Sadly, in June of this year, one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known passed away after years of struggling with health issues. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., but became famous for his boxing skill and his mouth, later changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
Ali once said, “Champions aren’t made in gyms […] They have to have the skill and the will.” He essentially advocated that effort is just as important as talent – if not more important – when it comes to achieving championship-level accomplishment.
Ali was right, but he didn’t have the knowledge of physiology to help him understand the weight of what he was saying.
For most athletes, especially at the youth, high school, and amateur levels, talent certainly matters, but two things are significantly more important: dedication to training and dedication to fuel.
Today we’re going to discuss fuel.
Standard vs. Premium Fuel
I have been blessed the past couple years to speak to the students of Medina High School’s health classes. In an attempt to keep them awake I ask them a lot of questions. One question I ask the athletes is: “If I gave you a Lamborghini, would you put premium fuel in it or just standard?”
I’m not a mechanic (or even much of a car guy) and most of them don’t know cars especially well, but of course many of them answer that they’d rather use the premium fuel. Because it makes sense. Common sense.
So I just want you to follow me on the common sense train and we’ll discuss some championship-level nutrition (premium fuel) that athletes should be abiding by, but most aren’t. Maybe some common sense on some common pitfalls will take your game to the next level.
Protein Shakes and Vitamin A
Frequently, the people asking me questions after classes or booster club speeches are athletes trying to either “bulk up” or just improve their performance. That being said, many ask me whether or not they should take protein shakes. Often, my answer to them is simply, “No.”
When it comes to high school athletes, most have little to no knowledge of nutrition. And the majority of that “knowledge” is hearsay from teammates and often amounts to oversimplification. In this case, the problem is they simply equate protein with muscle growth and assume that if some is good, more must be better. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, so I’ll give you two examples of how there’s more at play here.
First, if an athlete is concerned about protein, the first place to start isn’t supplementation with some expensive synthetic. The first place to start is to eat actual foods that provide protein in its natural state. Some awesome examples are eggs (we can discuss your misconceptions about cholesterol in Dr. Tim’s post), grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, and sprouted nuts.
Second, protein doesn’t just go from mouth to stomach and stomach to muscle. It goes through a process of digestion; there are multiple steps to this digestion, many of which occur in the liver, which requires vitamins A and B6 to breakdown and utilize protein.
The reason this is important is that most young athletes are eating a lot of junk devoid of quality vitamin sources. This is the part where athletes will often show me their protein container if they have one on hand and say, “See Dr. Bob? Mine has vitamin A and bunch of B’s.” To which I simply respond, “You’re wrong.”
I wish I had, in all of these conversations, found at least one protein shake with a good source of vitamin A and B6 (among other B vitamins), but I have not yet. The most common source on the market is “beta-carotene,” which is actually a pigment in plants that gives them an orange color. It is technically a carotenoid which essentially equates to a precursor for vitamin A, requiring a long list of steps to actually become vitamin A. That means your body uses up fuel and other vitamins and minerals to get through those steps – this loss is just to make a vitamin that would normally be found with protein in a normal food source.
Follow me on this one: most protein on the market is some form of whey protein, correct? Correct. Where does whey protein come from? Milk. How do we get whey from milk? First, because this is America, the milk is ultra-pasteurized, killing off not just bacteria within the milk, but also essential enzymes natural to the milk. Now that those enzymes are dead, synthetic ones are applied to the milk to separate the whey from the curds (these will be sold separately as cheese- profiting off both sides of the equation!).
Next, the whey – still in liquid form – is sent through a filtration process removing all fat, lactose, many minerals, and water. Then the protein must be further dried into powder. At this point a protein company buys the whey product and adds artificial flavors, synthetically made B vitamins, other “proprietary blends” (which often equates to rice flour or some other diluting additive), and sometimes sugar. One of the most absurd parts of this process is the natural vitamin A in milk we need for protein digestion and the fat required to absorb vitamin A are removed halfway through!3
The problem with the synthetic B vitamins in particular is that they’re less bioavailable than those that occur naturally in food. This occurs because vitamins are not found solo in nature – they’re usually surrounded by bioflavonoids, enzymes, and activating factors. As you saw with protein production, these co-factors are removed, so we now put a demand on the body to either find these in other foods we eat (driving us to consume more) or utilize the small amounts we store in our bodies. If we don’t have any co-factors left because we’re consuming dead protein powder, that expensive protein becomes a really expensive waste product sitting in your porcelain chair.
Rather than go the route of expensive shakes that deplete your body of the vitamins it needs to function, I suggest improving the diet overall so that the protein is coming from a good source.
However, if you’re looking for a fantastic source of vitamin A, look to where it was discovered in the year 1913: cod liver oil (a staple of your grandparents’ and great grandparents’ diet regimen).
