March 20


Performance Enhancing Foods

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“There’s no such thing as a good or a bad food – just good and bad diets.”

Although the food industry regularly repeats this mantra, the simple fact is that it’s just not true.  In reality, there are indeed good and bad foods out there.

If you want to perform at your peak you'll want to eat plenty of the very best foods. This can give you a real edge over your junk food colleagues.


It’s worth spending a little time exploring some the basic principles.

You can then determine how the foods that comprise your next meal will make you feel. Will they keep you in the fast lane? Or will they have you pulling over onto the hard shoulder as your performance flags?

The most important thing to consider is the degree of processing a food has undergone. That’s because when foods are processed, they are almost always adversely affected. In its journey from the farm to your table, fridge or pantry - a lot of changes can take place.    

This can happen via removal of nutrients and/or the addition of less than ideal ingredients.

Removal of nutrients and other vital components

When foods are processed by manufacturers, it’s generally for their benefit not yours.

Longer shelf life, consistency between batches, ‘improved’ appearance and increased palatability of otherwise bland ingredients are just some of the reasons why the unprocessed food that goes into the factory comes out in a rather different and depleted state.

The inevitable result of this processing is the removal and destruction of vital nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, fibre, health-giving antioxidant compounds and essential fats. All of those are needed by healthy active bodies, but are often lost during processing.

For example, compared to whole wheat, refined white bread has only a fraction of the trace minerals. Minerals such as selenium, chromium and zinc. Virtually no fibre or essential fats (which are found in the wheat germ of whole wheat).  

As another example, compare the zinc content of a heavily processed breakfast cereal such as sugar-coated cornflakes to an unprocessed cereal such as shredded wheat.  30g of cornflakes provide just 0.08mg of zinc whereas 30g of shredded wheat provides 0.7mg of zinc. This is nearly ten times as much!

Zinc is an especially important mineral for exercising bodies. It’s crucial for enzymes that regulate protein turnover and growth.

Rely on processed foods and your intake of zinc and other vital nutrients will suffer. Even if those foods are ‘fortified’ you're still losing out.


Many people mistakenly assume that foods fortified by the manufacturers are somehow especially rich in nutrients.

Some may think they're even better than standard unprocessed foods.  

However, these foods have often had most of the nutrients refined out them first, with only a few added back.  This is sometimes in a form that is poorly absorbed and used by the body.  

Supposing you were mugged at knifepoint. Stripped of your clothes, wallet, car keys, credit cards, jewellery and mobile phone. You're then given back your underwear and bus fare home.  Would you feel fortified?  

As a rule of thumb, stick to the unprocessed whole grain breads and cereals. These contain the amounts and chemical forms of nutrients that nature originally intended for our bodies.

Addition of performance-sapping ingredients

To add insult to injury, many foods have ingredients added that are not only unhealthy, but which can actually hinder performance. The three main villains in this aspect are sugar, salt and fat.

Sugary foods not only tend to be low in nutrients but can also easily upset the body’s internal energy balance. Leading to peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels this can severely diminish exercise performance.  

Although some fats are essential, too much fat (especially at the wrong time) can interfere with digestion. Stomach cramps during exercise and slower recovery after training can be the result.

When rapid delivery of carbohydrate and protein to muscles is paramount, fat just gets in the way. In addition, fat is very calorie dense. Too much in the diet will either displace important carbohydrate and protein intake, or lead to performance hindering weight gain.

Meanwhile, excessive salt is not only a risk factor for high blood pressure but can also interfere with fluid and electrolyte balance and thirst mechanisms.


Hopefully then you can see that the very best performance-enhancing foods are of the unprocessed and ‘whole’ variety.  

But given there are many hundreds of natural and unprocessed foods on the supermarket shelves, are there any worthy of particular mention?  

The answer to this is ‘yes’.

The problem is if you ask 10 different nutritionists you’ll always get 10 different lists.

Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence out there suggesting that the best way to enhance performance and protect health is to select a wide variety of these healthy foods – rather than eating lots of just one or two foods.

Paul Stokes Perth Personal Trainer Sports Nutritionist Group Fitness Instructor Massage Therapist

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs.

He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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