Truly, Truly understanding nutrition

Take a walk on the bizarre side with me for a moment. (Please no 1-2 sentence answers).

I’m taking this example below to the extreme to illustrate a point about how to truly understand healthy eating and using it as a motivation to eat better by truly understanding the link between food and performance.

I guess a micro levels, I’ve caught myself making the occasional (or more) poor food choice and then pooping a few vitamin pills to balance things out. Truth is I know about healthy eating, but I don’t always really.

Before I start…understand basic nutrition:

  • I get macro nutrients
  • I get micronutrients
  • I get minerals
  • I get glycemic index

Here is a bizarre scenario to get to my weird question. Let’s say you count calories and take extra vitamins in the right combination but the food is McDonalds and Nate’s favorite Popeyes ;~) So you’re not overeating, but you’re not eating what your supposed be. And say you “rebalance” all the fat with crappy carbs like white rice or whatever. So you “net out” to the same macronutrients ratio and you supplement to get the vitamins and minerals. But you’re base fuel source is junk food.

Let’s also assume, just for this hypothetical scenario that you’re also getting roughly the same macronutrient balance as a healthy diet with added vitamins.

Let’s also assume for a moment that you’re one of those skinny guys that can’t gain weight (so take weight/performance out of this hypothetical for a moment).

So in my hypothetical questions

  1. Why will a rider who’s getting the same macronutrients and supplementing with vitamins in the junk food approach perform poorly vs the healthy diet?
  2. On a personal level, how do you measure your improved performance with healthy foods? (I’m not looking for just general statements like “I feel better”).
  3. Do you find the healthy eating provided immediate feedback to your cycling or something that you gain benefits from over months?
  4. How do you really drive healthy eating into your brain and create that direct link between healthy eating and performance?

Thanks for indulging my weirdness. :monkey_face:

(Again please no 1-2 sentence answers).

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There are ingredients in the processed foods that our bodies were not made to readily digest. Even “splurging” on said fast food isn’t necessarily a bad thing compared to the Standard American Diet. However, it’s like fueling a vehicle. Put enough of the bad gasoline in there, put in the crappy Walmart oil, and soon enough, you’ll be needing an overhaul, or worse - a new car. Overall, you’ll recover better and perform better (sans the skills part those you have to learn).

Then there’s the physiological aspect of hunting/gathering. In our technologically advanced world, we have marred the intrinsic relationship of food and our body. It’s far too easy to drive through, microwave food, order take out. We busy ourselves with so much that we just want an easy fix, especially if someone will just tell me the answer so I can continue doing what I really want to do.

The part that I don’t worry about is weighing my food. I place a reasonable portion on my plate and eat until I’m satisfied. If within a few hours I’m starving, I’ll make a note to fuel better the next meal or grab a snack depending on when I plan to eat another meal. I further try to “eat the rainbow” of veggies throughout the day and eat the other food groups sensibly.

At the end of the day, I find satisfaction knowing I prepared meal(s) that looks and tastes great.

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I hate using this term, because it’s so misused by people on the internet, but it comes down to bioavailability.

At par value, most supplements cannot accurately replace the types of nutrients that you get from real food and much of this has to do with absorption pathways. It’s very complicated and not super well understood even at a research level, and I can’t even remotely do it justice here. But here is an example:

Why do we put salad dressing on greens? Is it because it tastes better? Well yes, but also because the composition of most oil/vinegar salad dressings help breakdown the cellular structure of fibrous plants and act as a transport to help your body to digest and absorb the nutrients. As a culture, we figured this out by trial and error.

If you look at regional cuisine, most of it evolved to cook and season food to optimally extract nutrients way before we understood all of this. This is why I have a lot of issues with people insisting on a particular “type” of diet being what our body is designed for when as a species we’ve gotten really good at figuring out what and how to eat to maximize energy and nutrient absorption.

So to tie this back, most of the vitamins you’d be eating with the junk food wouldn’t be absorbed, which is why a “healthier” diet would probably win out.


On a personal level, I would evaluate over a long enough period of time:

Am I getting sick less? Or getting better faster?
Can I train more consistently?
Am I failing fewer workouts?
What is my body composition doing?
Do I have any other health concerns to track?

If you look at this over a period of time you should be able to draw a conclusion about changes in diet.

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Okay…I like where you are going with your explanation, but how do you personally connect this academic term of “bioavailability” with day to day performance? Do you just trust that if you hopefully eat right that its going to make you perform better on the bike cause some white coat in a lab said so, or have you seen direct connections and if so how? And how to disassociate it from the placebo effect…that is real results on the bike?

I’m really trying to truly embrace it, understand it so I can live it…cause lets face it Ice Cream be YUMMY (so the competition with the lab coats is high!)

I like to think of it in a different way, and tend to focus on absolute statements:

Is eating healthier going to make me slower?
Is doing core workouts going to make me weaker?
Is a skin suit going to cost me time?
Is meditation going to cause me to be more distracted?

Nutritional changes take a long time in the body to track so I can’t really tell you how to quantify the performance in a way that can be proved. But in large populations of high level endurance athletes, you see a lot of healthier diets and a lot less burgers and fries.

Good enough for me personally when the downside of eating healthier is basically zero.

To put this another way:

A healthier diet might not make you faster, it just makes you less likely to be slower due to a deficiency in X nutrient.

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Ice cream is still winning … lol

I think @stevemz is likely onto something when bringing up bioavailability.

