Diets for Muppets

This is very simplified, personal advice on diet for club novice rowers and for anyone else that wants to live a healthy and as long a life as your genes will allow.  (Note not geared for international rowers or long distance triathletes training many hours a day). It is written at the behest our chief coach who says some of you have been feeling “light headed” and not quite right and he thinks this is due to your poor dietary habits.  I agree but the chances are it is a secondary product of bad diet and simply a hypoglycemic attack (low blood sugar). There follows, therefore, some basic guidance.

The basics  There are three categories of food: protein, fat and carbohydrates.

Protein is made of about 20 building blocks (amino acids) of which about half are essential in the diet.  (Veggies be aware). All protein, be it animal or vegetable, is “good” for you in the right quantities.  It is difficult to have too much protein as there are mechanisms to change it to what the body needs (think of the Inuit diet.)  (Indeed one inhabitant of a mental institution in New York would only eat eggs and that is all he would eat and did this for a number of decades and it was found that, contrary to expectation, his cholesterol ratios of “good” to “bad” (HDL v LDL) were excellent and there was no discernible health effects. ) It is not ideal, obviously, to eat only protein but in the context of carbohydrate and fat discussions to follow, protein can be eaten anyhow you like. There are valid arguments as to the benefit of restricting the amount of  red meat but those are not nutritional arguments. It is, however, expensive to eat lots of protein so an all-protein diet is not likely to be followed by most people. Protein has 4 k.cals. per gram.

Fat can be divided into good and bad (colloquial terms) basically (mono)/(poly)unsaturated and saturated or broadly vegetable fats and animal fats.  Mono unsaturated fats are liquid and help slow down the absorbtion of glucose into the blood stream and are a healthy thing to eat (ladies note!). Examples of such fats are avocado, canola, nut, and olive oils.  Generally, animal fats are solid at room temperature and pose more risk to the body than vegetable fats, so, if your choice is beef dripping, lard etc., a solid, or olive oil, a liquid, (make sure it is not hydrogenated – see below) in which to cook your food – chose the latter.  Also to avoid are “trans” fats which are artificial and there is evidence of damage done by these which are to be found in margarine and very many other processed foods. Look at the labels!  (any reference to hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated refer to trans fats, as does “trans fatty acid”. Many vegetable oils  are partially hydrogenated. Mono- and diglycerides, are synthesised and contain trans fatty acids used as emulsifiers. Anything deep-fried will contain trans fats – think crisps, poppadums, cerials, bread (fish fingers and other breaded fish),  frozen pizzas & pot pies, “nutri” and other sports bars, margarine, microwave popcorn (one of the worst), non-organic peanut butter (check for oil on the top to prove it is not), puddings etc all of which have trans fats used in the making. Fat has 9 k.cals. per gram.

The presence of trans fats and all kinds of other chemicals for preservation etc. and the absence of the right ratio of nutrients are the main reasons for wherever possible avoiding microwave meals  and fast food outlets.

The jury is out on interesterified fats which are not required to be identified but which will say on the label “high stearate”, “stearic rich”, or “fully hydrogenated”.

More on fatsessential fatty acids (‘essential’ i.e. you have to eat them as the body cannot make them). Think of  fatty acids as either Omega-3 or Omega-6 (depending upon the position of the double bonds.) Both need to be converted to the precursors of very short life “hormones” called eicosinoids (within each body cell), and there are, perhaps, 65 million such cells.  Each will have its own supply of ‘hormone’ and this conversion is done in the cell in two different ways  for the above two fats. There are probably hundreds of eicosanoids and there are ‘good’ eicosinoids and ‘bad’ ones.  To cut a long story short (phew!) you need to eat a good supply of  EicosaPentaenoic Acid (EPA) to get the balance of these fatty acids right for the body  to do a plethora of maintenance/ repair tasks (e.g. feel healthy after exercise). How do you do this? Simply feed yourself small amounts of suitable fish oil! Yes folks, that old wives’ tale about cod liver oil is actually true! You do not need much. “More” (like most vitamins) is a not “better” for you.

