This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Eating to Win: Gatorade, Muscle Milk, and … Chicken Nuggets?, first released on February 12, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: It was such a sexy result. Right? I have to say, like, if you were to ask me what would be the ideal result, you know, it’s like, OK, this is great. I could tell my husband then that, you know, I get to drink the beer and he gets to be the designated driver, right? Like, this is perfect! It’s kind of like, OK, back off boys, beer is for women!
NICOLA TWILLEY: Beer: it’s for women! Specifically, women athletes. That is a headline I can get behind, and you heard it here first!
CYNTHIA GRABER: But is it true? That’s just what we’re going to find out this episode—you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And neither of us are elite athletes. We own gym clothes, yes, and we have even been known to break a sweat, but neither of us are podiuming, to use the most charming verb in all of sports.
GRABER: No. Definitely not. But our friend Christie Aschwanden has been known to win a medal or two in her day, and she’s also a science reporter, so she combined those two interests in her latest book. Warning— there’s about to be one use of a swear word. Just one this episode.
TWILLEY: And it comes when Christie can’t remember the subtitle of her own book. So cover any sensitive ears for the next few seconds.
ASCHWANDEN: Sure, I’m Christie Aschwanden. I’m the author of Good to Go: What the Athlete and All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. What I need to fucking do is memorize the subtitle of my book!
TWILLEY: Cynthia, we should make like a supercut one day of all the guests who had to get their book.
GRABER: This is so normal.
ASCHWANDEN: I’m so glad to know that because I feel like, oh my god, Christie! Get it together!
GRABER: Christie does indeed know the title of her own book: Good to Go: What the Athlete and All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. The book isn’t all about food, of course, but part of it is!
TWILLEY: And this episode, Christie is our guide as we tell the story of the strange foods that athletes eat and drink: the Gatorade, the Muscle Milk, all those special bars and goos.
GRABER: And how many of us are now starting to eat and drink these weird foods, too.
TWILLEY: Is there science behind these performance foods, or is it all just hype? Hustle up and join us at the starting line to find out.
GATORADE AD NARRATOR: It all happened more than 30 years ago, but I remember it as though it was just yesterday. It was 1967, it was the summer of love. But somehow, someone forgot to tell these guys.
ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: ORANGE BOWL ‘67 IS UNDERWAY!
GATORADE AD NARRATOR: The Florida Gators were going against Georgia Tech, in their first ever Orange Bowl.
TWILLEY: It’s 1967. And things were not looking good for the Florida Gators.
ASCHWANDEN: Yeah. So some University of Florida football players were, I think the term they used was “wilting,” out on the field. And so the coaches went to some of the doctors there.
GRABER: According to legend, this one doctor, Dr. Robert Cade, he had mixed up a little potion for the players. It had water, and sugar, and electrolytes, which is a fancy word for salts that we usually get from our food. In this case, the potion had some sodium and mono-potassium phosphate.
TWILLEY: And it tasted disgusting. Specifically, the players said it tasted “putrid.” Dr. Cade’s wife suggested that he should add some lemon flavoring.
ASCHWANDEN: And so they ended up drinking this.
GATORADE AD NARRATOR: Well folks, I’m afraid the Gators’ coach had some stern words to say to his players, because they’re playing the third quarter as if their life depended on it!
ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: It’s all over now folks! The Florida gators have taken the orange bowl!
ASCHWANDEN: They won the Orange Bowl and it just sort of—this win at the Orange Bowl really fixed it in the history and sort of made it become legendary. And you had other teams saying, oh, it must have been the Gatorade. *That’s* why they beat us. So it really—it was sort of like a little bit of science but a lot of storytelling and legend making
GRABER: Yes, this is the creation story of Gatorade. And frankly, it wasn’t until we getting ready to interview Christie that I realized that Gatorade was, you know, aiding Gators! Lemonade for the Gators! The Florida team! I had no clue.
ASCHWANDEN: But yeah. So they ended up signing an agreement with this canned food company, Stokeley Van Camp, and so that’s how Gatorade became commercially available.
TWILLEY: Stokely Van Camp, of course, is better known as the manufacturers of the second-most-famous brand of baked beans in the US. But they took Gatorade mainstream.
ASCHWANDEN: Their initial slogan was “Gatorade thirst quencher: the professional thirst quencher.” So it was really about thirst and thirst quenching.
1970 GATORADE AD: Gatorade is different than juices or fruit drinks or soda bottle water. Research-men created it, thousands of athletes swear by it. Gatorade thirst quencher. The professional thirst quencher.
GRABER: Gatorade turned hydration into a thing they could solve, a problem that you needed more than water to tackle. And they invested in their own scientific research to prove this—
ASCHWANDEN: What ended up happening was Gatorade formed this thing called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, which still exists. but they sponsored a lot of research looking into this. And hydration is something that’s easy to measure. And so you can show, oh yes, look, they’re losing fluids. But what ended up happening is they could measure these little changes and say, oh, that must be performance-hurting, and that must be terrible…
TWILLEY: One early Gatorade study had runners doing different runs—one run where they didn’t drink at all and one where they were drinking a lot.
ASCHWANDEN: I talked to one of the runners who was involved—and this is one of the very early studies. And he said, you know, when they were giving him this water it was something like every few minutes, he was just miserable. His stomach felt terrible, he felt like he had an ocean rumbling around in his stomach, and he felt horrible. But, you know, all these measures that they’re taking with his body temperature or whatever were more stable. And so by those measures they said, oh, this is better. But when you talk to the runner himself he said, oh, that was terrible and I felt awful and, you know, it did not feel performance-enhancing at all.
