July 24, 2008

Energy Foods Have Long History

With bars and beverages that promise to enhance your athletic prowess taking up ever greater chunks of supermarket real estate, it would be easy to mistake energy foods as a modern phenomenon.

The belief that consuming special foods can enhance performance can be traced throughout much of human history, however, and some traditions are better grounded in science than others.


During medieval and Renaissance times, it was believed that a person could gain the attributes of a substance by eating it, says Ken Albala, a food historian and the author of Eating Right in the Renaissance. Boiled meat (or muscle), then, was the preferred food for athletes and warriors.

Though the Greeks believed beef was hard for the average person to digest, they also thought athletes and gladiators had exceptionally strong "digestive fire."

Gladiators also consumed large amounts of barley porridge, which was thought to provide energy and fat to protect them from injury. Their primary energy drink was wine, believed to boost confidence and courage.

VERDICT: Protein can help build muscle, and carbohydrates (barley) consumed before competition can improve endurance, but the folks from this era probably indulged excessively.

Though wine might provide "liquid courage," it also impairs muscle re-synthesis and the body's ability to recover after competition, says Jennifer Sacheck, an assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition.


Many Asian energy foods are broths and soups simmered with specific meats or seafood, vegetables and medicinal herbs, says Li Xu, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine at Southwest Acupuncture College in Albuquerque, N.M.

Marathon runners will drink soup simmered with a whole turtle. Sumo wrestlers consume vast quantities of chankonabe, a Japanese stew made with chicken, fried fish, tofu, vegetables, mushrooms, noodles and rice.

Herbs believed to strengthen resistance to stress traditionally have been simmered into soups, teas and rice dishes.

Chinese and American ginseng, along with the caterpillar fungus cordyceps, has been popular among athletes and royalty for centuries. Reishi and shiitake mushrooms, lycium berries, jujube dates, astragalus and codonopsis roots also have been consumed as energy foods.

VERDICT: Though broths and soups provide easily digested nutrients, modern research on many medicinal herbs is limited, as is understanding of how they might work.


According to ayurvedic traditions (India's traditional medicine system), athletes are believed to have a fiery constitution, so cooling, easily digested, nourishing foods and herbs are used to increase their strength and stamina, says Hilary Garivaltis, the dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Stockbridge, Mass.

An athlete's diet might focus on egg whites, wheat, almonds, saffron-infused almond milk, lemon water and milk infused with ashwagandha (an herb believed to improve the ability of the body and mind to cope with stress.)

Almonds, milk and saffron are believed to build internal strength, or "ojas."

VERDICT: Partly because of lactose intolerance issues, athletes in many other cultures avoid dairy, consider it to be too congesting. Also, Ms. Sacheck says the protein and fat in some dairy products can be slow to digest, making them poor choices before competition. Eggs and wheat are good sources of protein and carbohydrates, however. Though ashwagandha has a long history of use in Indian medicine, clinical research on it is slim.


Today's energy drinks have many ancestors. During the 1800s in the American South, for example, ginseng-infused corn liquor was a popular beverage drunk as a shot.

An Atlanta druggist created Pemberton's French Wine Coca, an energy beverage containing wine, cocaine and kola nut (caffeine). During prohibition the wine was replaced with a sweet syrup, and the drink was reborn as Coca-Cola.

More recently, the beverage industry has exploded with high- caffeine energy drinks such as Red Bull and electrolyte-laced beverages such as Gatorade and Vitamin Water. This style of drink often sports vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, amino acids, caffeine, herbs and antioxidants.

Modern energy bars also have a long lineage. Native Americans made pemmican, dehydrated cakes of jerkylike meat, fat and wild berries. They provided large amounts of fat and protein for long- term energy.

VERDICT: Sports drinks and energy bars might provide fast energy, nutrients and electrolytes, and provide a boost from caffeine or other ingredients, but experts say they generally aren't critical for sports nutrition and can contain unnecessary calories, sugar and sodium. Electrolytes are mainly important for athletes who might compete for more than an hour at a time or in very hot conditions, Ms. Sacheck says.


The nutritional needs of athletes depend, in large part, on the type of activity they perform, Ms. Sacheck says.

Easily digested carbohydrates in the form of bagels or pasta provide quick energy to fuel athletes such as swimmers and runners who need it for endurance. Before competition, these athletes should avoid protein, fat or anything that might slow digestion.

Weight-lifters require more protein during training, often in the form of eggs and whey, but also as meat and soy. This helps with muscle synthesis and repair. During competition, they perform for only short bursts don't need the sorts of carbohydrates endurance athletes do.

Originally published by Maria Noel Groves Associated Press.

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