Carbohydrates  (CHO) can be divided into good and bad as well.  “Good” are the low glycemic index (Low GI) and “bad” are the high GI.  Examples of low GI food are oats (virtually the only cerial that is not high GI and the one Paula Radcliff and lots of others rely on), all leaf vegetables such as lettuce etc, cauliflower, broccoli etc.  High GI foods are all fruits  (other than blueberries, rasberries, strawberries etc. ).  Tomato is a fruit so minimise or avoid those on salads if on a very strict Low GI diet but feel free on a normal diet.   All sugars (brown is no more healthy than white and both are, in my book, long-term lethal), bread, potato, root vegetables such as parsnips, cooked carrot, etc. etc., i.e. all the things that we actually like, are high GI. There are some medium to lowISH GI root veg and I use sweet potatos if I want a treat occasionally but only with a normal protein meal. Alcohol is highish GI so eat that early on in the happy hour. Carbohydrate has 4 k.cals. per gram. Raw carrots and sweet potato and similar veg that can be found in GI lists on line are not THAT high GI and can be used in moderation on a normal diet.

Now you have a modest handle on the facts what do you do about diet?

Firstly, this is not an attempt to starve you into submission! We do not want you to eat less in most cases – just differently to alter your metabolism from carbohydrate-driven to fat-driven, to sleep well and, thus, recover and make muscle.

For the2012 Novice TRC group: If you think you need to or you want to lose weight, then make sure you are right by checking your body % fat content.  I can provide you with a high ‘tech’ weight scale that can estimate this  if you step on it barefoot.  Ideally, male athletes  should vary between 5% (absolute minimum) to 12% and females  14% (absolute minimum) to 20 % .  If you are above these upper figures, you are most likely carrying excess weight in the boat and need to consider losing that excess. Looking at the group as a whole, (this was theTRC 2012 Novice group) there are not many in this category perhaps 5 or 10 people?

Well, now you have a choice and this is a very serious one, probably one of the most serious that you will make in your life and this choice may make the difference between you living to 50 to 65 or prolonging your life by 10 to 25 years. I am not joking or exaggerating.

Route A (the normal, Western CHO-dependent/addicted diet)

Just keep on eating as you  normally do  with “healthy” orange juice or so called healthy fruit for breakfast followed by cerial (any of them on the supermarket shelves with their concomitant sucrose contents) and maybe eggs, bacon and coffee with two spoons of sugar followed by lunch and dinner and lots of crisps or wseets/ snacks/ biscuits/ doughnuts etc.  in between meals because you suddenly feel dizzy and hungry (known as a hypoglycemic attack) and simply  trust to luck.  Handle this right in terms of timing of the eating and you can row and feel fine as you will always have muscle glycogen (the fuel in the muscles – your petrol tank) and as long as you are young and your insulin receptors (the sensors that check out your blood glucose levels and supply that emergency insulin to cope with unnaturally high glucose in the blood after stuffing yourself  with some non-diet coke (over 10% sucrose [sugar]) and horse-burger and chips followed by a sweet pudding then you will be fine….

BUT….,as you get older, your insulin sensors will gradually get less and less sensitive and your blood glucose levels will become raised and then the excess glucose  will get turned to fat, either in your blood (triglycerides) which, in turn, gets laid down on the sides of your arteries or in your fat deposits around your gut and subcutaneously,  i.e. you get fatter.  It creeps up on you slowly….and, in 30 years time, you may well end up a Type 2 diabetic

Route B   (This is what I recommend for serious athletes intent on performing as well as those that are receptive to making a life-changing decision.)

It is quite simple. Cut out all high GI foods for 23 hours a day. Yes  all.  Have only one ‘happy’ meal of ‘normal’ foods (i.e. high GI) and keep that meal to under 60 minutes long and, if you drink alcohol,  make that at the start of the meal.  If you are very keen you could try cutting out ALL high GI carbohydrate and go to a ketone based diet living off protein, fat mainly with only low GI vegetables. That is the subject of another page and only for pretty serious long endurance athletes such as those doing Ironman i.e events which last longer than 2 hours – your petrol tank in the muscles.

Going back to rowing, you can eat as much as you like at all other times provided it is protein, fat or low GI CHO but the great thing about this diet is that once your enzymes are trained up after the first uncomfortable 7- 10 days,  you are not likely to want to eat as it is high GI food that makes you hungry about four hours after you have eaten it and your blood sugar drops! It is best to mix your high GI foods with protein at the same time as this has a beneficial effect on the production of glucose in reducing the spike in the blood sugar.

Another method of control is simply not to eat breakfast and to limit food to a six to eight hour window in the 24 hours. This is only comfortable when you have made the transition to fat-burning enzymes and requires strict discipline in what you eat in your happy hour.

What proportions of the fat, protein and CHO should you eat on this regime?

