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Nutrition's Ultimate Guinea Pig: The Middle-Aged Athlete

Read on for the latest installment in UFC.com's weekly series of articles on proper nutrition...
This week’s nutritional column kicks off with a twist. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of sport’s finest in this space (such as Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber, Mike Dolce, Forrest Griffin, Tito Ortiz, Demetrious Johnson, vegetarian Aaron Simpson and a host of others). I have diligently studied these men -- who I consider to be the hardest working athletes in the world -- and the dietary decisions fueling their pursuit of peak performances. Picking their brains is a passion of mine. Yet some of my reasons for sponging as much nutritional (and other) knowledge as possible from these Alpha Males are, quite frankly, entirely selfish.

You see, I am 40 years old. Don’t look 40, don’t feel 40, but nevertheless my birth certificate and driver’s license frequently remind me that I was born in 1972. The increased amount of time it takes for injuries to heal reminds me that I’m 40. A salt and pepper pattern in my beard reminds me that I’m 40. Twenty-something women often give me a strange look when I reveal (with some reluctance, I might add) them I’m 40 – and their “Your almost as old as my dad” expressions remind me that I’m 40.

It’s a mixed bag, folks. Because experience is a wonderful teacher and ally to have when navigating an ever-changing and chaotic world. Four decades into my life, I actually feel that 40-year-old ME would most definitely manhandle the 23-year-old ME in a scrap, would absolutely school him in a game of basketball or a grappling match, and is all-around much healthier. Yet the 800-pound gorilla never completely leaves the room. It is impossible not to occasionally ponder how much longer my athletic ascension will continue. Whether you are a weekend warrior, amateur athlete or a pro, Father Time eventually intervenes. This is a certainty. The north of 35 years old athlete often gets caught in psychological warfare against the ultimate enemy: Himself.

In the end, for competitive athletes at least, it really boils down to two choices. 1) Do you want to leave on top – on your own magnificent terms with a lot more left in the tank, as athletes such as John Elway, Michael Phelps and Barry Sanders did – or #2) “ride it until the wheels fall off” (as Donald Cerrone once told me) as pretty much 99 percent of all elite athletes do until they are a fraction of their former playing selves, embarrassing themselves, with pundits and fans screaming “Retire!!!” to them on an almost weekly basis.

I was around in the early 2000s when Randy Couture was still blowing minds and ragdolling men 15 years his junior. I mean, from the time Couture was 38 or 39, almost every press conference the guy ever participated in inevitably devolved into the same, obvious circus of insinuations: “OK, how much longer until this guy gets old overnight inside of the cage?”

Nobody interviewed Couture without bringing up age-related questions. This monotonous song-and-dance literally followed the legend around for nearly a decade until his retirement at age 47. I remember interviewing Randy and how he would talk about the science of peak training, about taking a lot more rest during camps than his younger days. He always preached eating “greens” and monitoring a good alkalinity to acidity ratio, long before kale and PH levels became a bigger deal to a growing number of athletes hiring their own nutritionists.

Anyway, I honestly believe that the middle-aged, age-defying athletes like Couture are more than just inspirational – they are ideal guinea pigs for the rest of us. We see teenagers and twenty-something athletic phenoms who eat darn near whatever they want and still light up the competition (I could give you a long list of them, including NFLer Chad Johnson, former world champ Miguel Torres up until a few years ago, and current UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson). But as an athlete ages, they need to claw and scratch for every advantage. The margin for error is slimmer. You can’t just eat whatever you want. You can’t just hit the gym everyday like a raging psycho and “Do Work” as the younger crowd so casually espouses. Forty-something eyes don’t see punches or 95 mph fastballs coming as well. Reflexes slow down. Muscle and injury recovery takes longer. And all of the sudden what you eat becomes a HUGE deal (assuming you give a damn and still want to daringly pursue peak performances).

