The Importance Of Nutrition in Martial Arts, Police & Military Personnel By Will Brink
For a considerable amount of time, nutrition has not played a prominent role in the life of many martial artists, police, and military personnel as a means of improving performance. Top athletes are always looking for an edge. Although the martial arts are more of a way of life and a life style than a sport per se, the needs of the martial artist are the same as that of the elite athlete. Mental aspects not withstanding (i.e. mental awareness, strategy, cunning, etc.), the need for speed, agility, strength, flexibility, and the ability to recuperate from tough workouts (and unforgiving sparing partners) is paramount to the success of athletes and martial artists alike. Police and military personnel can also have unique requirements that require them to perform at peak physical and or psychological levels.
Over the past decade our knowledge of sports nutrition has evolved into a science that has swept the athletic world and has been partially responsible for the ever increasing numbers of athletes who are pushing the envelope of human ability and performance. Although a handful of the worlds top martial artists, police, and elite military units have taken advantage of the “cutting edge” nutrition being used by top athletes, the majority of these communities has not taken advantage of the new science of sports nutrition.
The advantage of improving one’s performance through nutrition and correct supplementation is obvious for the athlete, but what about the martial artist? Obviously technique, form, and knowledge of one’s chosen martial art is essential to the mastery of that art, but what if the person, regardless of skill level, becomes a little faster, stronger, and able to resist and repair from injuries and training better?
Will they not be an improved version of their former self? Of course they will! Proper nutrition can make the martial artist, as it has for so many of today’s top athletes, an improved and potentially more accomplished practitioner of their art, plain and simple. If a policeman is able to stay alert, has more endurance or strength, etc., will he/she not have an added advantage to the job? Of course.. The benefits to the soldier are obvious. Bottom line? To not take advantage of the science of nutrition and supplementation, is to short change the martial artists, police, and military personnel.
As a trainer for many athletes from various sports, police, and ,military personnel, and the author of numerous articles on sports nutrition and training, I have come to a few general guidelines that should be of considerable help and interest to the martial artist, police, etc. who want to improve both health and performance. Though nutrition is a complex topic, I have devised a basic guide to the major and minor nutrients that should be helpful to the martial artist, police, and athlete alike who are trying to make food and nutrient choices. Of course this guide is in no way total or complete, and many individual differences may apply, but as a basic guide to examining these nutrients, it could give you the edge you have been looking for.
Proteins are made up of amino acids which are the structural units of the protein molecule. There are approximately 20 amino acids. Eight of them are considered “essential” because the human body cannot make them on its own - which is the definition of an essential nutrient. Link a few amino acids together and you get a peptide. Link a bunch of peptides together and you get a protein. The shape of the individual amino acids (and resulting proteins) is unique and highly specific, so I won’t go into great detail about it here. Suffice it to say, proteins are an essential part of virtually every function in our body from the muscles, to certain hormones, to our immune system(s) and a whole lot more. In particular, the amino acids known as the “branched chain” amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) and the amino acid L-glutamine are of particular interest to active people as they are anti-catabolic (muscle sparing) and immune enhancing, to name only a few functions and benefits of these particular amino acids.
Though the RDA for protein is generally sufficient for couch potatoes (with some debate) the majority of athletes and/or highly active people will benefit from higher intakes of high quality proteins. Proteins with the highest biological value (BV) are the proteins that should constitute the majority of the active person’s diet, as they are superior for maintaining positive nitrogen balance, reducing recuperation time from workouts, improving immune function, etc. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) and isolates (WPI) have the highest BV of any protein, is almost 50% branched chain amino acids, and is high in L-glutamine, which is why I recommend several servings a day of WPC/WPI to all the athletes/martial artists/police I work with.
There are several brands of WPC/WPI on the market. Other high quality proteins such as skinless chicken, fish, eggs, soy, and lean red meats, have relatively high BV values and are good proteins. Another point that is important to know, the higher quality the protein, the less the person has to eat and this allows the person to keep total calories lower by sticking to these high BV proteins.
For a person who is active in the martial arts, has a busy job, and probably does some weight lifting and/or aerobics, an intake of .7 – .8 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight is what I have generally recommended. For high level bodybuilders and competitive distance athletes, the protein intake will be higher, approximately 1g of protein per lb /bodyweight being the most common. In certain situations, amino acid supplementation is useful, but most people will have no problem getting what they need by eating plenty of high quality protein foods. Low grade, high fat, preservative loaded, protein foods such as luncheon meats, hot dogs, etc., should be avoided for obvious reasons.