Based on a USA set of recommendations, (mmmmm is that trustworthy I ask? but I have checked and it seems OK) you should get 45 to 65 percent of your day’s calories from carbohydrate, 10 to 35 percent from protein and 20 to 35 percent from fats.
Read more:

My view is that fats, particularly ‘good’ ones, can be a much higher component and as high as 50 to 60 percent without any harm. “By itself, fat doesn’t have much impact on blood sugar. But when you eat fat along with a carbohydrate, it can slow the rise in blood sugar. Since fat also slows down digestion, once your blood sugar does rise, it can keep your blood sugar levels higher for a longer period of time.”Jodi Augustine

Now there is no need to go “ott” on this change.  You can do it fast or gradually.  It depends on your will power and determination.

The road from A to B

Fast – just get on and do it! make the change now and put up with feeling a bit crap for 7 to 10 days for the enzymes to start working.  Obviously, do not do this just before an event as your body need time to get used to this change but the sooner you start the sooner you get the benefit.

Medium – Start with breakfast (as late in the day as you can manage)  as your only low or medium GI meal.  Basically, eat oats muesli (made with nuts not dried fruit but if you like with low GI fresh fruit) and as much eggs, bacon, all-meat sausages, etc. as you want but no sugar, honey etc. (no matter how organic!) and no high GI fruit, no blood glucose reducing stimulants such as coffee, etc.  At lunch, try to shift the balance away from high GI down to medium or low GI, so brown wholemeal bread, black coarse whole rice etc. and avoid all the really high GI stuff.  At supper, eat normally but do so within 60 minutes.  Additionally, cut out all high GI snacking. Eat no crisps, no sandwiches, no chock bars etc.      If you have to snack, organise this with nuts and berries and low GI grain or simply protein such as cold, hard-boiled eggs.

Do this for a month or two and monitor the effects then consider moving onto low GI for lunch rather than medium GI but only do this if you still need to lose weight.

Slow –  just change all your eating habits slightly.  Look at what you eat and cut out alcohol (other than a small glass of wine just before you evening meal), white bread, potatoes and pasta basically if it is white – avoid it. Above all, stop taking sugar in your beverages and any fast food on supermarket shelves -check out the carbo contents. Instead of a sweet pudding eat some fruit preferably in-season apples or the like – chose the low GI fruit.  Eat lots of fresh leaf veg  and monitor the effect. Simply cutting out added sugar will be a significant change.

What is a typical meal like on this “B” diet?

Breakfast, a very important meal of the day and not to be missed, but delayed as long as possible to promote fat use. This  might consist of  oats, nuts, (no fruit other than those above that are not GI) with milk,  as many eggs, as much fish or chicken as you want but no toast – no sugar – no marmalade, etc.

Lunch can be leaf salads, pulses (the right ones) fish chicken  any low GI veg with a little flavouring

Supper have anything you like but keep it to within 60 minutes to avoid a secondary burst of insulin which will reduce the effectiveness of the diet. Remember to balance your meal with protein as well as your chips and bread.  This is the time to have all your fruits etc. that you like.

Supplements  Do you need them?

The short answer is “No”. Avoid them. That is the advice of British Rowing.  The only exception I would make is the possible use of fish oil if you do not eat oily fish.

I managed a very complex nutrition plan for my Ironman 2012 and my training camp work outs involved  drinking only water for up to 8 hour bike rides supplemented by low GI food every 25 to 30 mins at the rate of about 300 cals per hour and this worked a treat as my body started to use  triglycerides  preferentially.  My systems were more efficient on the bike ride in the event and so I entered the marathon with full glycogen reserves. It works.

Novices are only training once a day, at most, and any normal diet is quite sufficient. The only tips I would give would be that during the first hard session at a weekend or immediately after it you take in a DIY oat bar or the like – any low GI carbo combined with some protein which can be micro-filtered whey or an egg, chicken or the like. What you should not be doing is stuffing in sugars or bananas. Do the same immediately after the next session.  On any normal, once-a-day training routine, and not many of you are training 7 days a week, there is  no need to have any special food but simply to snack just before and just after hard exercise sessions that last longer than an hour with your pulse rate 65% max or above.

For a more complicated scientifically presented discussion go to my link on nutrition to be provided on this website where I will cover fuel stores, maintenance/repair and bodies prioritisation of reserves (blood sugar, muscle/liver glycogen, fat, protein). Vitamins, electrolytes, essential amino acids. I will also cover basal metabolic rates which increase with increased muscle mass and reduced fat content of the body whereby you need to eat more when resting an exercised body than when resting the same body which has taken no exercise.

To see what foods are high GI and what are low go to this link   and this

or simply google GI index

Where do I buy the right foods and what are they?



Any questions just email me



1 thought on “Diets for Muppets

  1. Pingback: How can I change my diet to improve rowing performance | Rowperfect

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.