Every person is unique and different. I believe that discovering your own ideal diet requires many years of experimentation, evolution and open-mindedness. What follows are MY OWN insights and experiences regarding nutritional approaches I have adopted from fighters and other worthwhile resources. These are just my opinions about what has worked for me. Hopefully some of these insights will be beneficial to you as well.

BREAKFAST

 Since I first started this column months ago, I would say the majority of fighters eat oatmeal for breakfast. It’s a very solid choice: Whole Grain oats are a great complex carb (source of energy) and easy to digest (so that you have plenty of energy for your workout or morning meeting, whatever the case may be).

A distant second for many athletes are egg whites and/or homemade vegetable and fruit shakes from a juicer. Again, the shakes are typically packed with raw nutrients and easy to digest.

My choice: Love oatmeal with raisins or RAW honey, or I go with a raw veggie and fruit shake. I also frequently eat kale or spinach salad with carrots, quinoa, Extra virgin olive oil and spicy spirulina sunflower seeds on top. I actually enjoy the salad (easy to digest) but imagine it’s a hard sell for most of you at 8:30 in the morning.

POST-WORKOUT MEAL

The consensus from everything I’ve read, and almost every fighter I’ve interviewed, is that it is ideal to start re-fueling within 30 minutes of your workout. Get some protein and complex carbs in you, and sugar and fructose can actually be beneficial in this window because they transport the protein, etc. into your cells quicker (thereby speeding up recovery). Allow no more than 90 minutes to pass between the end of your workout and this refueling.

My choice: I’ve really experimented in this area. For a time I relied on whey protein shakes with water, adding Branch Chained Amino Acids and glutamine. Then I scrapped that and turned to Vegan proteins (brown rice or pea proteins), which in my opinion were cleaner (less sugar) and contained more natural ingredients. Important note: I felt just as strong consuming the Vegan proteins as I did consuming the whey proteins. There was no noticeable drop-off. If anything, the more vegetarian and greens I consumed (usually about 90 percent of my diet) the better my cardio and recovery seemed to be.

At present: Right after an intense workout I eat one or two organic apples with maybe four or five tablespoons of organic peanut butter. Why? It’s easy to prepare. Gives me plenty of protein and some carbs and natural sugars. A lot of people operate on the assumption that whey and meat proteins are superior to, say, bean and nut proteins. I used to subscribe to this “manly” and popular theory as well. Until I read the must-read book, “The China Study” by Dr. T. Colin Campbell (one of the pre-eminent nutrition-centered biochemists of our time). Dr. Campbell’s opinion, after more than 40 years studying food science under microscopes and helping arrange the most comprehensive nutrition study ever conducted, is that protein is protein. Period. That’s good enough for me.

I know a lot of people scoff and ridicule athletes like Aaron Simpson, Mac Danzig and Arian Foster for their vegetarian ways, but why are so many people criticizing a diet they have never even tried for themselves? Is that really an intelligent approach to forming your opinion on something? Why not at least try SOME vegetarian dishes and see how your body responds rather than bashing what you’ve never experienced? (For the record, I’m not saying you should go TOTALLY vegetarian or vegan, just sprinkle some into your diet to see how your body responds).

SUPPLEMENTS

A lot of fighters spend hundreds of dollars per month on their supplements or they have sponsors who give them hundreds of dollars of product. I used to be of similar mindset and spent roughly $300 or so a month on nutritional supplements (everything from Alpha Lipoic Acid, to probiotics, to Whey and Vegan protein powders, and Liquid Kyolic, among others).