The Murky Past of Gatorade
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably been wondering when I was going to mention this colorful drink. I mean it’s in the title right? The answer is now, but before we discuss it you need an abbreviated history of Gatorade.
The year was 1965 and a football coach from the Florida Gators allowed a team of several doctors to research ways to improve the resilience of his players in the hot Florida summers. Of course, the skeptical coaching staff only allowed research to be performed on freshman athletes.
The research team, led by Dr. Robert Cade, set out to find a recipe to replace the water, electrolytes and carbohydrates that were lost through exercise. It’s difficult to find details on the original recipe developed at the University of Florida, but many claim that it was a combination of salt (sodium, potassium and phosphate), sugar, water, and lemon juice. Some sources suggest that the very first attempt did not even include lemon juice and that the researchers could barely stomach the drink.
One of the main measures they used to determine the effectiveness of the drink was blood glucose (and this is the fatal flaw, but we’ll get there). So after they had what they believed was a worthy solution, it was supposedly tested using a scrimmage between the junior varsity and freshmen teams in a Florida practice. In this case, the freshmen team came back in the 3rd and 4th quarters to defeat the JV who had not consumed the yet unnamed beverage.
That was all the evidence the coaching staff of the Gators needed to see; they immediately requested a full supply for the next game against the LSU Tigers. The team won that game where they came from behind in the second half, and a legend was born.
After being defeated by the Gators in the Orange Bowl two years later, Coach Bobby Dodd stated that the team lost because “…[they] didn’t have Gatorade. That made the difference.” That sealed the deal; Gatorade would end up in every locker room and on every field.1
There are a few interesting things to note about Gatorade’s history that make this apparent success more uncertain.
First, no randomized controlled trials were ever done to establish an efficacy of Gatorade on any certain factors. The only tests performed were when one team drank the solution and played against another. But what happened in the years surrounding Gatorade’s discovery? Florida went 7-3 in 1964, the year before Gatorade; 7-4 in 1965 the year they began using it; and 9-2 in 1966 when they would go on to win the Orange Bowl.
The interesting things is that the 1966 team was objectively better talent-wise than previous years, as they were led by two top 10 NFL draft talents in QB Steve Spurrier and RB Larry Smith. The team would return to similar records by the 1967 season.
I’m not saying that Gatorade didn’t help, I’m just saying this doesn’t scream objective proof.
The other sketchy aspect to Gatorade’s history is that originally, they wanted to name it “Gator-aid,” which makes complete sense since they believed it aided the Florida Gators, right? But the FDA prohibited it unless they had legitimate research to show this “aid” that it provided to athletes. Rather than opt for higher quality research, they used a different name with the same sound. Again, doesn’t appear the most legitimate way of doing things.2
Fortunately, the University of Florida is pretty upfront about the history of the subject. Unfortunately, the sketchiness doesn’t end here.
So far, we’ve seen that there’s little evidence for Gatorade actually benefiting us, but the real question we want to know is whether it’s harming us. So who owns Gatorade?
Well, first it was bought from the inventors by Stokely-Van Camp, Inc. (a food packaging company) who made it the official sports drink of the NFL. They also ran into some issues with the FDA when they tried to replace some of the sugar with an artificial sweetener called cyclamate, which was cheap, but not proven to be safe. Then, in ’83, Quaker Oats Company bought Stokely-Van Camp and grew the product more and more. Finally, when Gatorade was purchased by PepsiCo in 2001, it had grown so large it was an unstoppable cultural force.
Throughout all this, Gatorade had plenty of time and money to improve its product, but it didn’t. In fact, they tried multiple times to replace ingredients with cheaper substitutes like artificial sweeteners to replace the sugar, lowering the electrolyte content, even using high fructose corn syrup until there was public outcry. This certainly doesn’t lend credibility to the product.
So I want to leave you with a few questions:
- Hasn’t research shown that sugar consumption, especially high concentrations, is nearly as addictive as drug use?
- Doesn’t PepsiCo have something to gain by having every aspect of the market from coach to couch potato addicted to sugar?
- And shouldn’t a product basically marketing itself as the largest sports nutritional leap in history be all over the place, sharing awesome research about how effective it is?
- And wait, haven’t we all heard that frequent and prolonged blood sugar spikes lead to type II diabetes?
The answer to every single one of those questions is yes.
This isn’t the stuff Ali meant when he said champions are made of something more. Stick to the natural stuff.
Stay healthy my friends,
Dr. Bob Griesse, DC, CSCS
1Kays, Joe (2003). “Gatorade – The Idea that Launched an Industry”. University of Florida Research.
2Shires, Dana. “Dana Leroy Shires, Jr.”. University of Florida Digital Collection.