Carbohydrates are made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that cycle into a ring. They can be “simple” or “complex” depending on the number of rings that are hooked together and the way the carbohydrate effects blood sugar (1). Though the rings can be slightly different in shape, their common theme is the ring structure. Similar to amino acids that make up proteins, when you link the simple units (the sugars) together you get carbohydrates with different properties. As most people know, carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for the body. The best type of carbohydrates to eat are those that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Though foods such as pasta, breads, and white rice are considered “complex” they are highly processed foods, totally inadequate in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and should not make up a high percentage of a persons carbohydrate intake. Though these foods are often fortified with certain vitamins, in my opinion this does not truly replace what is lost during processing, not to mention the many nutrients that are not replaced. Americans are notoriously low eaters of fiber, and heavily processed foods mentioned above do nothing to correct this deficit. High fiber carbohydrate foods such as brown rice, beans, lentils, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and many others, are the preferred carbohydrate foods for health, performance, steady blood sugar levels, and reduced bodyfat levels.
Though the high carbohydrate/low fat diet is all the rage these days, it has not been in my experience the optimal diet for the many athletes, martial artists, and “normal” people I have worked with (see fats below). Data continues to support the fact that high carb low fat diets are not optimal for either health for weight loss. Eating too much of anything, including carbohydrates, will make one fat (too bad the makers of non-fat foods fail to tell you this) and cause a host of other ills I don't have the space here to cover. There are many researchers, books, and studies using both animals and humans that seriously questions the high carbohydrate/low fat diet as the optimal diet for health and performance. Two grams per pound of lean bodyweight of carbohydrates is more than sufficient to fuel the energy needs of most athletes if other aspects of their diet is adequate (i.e. correct use and amounts of certain fats and proteins). And, as mentioned previously, the source of those carbohydrates is of paramount importance.
The very word sends a shiver down the back of the leanest person. There is not a more misunderstood nutrient in all of nutrition than fats. Many people know there are big differences in how various carbohydrates effect the body and some people even know that different proteins have different properties, but “a fat is a fat, no?” is what the majority of people would say if you asked them about this much maligned nutrient. Fats have just as many biochemical differences in the human body as do carbohydrates and proteins, and thus have just as many different effects on the body that range from very good to very bad. It really depends on the type and amount of fat(s) we eat(2). Americans tend to get their dietary fats from saturated fats, rancid fats, and highly processed fats ( which contain by products such as trans fatty acids) , thus giving fats a bad name.
As mentioned earlier, an essential nutrient is anything the human body cannot manufacture on its own and must be obtained from the diet, or the person will become sick and/or perish if the nutritional deficit is not corrected. We know there are a multitude of vitamins and minerals, eight amino acids, and two types of fats that are considered essential nutrients for life itself to continue. You should be aware that there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, but that's a whole other story. The two fats that are known to be essential to health are Linoleic acid (LA) which is an Omega-6 fatty acid and Alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) which is an Omega-3 fatty acid. Both of these fats can be found in various foods that have not been heavily processed.
These two fats are highly sensitive and reactive to heat, light, and oxygen (i.e. they go bad quickly) , and are totally ruined or lost during the processing of our foods. The reason poly -unsaturated vegetable oils that line the shelves of most super markets can sit there for years on end is because they have been heated, deodorized, and generally processed to the point that they are the nutritional equivalent of white bread and table sugar. I recommend people avoid those oils.
Because of all the fat bashing by the popular media and health professionals who should know better, most people have come away thinking that all fat is bad and serves no other purpose than to make our hips and stomach wider while ruining our health. Nothing could be further from the truth. The membrane that surrounds every single cell in your body, the sheath around nerves, various hormones, prostaglandins, and countless other parts of the body (especially the brain) depend on the dietary intake of the right fats.
The importance of the essential fatty acids for health and performance cannot be understated. It is true that certain fats, such as, saturated fats, rancid fats, and trans fatty acids (found in margarine, Crisco, and other products) , can cause numerous health problems from heart disease to cancer and insulin resistance, to name only a few ills of a diet high in the wrong types of fat. However, the essential fatty acids (especially the Omega-3 fatty acids) are anti-lipolytic (stop fat storage), anti-catabolic (stop the break down of muscle tissue), increase metabolic rate and beta oxidation (burn calories/increase fat burning), improve insulin sensitivity, reduce the chances of heart diseases, and a whole lot more (3).
Though early research told us that we need a bit more LA (the Omega-6 fatty acid) than LNA (the Omega-3 fatty acid) in our diet, we find in practice that a diet containing higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids (LNA) gets the best results in health, bodyfat levels, and performance. The richest source of the Omega-3 fatty acid LNA is Flax oil, which also contains a small amount of the Omega-6 oil LA (4). Flax oil can be found in the refrigerated section of any good health food store and is derived from the careful processing of flax seeds (5). As a nutritional consultant to various athletes, I have used flax oil with many of the country’s top bodybuilders (a group of athletes notoriously fearful of eating fat) to reduce their bodyfat levels and improve their performance and health. Two–three tablespoons a day over a salad, taken straight, or in a protein drink does the trick (6). Another major source of Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in deep water cold fish such as sardines, mackerel, and salmon (7), and I recommend that people eat two to three servings of these fish per week. Good sources of LA are unprocessed vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame, and many other oils found in health food stores.
