Why is it undervalued and how can we increase its importance?
Roughly said, there are only two things we can add to our body. Air and nutrition. So if you wish to change anything about your body, say your body composition, strength or endurance, you would expect we think of adapting those two things first. Air and nutrition. Now I’m not saying (fresh) air is not important, but there are less choices to make. You consume the air that is nearby. With nutrition that is totally different.
As an exercise physiologist, I and many other coaches, athletes and doctors like to think exercise is the solution for many exercise related problems. We immediately have the right training program for people who want to gain muscles, lose weight, recover after exercise or increase their endurance. But is exercise the solution, or should we be looking at nutrition more often? Let’s take those frequent occurring well defined goals and look at the effect of exercise and nutrition.
Should you do 6 or 12 reps per set? Focus on fast- or slow movements? Concentric or eccentric? There are many studies trying to find what kind of strength workout will gain muscle strength fastest. Neural adaptations aside, muscle strength is gained by increased muscle protein. Yes, exercise can have a positive effect on muscle protein. But 9 out of 22 essential proteins cannot be produced by the body itself and must therefore come from food. When you want to gain muscles, you are probably better off with sufficient protein intake without exercise, then the best exercise program without sufficient protein intake. Again, if you want to add something to the body, look at the only thing you can really add: nutrition.
What if you don’t want to add, but rather want to lose? Losing weight is probably the most common reason for people to start exercising. And that is a good thing, because exercise burns calories. But losing weight means burning more calories than you consume. Or a better way to say it: consume less calories than you burn. Eating half a bag of potato chips will cost you 15 minutes. Losing the same number of calories via exercise will cost you 60 minutes. In summary, you could exercise as much as you want, as long as your nutrition plan fails, you will too. If you want to lose something, add less of the only thing you can add to your body.
Now my question to you is: why do we focus on exercise when often nutrition is a better solution? Why do we look at stretching, foam rolling and massages when nutrition is more important in recovery after exercise? Why do endurance athletes track of every little detail of their training regimes for years, while a shift in nutrition could have a similar effect after only minutes. Is nutrition not sexy enough? Do we lack the discipline that proper nutrition requires, and therefore look at other things we enjoy more?
I personally think one of the problems with nutrition is the lack of scientific knowledge and as a result an abundance of opinion-based information. I doubt whether research by itself is going to be the solution. In 2013 a Dutch newspaper wrote about a concern I have as well when it comes to nutrition research: 75% of the studies done by the biggest Dutch nutrition research group is initiated and funded by companies. This is not a problem per se, but PLOS Medicine journal did find that this kind of studies find positive health effects 8 times more often than research without sponsor interests. They somehow seem to find what they are looking for more often.
If research is not going to increase the value of nutrition, what is? I suggest we look at the tech industry. Take sleep and recovery as an example. That wasn’t cool until wearables started to track it and give you personal feedback on it, right? Why not do the same for nutrition. Track food intake, combine the data with health data like body composition and athletic performance and see what the personal data can teach us. I can’t wait!