Then I spoke with our sport’s nutrition Jedi, Mike Dolce, who convinced me otherwise. Dolce enthusiastically promotes that athletes, ideally, should meet their nutritional needs via real foods. That is to say, a whey protein shake is NOT equal or superior to a slab of bison. And a Vegan protein shake (clean and raw as it may be) is not equal or superior to kidney beans or peanut butter proteins. That is Dolce’s theory and I subscribe to it as well. Utilizing this wisdom my post-workout recovery and energy levels seem equal or greater to my performances when I was dropping $300 on supplements per month. My supplement bill now hovers around $60 a month and I feel strong (still buy chia seed, goji berries, Cacao powder (thanks to a Renzo Gracie tip!), Omega-3 fish oil, Flaxseed oil, multi-vitamin, B- and D- vitamins, Enzymes and Chlorophyll every month).

ORGANIC

Recently, as you may have seen, news headlines nationwide broadcasted the findings of a group of American scientists claiming they had discovered that organic food provided no more nutritional value than non-organic food. To which myself and many other conscientious eaters think, “Duh!!!” I don’t doubt for one second the veracity of their findings, though these scientists and the reporters drumming up these misleading headlines missed an obvious and even bigger point: People like me don’t eat an organic apple because we think it’s necessarily any more nutritious than the pesticide-covered apple. Many of us pay extra for organic because we have no idea how a pesticide or Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) will cause damage to our cells (or our children’s cells) over time! To me, it’s just good old-fashioned common sense. Why would you want so many extra chemicals lurking in your food and entering into your body? In my mind, that just can’t be a good thing for our health.

According to the New York Times, former First Lady Laura Bush “insisted that fresh organic foods be served in the White House. And U.S. News online ran a story in 2009 titled, “The Obamas Turn the White House Organic.”

Now, if the focus on organic is good enough for the last two presidents and their families, well, it’s good enough for me. Which is why I eat organic the vast majority of the time – as much as possible (lumping with me the likes of Urijah Faber, Aaron Simpson, Mike Dolce and Kyle Kingsbury, among others).

MEAT

I love a good steak just like the next guy. Love grilled chicken, too. But it’s rare that I eat red meat (unless I hit up a Brazilian steak house) and I eat chicken maybe once every two weeks. For me, red meat just takes too long to digest and robs me of energy. And I’m worried about the ingredients (hormones, antibiotics, etc.) in a lot of our chicken supply. And, as I stated earlier, I feel just as physically strong and recover even faster from strenuous workouts relying on beans and nuts primarily.

Now again, not everyone agrees. I’ve sat next to Randy Couture and seen the guy just devour chicken breast off the bone. And that guy is as age-defying as it gets. So, whatever you prefer. Just saying what works for me. And if you ever do start eating meat (as with anything), my advice is to transition gradually. Over months, not days or weeks. Dramatic diet changes usually won’t last.

SALADS

If you’re going to be peak healthy, in my mind, then you’ve pretty much got to eat a lot of salads or rely on a juicer. One of the biggest misconceptions about healthy eating is that it will mean death to your taste buds. My experience is that it’s not true. I actually eat a greater variety of food now than ever and I actually read labels – which is a good thing, because the further you progress into conscientious eating the more you may ask yourself, “What is That doing in our food?”

I eat a lot of raw kale, spinach, onions, avocados (fat is so underrated and so vital for an athlete), green olives, tomatoes, artichoke, hot sauce, jalapeno peppers, cayenne pepper and garlic.

I am a big fan of juicers – kale, spinach, carrots, apples, ginger, blueberries, almond milk. The folks at Blentek actually gave me a blender and it’s amazing how you can get all your nutrients and then 20 minutes later be able to practice. Digesting a raw shake is so easy.

ONE LAST THING

I’ve got news for you folks, even those of us who study this stuff A LOT, and read labels and care about organic and GMO’s , etc… we’re all still relative neophytes. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process. Like being a master of anything, there is no such thing because the landscape always changes. Can you master golf? Can you master learn all there is to know about a martial art? No. But you can be a lot better tomorrow and a year from now and 10 years from now if you set goals, work toward them and embark on the journey. You need to find what works best FOR YOU.

These are some of the things I have found that have helped me on my ever-evolving journey into middle age. Hope they help you, too!


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