For me it comes down to being able to eat a large enough quantity of food to feel full and avoid always feeling hungry and feeling like I’m always telling myself no. Constantly using your finite amount if will power to say no is draining and not sustainable. The only way I’ve found to accomplish this is by going the high volume/low calorie density route which pretty much forces you to add a lot of veggies to your diet and reduce junk food.

If I’ve just eaten 6 cups of broth based soup with an extra ~1 lbs of raw veggies added to it then I’m not hungry later that afternoon making it easy to avoid that stack of office donughts since I’m physically full and not just macro/calorie balanced.

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I would say there are multiple reasons. I’ll start with the small ones.

I believe research tends to show that vitamin supplements don’t quite accomplish the same thing as having it in food. May not make much of a difference…maybe it does.

Salt content will be dramatically higher in fast food. Important? Maybe…maybe not.

You will have more refined carbohydrates in fast food. White bread vs whole wheat basically. Faster digesting. How important is it…I don’t know.

NOW, we have what I think is probably the most important aspect - calorie density. The OP laid out the scenario of macro nutrients being identical in both diets. And of course theoretically they could be. But they won’t be, no matter how hard you try. Not forever anyway. Probably not even for a few days. Because at some point you’re going to have a ‘whoopsie’ moment, and eat an extra fried chicken thigh, and a second order of large fries with a bunch of ketchup, along with a big coke. And whoops…there went 1500 calories you barely noticed.

Try ‘missing’ 1500 calories of brown rice/chicken breast/kale.

I do just feel better but I can see it in the following:
Sleep - probably linked to salt content
How my gut feels - the amount of fibre in my diet makes a big difference
Reduced cravings so I don’t come off the bike and stuff myself with a packet of Tim Tams.
I also have my training diary where I keep track of my food and workouts. It creates a nice feedback loop.

I think it takes time.

I don’t know but it happened eventually. I used to row and after 4 hours on the river would think nothing of sinking a pizza. Now, I come off a long trainer ride and the urge to eat pizza just isn’t there. I’m far more likely to eat sweet potatoes and beans because that’s what I spent the 3 hour trainer ride thinking about.

I think you make a number of erroneous assumptions here from the very start: first of all, a good diet for cyclist (and other endurance athletes) is not a good diet for the average population. Compared to the average we eat too many carbs, although we do so for good reason. My point is that you get very different answers to what an appropriate diet is depending on who you design a diet for.

Secondly, at least for “normal people” there is a whole range of healthy diets. That just comes from the adaptability of humans to their surroundings. Some peoples have a very fatty, protein-centric diet, others a carb-centric diet. Okinawans, which get very old compared to the world-wide average, don’t stick to a vegan diet by any means, yet they seem to be very healthy.

Thirdly, what makes you feel good really depends on the person. This ranges from digestibility issues (e. g. lactose intolerance) and personal taste (which also has a genetic components, e. g. whether your tongue is sensitive to the bitterness of, say, broccoli).

Lastly, I don’t think nutrition is as well-understood scientifically as some people expect. Studies are hard and almost all of them can only catch correlations rather than causations. When I first looked into the subject, I got a lot of evangelism for certain diets (from carby vegan to keto), and while they would often cite studies in their talks and books, I immediately got that they were doing so very selectively and in an unscientific manner. (I am a scientist by training, and while my research has nothing to do with nutrition, I know how to write a good scientific paper. If you leave out criticism to your approach or discuss the weak points, I think it is bad science.) So I don’t think anyone can claim to “truly, truly understand nutrition”.

However, not all is bad, there are simple good practices that do not require you to become an expert or someone who weighs all the ingredients in your food down to the last spec of herb you put in your pasta sauce:

(1) Try to eat food that has been prepared from “first principles”, i. e. from unprocessed ingredients. For example, instead of pre-marinated meat, buy raw meat.

(2) Have a diverse diet. I sometimes have “keto days” where I forgo most carbs (e. g. a salad with a protein). (But of course, I don’t do that before my long rides.) Sometimes I eat ice cream, because I work close to the best ice cream shop in town (it is hand made, and the owner makes excellent Italian-style coffee).

(3) Eat in moderation, often and at appropriate times. I don’t eat after 21:30, for example.

(4) Fuel your training and your rides appropriately.

(5) Drink enough. We should all probably drink more than we do now.

These are just guidelines and many processed foods (e. g. salami, cheeses and such) are delicious. Unless you want to subjugate one of life’s greatest pleasures to your riding, feel free to break or bend some of these guidelines. However, I find that my body cravings change depending on my training load: when I train a lot, I crave way more healthy food. When I train less, I crave more junk.


The macronutrients might have the same mix in terms of quantity / grams, but the quality I’d bet would be way less than healthy foods. Examples:

Carbs are probably high GI that spike blood sugar, spike insulin production vs steady release of energy

Fats probably have more saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, etc. - the bad stuff

Proteins are likely lower quality - eg a grass fed steak vs a McDonald’s burger patty isn’t quite the same!

You could take one for the team and do a trial of both diets, and report back on what you find :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Adding on your last 2 points:

I cut most refined sugars and high GI carbs out of my diet. I’ve found that I now can make it through hour long high intensity workouts (VO2 max rides, as I’m following a polarized approach for my base training) on the trainer without having to take a gel or a coke before or during the workout.

I’ve also been able to do long endurance rides at more steady energy levels, even without eating. Note: I’ve also increased the amount of these rides I’m doing, so this steady energy could be a result of just doing more rides like this, and not tied to changes in my diet.

So I think I’m becoming less sugar reliant, which is one of my goals this year, as my A race is Leadville, and I want to be able to make it through without running out of glycogen (which I think is what happened to me last time).