Fats to avoid are highly processed vegetable oils and other processed vegetable products (such as margarine), rancid fats, and to a lesser degree, saturated fats. The key to health and performance is a proper balance of essential fatty acids (LNA and LA), mono unsaturated oils (found in olive oil, avocados, etc.), and small amounts of saturated fats found in lean meats and other sources combined with the right carbohydrates and proteins.
Obviously a full description of every vitamin and mineral and all their functions would take several large text books, so I won’t even attempt it here. A good multi vitamin is an insurance plan to make sure we get all the major vitamins and minerals that for what ever reason we failed to get from our food on any given day. There is not a single cell in our entire body that does not require the use, or interaction with, some vitamin, mineral, or biological function that is dependent on the above nutrients in adequate amounts. If you think we get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our highly processed food supply (as some health professionals maintain), than I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you. Some (but not all) nutritionists and other health related professionals will often say something like “vitamins supplements just cause expensive urine.”
The last time I checked, chemo therapy, heart bypass operations, and hundreds of other medical treatments cost considerably more than the average multi vitamin. If the intake of vitamins were to prevent any major disease in say one out of a 100,000 people, it would have been worth every cent in my book. In my opinion, the correct use of vitamins, minerals, herbs, essential fatty acids, and many other nutritional based compounds, is the best route to optimal health and performance. Any major brand of multi vitamin from such manufacturers as Twin Lab, Solgar, or Nature’s Best, to name only a few good brands, would be fine.
Anti - oxidants
“Anti-oxidants” and “free radicals” are the hot buzz words these days on television news shows, news paper articles, and magazine features. Though scientists in the health and nutritional fields have known about them for decades, they have recently been getting a lot of attention by mainstream media and more open minded medical researchers. Anti-oxidants are a special class of vitamins and other non vitamin compounds that neutralize free radicals before they can damage cells in our body. What is a free radical? A free radical is a highly reactive molecular fragment that has a single unpaired electron. The unpaired electron wants to “pair up” with another electron.
The free radical will steal this electron from virtually anything it comes in contact with, including our cells. This reaction, if left unchecked, leads to a free radical chain reaction and damage to various parts of the cell depending on where it takes place. An anti-oxidant can donate an electron without itself becoming a free radical and thus can break the chain of events leading to an uncontrolled free radical chain reaction (8). Free radical pathology is now believed to be linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dozens of other afflictions. Without going into a long (and boring) biochemical explanation, there are many things that cause free radicals to be released, such as smoking, exposure to various toxins found in air, food and water, sickness, exercise, and stress in general.
Anti-oxidants such as vitamin E and C and other compounds such as selenium, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), and proanthocyanidins (derived from grape seed extract), to mention a few, will help recuperation from tough workouts, improve immunity, possibly prevent certain diseases, and improve your health in so many different ways it would take another article to explain. A good anti-oxidant formula made by any one of the brands I mentioned previously, should be added to the diet in addition to the multi- vitamin. Whey proteins can also greatly improve anti oxidants status and is recommended.
The topic of sports nutrition supplements, such as: androstenedione and other “andros,” Arginine, Colostrum, CLA, Creatine, Ecdysterone, GH Supplements, Ginseng, HMB, Myostatin Inhibitors and Tribulus, to name just a few, is beyond the scope of this article. Each supplement has its potential uses, dawbacks, doses and other variables that need to be examoned on an indavidual basis.
The above list of foods and supplements is in no way complete or the entire picture when it comes to additional ways the martial artist, police, and military personnel can improve his or her health, strength, bodyfat levels, and recuperative abilities. However, the information presented here can make for a foundation of health and performance that could add a considerable edge for those who seeks it.
(1)The way a carbohydrate effects blood sugar after it is eaten is known as the glycemic response. The glycemic index (GI) is a list of foods and how they effect blood sugar. Some foods we think of as “complex” actually raise blood sugar much faster than many foods we think of as “simple.”
(2) The health problems related to fats is are far more complex than most people appreciate. The pathology of disease(s) caused by high fat intakes of the wrong types of fat is a complex interaction between certain fats, carbohydrates, a lack of certain vitamins and other nutrients, free radical/anti-oxidant mechanisms, and other factors that are poorly understood.
(3) For more information on the many benefits of the essential fatty acids and to find out more information about fats and health in general, read “Fats the Heal fats that Kill” by Dr. Udo Erasmus published by Alive books.
(4) LNA and LA are in a 4:1 ratio in flax oil.
(5) Like fresh eggs, milk, meat, etc, all fresh unprocessed oils will spoil (go rancid) if not refrigerated constantly and eaten shortly after opening the bottle.
(6) All highly unsaturated oils, including flax, should NEVER be used to cook with as this will change the structure of theses oils making them toxic and of little use for the purpose they are intended for.
(7) The “fish oils” DHA and EPA can be formed in the human body from LNA by desaturase enzymes.
(8) It is important to note that free radical reactions are a normal and essential part of metabolism. It is the uncontrolled free radical chain reactions that we are concerned with.
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