Real athletes don’t diet

By Ann Ashworth

Diet is not equivalent to nutrition
Diet, as in what an athlete eats day to day, has to be up there with one of the most frequently asked questions of any elite athlete. Followers and fans want to know if what an elite athlete eats, is the secret to their success. And it is, at the very least, a contributory factor.

Having said that, it is important to distinguish between a “diet” as the running public understand it: a list of do’s and don’ts as to what should be on your plate (or in your back pocket while training); versus the kind of readily available foods which offer your body the nutrients they require to perform at its best (or, to function optimally). Because there is difference.

You may choose to follow the banting diet plan, a low-carb, high fat diet that excludes all grains, added sugars, vegetable and seed oils, and any foods containing gluten, or similarly the Atkins diet. Another diet popular amongst active individuals is the paleo diet comprising about 20% carbohydrate (more than Banting), 40% fats and 40% protein and which similarly excludes sugars, grains, processed foods and legumes. Also popular is the practice of intermittent fasting where food intake is limited to a set window period during the day. In each instance, the goal of the diet is to “lose weight” (or, most frequently belly fat), gain muscle mass and/or improve your overall health.

Counterintuitively, each diet claims to be the only way to reach these goals successfully.
What you will find, however, is that the vast majority of successful athletes, and particularly elite athletes, follow what your Mum would have described as a “balanced diet”; a moderate mix of everything fresh, coloured and readily available. Whole foods, namely naturally grown and free from hydrogenated fats, artificial colourings/flavours and preservatives, are a stable in any athlete’s diet. Combine these with complex carbohydrates such as brown and wild rice, quinoa, potatoes, maize and other staples, as well as hormone-free proteins and you will have everything you need to sustain the activities in which you hope to achieve.


But, if you diet… and by that I mean follow a restricted regime of do’s and don’ts, count your calories and tailor your nutrition intake to the ideals of say, a supermodel… your performance will suffer. If not immediately then certainly within the medium to long term. There’s a reason why models while lean and lithe, aren’t likely to set any land-speed records over your favourite race distances; because they don’t fuel for performance, they fuel for appearance. And there’s a difference. Of course there are outliers, as there are with everything; that person who tells you the reason why they are suddenly looking so good or running so well is because of some new-fangled diet regime. Maybe whatever they are doing is
working for them, right now. Get back to me in 12 to 18 months and let me know if they were able to sustain those performance gains because, chances are, they will not. Or if they do, their diet probably won’t be as strict as it was when they first started and it will have moved closer to something more balanced… which is exactly what a diet should be.

Let’s also recognize that before “going on” or starting a particular regime, a person’s diet may not have been particularly good and may have contained a high proportion of fatty, sugary or highly processed foods. Their decision to start a new eating regime must have been motivated by something – usually a desire to eat better, to feel better and to lose excess weight. In that case, moving toward any kind of eating plan which incorporates fresh foods, of whatever nature and in whatever proportion, is going to be better for them than the diet they previously followed.

I have previously followed a high-protein, low-carbohydrate and almost fat-free diet in the pursuit of sporting excellence. And for a while it seemed that I had found the key. I was strong and lean and running faster times than I could have previously imagined. But as time progressed, my body started to fail me. By excluding certain foods from my diet and limiting my intake of others, I unknowingly started to deprive my body of essential nutrients which it required to keep me healthy. In the absence of essential fatty acids I stopped being able to generate certain hormones and chemicals required for everyday life. Without adequate carbohydrate my body didn’t have sufficient fuel for me to complete my training sessions or to facilitate recovery afterwards. Slowly but surely my body entered a state of chronic calorie deficit, my performance suffered and I started to break down; all the while filling my plate with loads of low-calorie, high protein food. Eventually I developed a condition known as RED-S – Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.

It took me almost 2 years to recover from RED-S. It involved me taking a serious look at my diet and working together with one of South Africa’s most knowledgeable sports-focused dietitians. Within a few weeks of committing to a balanced diet, I finally felt like my old self. And better yet, I look far better than my old self – my hair has grown instead of falling out; my muscles are strong and lean. I can concentrate on what I am supposed to be doing instead of being easily distracted and half asleep. My sense of humour has returned and I don’t feel weirdly emotional for no reason. I’m back to being Ann… and my performance hasn’t suffered.


And so, in response to the question: do I follow a specific diet? I offer the following response: “My Mother always said that a little bit of what you fancy does you the world of good”.

I eat whatever is fresh and readily available, limiting my intake of highly processed, sugary and fatty foods, with the following core principles in mind:

  1. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially if you train beforehand. Make sure you include a healthy dose of lean protein (at least 25g) and complex carbohydrate to keep you fueled for the day ahead. Always choose a 3-egg omelet and sourdough bread over cereal or toast with jam.
  2. It is imperative that you fuel for recovery. This means taking in at least 25g of lean protein post-workout. If you train before breakfast – incorporate your protein into breakfast. If you train later in the day, make sure you are slugging down a recovery protein shake with 30 minutes of your training session. No excuses.
  3. Women must eat within 30 minutes of waking up. This reduces your “fat-storing” hormones and ensures you start the day on the right foot. Think about a rusk, a small banana or a smoothie which you can get down pre-morning run.
  4. Life should be colourful – include a wide variety of fruit and vegetables into your diet.
  5. Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates – they fuel your performance. But, if you do want to manage your weight (particularly as you get older), eat vegetable-based carbs at night (butternut, potato, corn) as opposed to grains or pasta.

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