Blog: Digesting a Food First approach

20 December 2018

Q&A with Sports Dietitian Australia’s Jessica Rothwell

What does ‘Food First’ mean?

Most of the population choose to eat foods, not nutrients. Food First is the evidence-based approach that enables individuals to eat intuitively and to consume a variety of foods that assist in achieving good health, training and performance.

A Food First approach is also so much more than nutritional goodness, adequacy and variety. It is affordable, enables flexibility, promotes social well-being and, above all, is one of life’s emotional pleasures. When intuitive and tailored appropriately to meet the physical demands of training, a Food First approach will help any athlete achieve training consistency, reduce the risk of injury and illness and help contribute to their performance benefits with or without the need for supplement use.

The abundance of nutrients obtained from wholesome produce, the use of quality ingredients and the enjoyment of preparing a favourite recipe should satisfy the healthy appetite of all active and athletic individuals, as well as contributing to their physical, social and mental wellbeing. 

Why does Food First matter?

Professional and elite athletes, as well as regular sports goers are often bombarded with ‘trendy’ supplements that offer a variety of colourful claims that are perhaps, in most cases, anecdotal and unsubstantiated by well-controlled clinical trials. Supplements claiming to enhance performance, transform physique or offer the best ‘health effects’ can be illegal, unsafe and dangerous, resulting in adverse health consequences. Food First is simple messaging - a varied diet is always more beneficial, and safer, than supplements.

What are some of the health risks of supplements?

Supplements can destroy sporting careers as well as adversely impact health, while some ‘anti-oxidant’ based supplements may even impair performance.  A frightening example that emerged in the media earlier this year was SARMS - selective androgen receptor modulators. This product was found in supplement stores and fascinatingly, the company’s website featured a footnote outlining that products were not intended for human consumption, were for research purposes only and not bound by the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. This product is also obviously prohibited by WADA.

That’s why regulatory bodies exist, as well as the work of Accredited Sports Dietitians and Sports Physicians, in providing their athletes with supplement safety education and relevant updates to empower them with the knowledge to make informed decisions, whilst emphasising and maximising the known benefits of a Food First approach.

Do supplements work?

Unless an individual has a diagnosed micronutrient deficiency or specific requirement for supplement use that contains evidence behind safety and efficacy of use, there is unlikely any potential benefit to the athlete and, if not utilised, it will be excreted from the body. It’s important to also keep in mind that Food First offers an array of nutrients to the body, rather than simply consuming nutrients in isolation.

Are supplements ever ok to use? And, if so, how can you reduce the risk?

A Food First approach and nutritional recommendations that are adequate and well-tailored with respect to age, sex, medical status and demands of exercise should form the basis of any athlete’s training and performance plan.

The use of sports or functional foods - such as protein powders or carbohydrate gels - that are third party batch-tested may be used in addition to a Food First approach, with a justified rationale. These products are often convenient, portable and serve to meet a specific purpose. Ergogenic aids may also be used to enhance performance – for example, creatine - used to enhance specific training and physique goals in conjunction with a Food First approach and under the guidance of an experienced Accredited Sports Dietitian.

Sports foods or ergogenic aids can be useful for specific purposes – however it is unquestionable, a Food First approach is a gold standard approach to keeping our athletic individuals fuelled, prepared for the rigours of athletic performance and, above all, healthy.

Jessica Rothwell
Accredited Sports Dietitian
Sports Dietitians Australia