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Ultra-Processed Foods: Separating Fact from Fear

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Nancy Clark

Guest

What Athletes Need to Know about Ultra-Processed Foods … and Balancing Convenience with Nutrition​


It is important for youth soccer players as well as professional adult soccer players to know what they eat impacts how they play the game. A soccer player’s performance on the soccer field is directly affected by the fuel the wolf down. Here are important nutrition tips for soccer players of all ages.

In today’s food culture, we’ve demonized certain types of foods, such as those with abundant carbs, fat, salt, sugar. The latest demon is ultra-processed foods. How bad is ultra processed foods for a soccer player?


You’ve seen the headlines: Ultra-processed foods linked to heart disease, diabetes, mental disorders and early death, study finds. Eating processed foods tied to shorter life. You should stop eating ultra-processed foods.

Such fear-mongering headlines influence many soccer athletes to steer clear of Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs).

Staying away from processed foods is often the nutritionally wisest choice.

Assorted organic vegetables and fruits in wicker basket isolated on white background.

However, the words ultra-processed foods get tossed around way too loosely. Let’s take a closer look at the nutritional value for young athletes and youth soccer players as well as professionals.

Clickbait headlines can fail to offer a balanced overview. Sports drinks, gels, protein bars, as well frozen meals, store-bought bread, and vanilla yogurt (all UPFs) can be helpful additions to a busy (and budget-minded) soccer player’s food plan. But, will these foods really ruin your health?

This article looks beyond the headlines and offers information to help you better understand what Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) are and what they are not.


Nutrition Definition: What is an ultra-processed food?


Foods are categorized by the NOVA (not an acronym) system according to how they have been processed. NOVA has four categories—none of which consider a food’s nutritional value:

Group 1.
Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods—fresh & frozen fruits & veggies, plain meat, oats, coffee, pasta.

Group 2. Processed Culinary Ingredients (also called Oils, Fats, Salt, and Sugar)— includes foods from Group 1, but in a different form: olive oil (vs. olives), white sugar (vs. sugar cane), maple syrup (vs. sap), butter (vs. cream). Again, no mention of nutritional value.

Group 3. Processed Foods—home-cooked & commercially made food with salt, sugar, oil, plus preservatives to extend the shelf-life in foods from Groups 1 and 2. Examples include many foods thought to be good for us: smoked salmon, canned beans, canned tuna, and fresh cheeses.

Group 4. Ultra-Processed Foods— “industrial formulations” with fat, oil, sugar, starch, flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives. This group includes sports and energy drinks, cookies, baked chips, candy, as well as chocolate milk (excellent for recovery after a hard workout); tofu and salted nuts (protein for vegetarians); and packaged whole-grain bread.

Many Ultra-Processed Foods are nutrient-rich and positive choices for athletes. Hence, you want to think about nutrient density more than just the NOVA classifications!


Healthy and unhealthy sugar – juicy fruits next to sweet donut and processed sugar

What does the science say about ultra-processed foods?


While click-bait headlines proclaim UPFs are linked to heart disease, diabetes, brain health, and early death, the science is less definitive. Most UPF research looks at what people eat—and may overlook other factors that impact health, such as stress, economic status, exercise, and lifestyle.

To date, only one well-controlled study has compared the impact of two-weeks of eating an UPF diet (80%of calories) to a diet with minimally processed foods but nutritionally similar foods (in terms of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber). The results suggest the subjects ate more calories with the UPFs and gained two pounds during the two-week UPF diet and lost two pounds during the two-week minimally processed food trial.

Does this mean the media can rightfully declare UPFs are fattening?

No.

Research done under highly controlled conditions differs from “real life” eating patterns. Plus, two-weeks is a short trial. (This type of research is very difficult to complete.)



Is processing the problem— or is something else the culprit?

  • Emulsifiers (cellulose gum, polysorbate 80) have been linked to negative changes in rats in the gut microbiome. Stay tuned for human studies.
  • PFAs are endocrine disrupting chemicals that resist grease, oil & water.
    • They are in food packaging: shiny wrappers on energy bars, grease-resistant microwave popcorn bags, and paper take-out food containers.
    • As of Feb. 2024, PFAs are no longer allowed in food packaging in the US — but has their metabolic damage already been done?
  • Is hyper-palatability the problem? Foods made with sugar and fat are more pleasing than sugar-free and fat-free foods—and even sugar and fat itself. Chocolate, for example, offers an appealing mix of sugar and fat that makes it very easy to overeat…

Food for Thought


Before demonizing all UPFs, we really need to look at the whole picture.

We know chronic health issues are linked to eating patterns that lack fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts.

We also know that eating excess calories of salt, added sugars, and certain kinds of fat commonly found in UPFs can harm health.

But despite popular belief, it is possible to choose a food plan with 90% of calories from UPFs and still consume a quality diet. Ultimately, your overall dietary pattern—what, when, why, how much you eat—and not just UPFs will impact your health. We need to figure out why some people eat too many “addictive” UPFs such as salty snacks, sweets.

We’d also like NOVA to add a category for nutrient-dense processed foods to help resolve the demonization of all UPFs. Sausages and hot dogs should not be in the same category as tofu and peanut butter!


Plate of toasts with peanut butter and bowl of honey on white background

Nutrition Advice for Soccer Players:​


When making your nutrition game plan, there’s little doubt that munching on Group 1 nuts and fruits (instead of pre-wrapped bars), and spending more time cooking homemade foods with fresh, locally grown Group 1 foods will be the ultimate winning diet.

But convenience is a key reason many people reach for Ultra Processed options.

A suggestion is to keep your smart soccer pantry stocked with minimally processed foods. If you have healthy choices in your kitchen, hungry youth soccer players and even adult players can just as conveniently assemble a quick meals that provide great fuel to improve your performance on the field.



For example:

  • Whole grain bread + all-natural peanut butter + banana + yogurt
  • Rye crackers + canned tuna + cherry tomatoes + cheese.
  • As always, you want to eat more of best and less of the rest, keeping balance and moderation in mind.

Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD counsels both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for more information.

Note: Nutrition communicator Liz Ward RD shared this UPF information at the Mass. Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Annual Meeting (March 2024).


The post Ultra-Processed Foods: Separating Fact from Fear appeared first on SoccerToday.

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