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Performance goals may be affecting your nutrition

A new study from UBC suggests that performance goals may increase consumption of high-calorie foods at the expense of good nutrition

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Across sports – especially endurance sports – much is made about the importance of nutrition. Triathletes, in particular, have a craving for accessing knowledge and deepening their understanding of how a product or nutritional approach may benefit their performance and recovery. Take for example fasted workouts, low-carb high-fat diets or ketone bodies, triathletes want to know if such approaches are safe and beneficial. One message that is advertised by numerous healthcare experts, nutritionists and dietitians, and accepted by triathletes, is that people should look to consume nutritionally-packed foods over high-calorie foods. 


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However, new research recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research (2020) from the University of British Columbia has discovered that a significant proportion (majority) of people who set performance goals tend to consume higher portions of high-calorie foods than nutritionally dense foods. It did not matter whether performance goals were set in sport or in a work setting, this pattern held across a variety of settings. 

Now depending on the endurance sport and the training required for that discipline, high calorie foods may need to be consumed. Take, for example, an age-group Ironman triathlete that works a full-time job and has a family. They aren’t going to have all the time in the world to dedicate to training and prepare high-quality meals packed with nutrients. Sometimes a burger and fries will do, or a big bowl of cereal at night. When it comes to ultra-endurance events like an Ironman, it is important you make sure you replenish what you burn in order to perform and recover. 


However, even if you are training for an Ironman, quality needs to be prioritized over quantity. Training should not encourage you to indulge in high calorie foods. Sadly, this can be a message that is propagated, working out just to eat junk food. Don’t get me wrong, it is good to act on a craving every now and then. But if this is the norm, something needs to be done.

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And this is what the study from UBC discovered. This effect of indulging in high caloric foods derives from beliefs that the function of food is to provide energy for the body (food as fuel) coupled with poor nutrition literacy, leading consumers to overgeneralize the instrumental role of calories for performance.


While many endurance athletes do possess high nutritional literacy – choosing lower calorie foods with greater nutritional value, there is a significant amount of those that do have performance goals that are not aware of the importance and benefit of choosing nutritional quality over quantity.  

Related: Goal setting for training, racing and life

There are multiple resources available to the general public and endurance athletes to increase nutritional literacy. The first being Canada’s Food Guide. Newly updated in 2019, the food guide places importance on consuming plant-based foods and nutritional quality. It is also recommended to consult an expert in the field of nutrition and sport. A sports nutritionist or dietitian will be able to access your intake information and what adaptations need to be made to improve health, recovery and performance. Lastly, when making performance goals related to sport, work or school, consider other factors that will go into determining whether you successfully accomplish your goal. Whether you want to just finish an Ironman or finish in under 10 hours, brainstorm what will need to take place to accomplish that goal.