout? Prior to a race? And/or during the race? Is there a strategic time of consuming these drinks?
Dr. Austin: All of those products do have caffeine in them. It is a way to obtain caffeine during a race. I will say I’m going to direct people more so toward the Coke and the Red Bull just because they do bear nutrition facts labels rather than a supplements fact label. That’s what you will see on the 5-Hour energy drink and I think it’s just a little bit safer to consume something that has a nutrition facts label. Supplements, we like to see those batch tested before we utilize those. We grab just about anything from an aid station that we know we can tolerate well. I never recommend to people trying something new on race day. It could be detrimental. At the end of the day, all of those have acceptable caffeine levels that you could take in and definitely use it as a source of caffeine to help keep you going.
Andrew: That’s super interesting. I kind of always had the mental impression that...I was totally down for the Coke on course because I think Coke is just a little more daily in our lives as people. When you think of that mental impression of grabbing a Red Bull--that’s that energy drink. It’s really going to spike me up. It’s really going to jazz me up. So to hear you say that it does have the nutrition facts label and it is something that if you’ve drank one and your body handles it well, yeah, absolutely go for it on race day. I always looked at the pros that are sponsored by Red Bull and I thought, “Oh, you’re only doing that because you’re sponsored.” But it’s cool to see that for a lot of people it’s actually a viable go-to drink on race day. Elizabeth, when you’re out on the race course do you find yourself reaching for one of those drinks on race day?
Elizabeth: I actually have not ever done that, but it’s something that I’ve talked with a number of the athletes that I’ve coached before. Even for some of them, caffeine offers as much of a mental wake-up as it does that physical boost.
Elizabeth: We know that racing is both physically and mentally taxing. As long as it’s been practiced in training and we know the amount of caffeine consumed isn’t going to lead to some sort of GI distress then I see that as a viable way for athletes to refocus and reenergize and finish out to the finish line.
Andrew: I think the mental jolt aspect of it is always certainly helpful. If I take a little caffeine on a training run or in a workout on a race, it definitely...I definitely feel the impact. So, folks, you heard straight from the expert--if you’re on that race course and you know your body handles Red Bull, or you know your body handles Coke well, that’s your go-to! You can drink it. You can mix it in and let it help you carry yourself to the finish line.
Well that’s it for today, folks. I want to thank Dr. Krista Austin and pro triathlete for talking about nutrition tracking with us today. Shout out to UCAN for partnering with us on today’s episode. Head to UCAN.com to check out what superstarch products can fuel your training and racing.
Enjoying the podcast? Have any topics or questions you want to hear us talk about? Head to tridot.com/podcast to send us an e-mail or record your voice for the show. We’ll do it all again soon. Until then, happy training.
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