GRABER: Gatorade scientists ignored what the runner felt like and just focused on those changes in his body. And based on that, they came up with advice for how much liquid athletes should be drinking while they work out.
ASCHWANDEN: Oh yeah. I mean at one point they’re advising people to take as much as—I think I calculated that it would be if you ran a three-hour marathon, which is actually quite fast, that you would end up drinking the fluid equivalent of, like, a six-pack of soda.
1990 GATORADE AD: You know what you need. Nothing cuts through thirst like Gatorade. For the deep down body thirst!
TWILLEY: This is a case of everything looking like a nail if you have a hammer. For Gatorade and the scientists they sponsored, the answer was always more fluid!
GRABER: But do we really need all that fluid?
ASCHWANDEN: So it is true that becoming severely dehydrated can impact athletic performance, but it’s also true that our bodies are really well adapted to lose some fluids particularly during exercise.
GRABER: Your body needs liquid in general, yes, but what’s really important is the relationship between salts in your blood and that liquid. And so, for a little while, if you don’t have enough liquid, your body holds onto those salts, too. We have built-in protection mechanisms. Dehydration is real, I’ve gotten sick from it before, but it takes a lot to get really dehydrated.
TWILLEY: Christie says that even ultra-marathon runners—yes, they lose fluids, but they can do just fine without extra hydration during the race. But you might wondering—what about those wilting Gators back in 1967? Wasn’t that a dehydration problem?
ASCHWANDEN: So the wilting is not a result for the most part of the hydration amount. It’s about the heat and it’s about exertion, and you can develop heat stroke. But dehydration—it’s funny, since I’ve been writing about this and working on the book, I just see this everywhere, where dehydration is sort of like the catch-all thing that everything gets blamed on. You know, this person had dehydration, it must have been dehydration. But I was unable to find a single incident, a single verified account of someone dying from dehydration out on the playing field or in a marathon.
GRABER: You are not going to die if you don’t drink during a race or during a soccer game.
ASCHWANDEN: But what’s happened now is that you have people who are literally dying of hyponatremia, which is also called water intoxication. And this really stems from this notion that you have to drink, drink, drink, and drink before you’re thirsty, and keep drinking. And so hyponatremia happens when your blood becomes too dilute. And so the salts and things, the electrolytes in your blood, become too diluted and you end up with brain swelling and that’s what causes the death.
TWILLEY: So dehydration hasn’t killed any athletes, but over-hydration has.
GRABER: We called Louise Burke—she’s the chief of nutrition strategy at the Australian Institute of Sport, working with all the elite Australian athletes on sports nutrition research. And she says this hydration message, it’s a problem particularly for ordinary runners. Like me.
LOUISE BURKE: And if you’re doing a marathon and you’re not really moving at a very high speed but you’re stopping at every aid station and grabbing two drinks either because you think that’s what you need to do, or because you just want to have a bit of a rest at the aid station and you might as well drink while you’re there—it is possible to drink too much during sport.
GRABER: Christie says that there have been at least five marathoners who’ve died in the past 25 years from hyponatremia, and even more who’ve gotten severely ill to the point of hospitalization. The problem was that they’d bought into the message that they had to keep drinking during what for them was a many hour run.
TWILLEY: Basically, the Gatorade message has been: you need to drink, you need to drink before you even feel thirsty, because you’re losing fluids and electrolytes through your sweat.
GRABER: This message has trickled down for everyone—I’ve heard that plenty, that if you feel thirsty, you’ve waited too long to drink.
TWILLEY: But actually, that’s not good advice for the average person. If you’re out on a run, your body will hold onto water while you’re exercising—bonus, you stop needing to pee—and you can easily replenish when you’re done.
GRABER: As Christie points out, you can literally just drink water when you’re thirsty, and maybe not while you’re working out or even during a race at all, you might just wait til after. And then you eat some salty foods after you work out, you’re fine.
TWILLEY: At least for most of us.
BURKE: I fall more into the camp, with the elite athletes that I deal with, is to say you need to have a plan. Because it’s a nice idea to say you can drink when you’re thirsty and that’s okay if you’re running a marathon as a recreational athlete. But as an elite athlete, you’re moving as fast as you can, moving through aid stations as quickly as you can. And so you can’t afford to wait til you’re thirsty before you start drinking, because by that stage you’re not able to drink enough at any one aid station to be able to reduce your thirst.
TWILLEY: So really, long and short, first of all you don’t actually need Gatorade—you can get salt in your normal foods and plain water is great for hydration. And you certainly don’t need to drink it until you’re thirsty, unless you’re one of Louise’s elite athletes. But Gatorade is old school anyway. All the cool kids these days are drinking Muscle Milk.
2017 MUSCLE MILK AD: I love my muscles. And my muscles love Muscle Milk.
GRABER: If you haven’t come across the miles of Muscle Milk in local stores, well, we’re now talking protein.
TWILLEY: So hot right now.
BURKE: So when I started in sports nutrition there was a lot of debate about whether athletes needed more protein overall than the sedentary person, and the feeling was no, that there was enough protein being consumed, if you were following the recommended dietary intakes or guidelines.
GRABER: We should point out that Louise Burke has been in this field for forty years.
TWILLEY: And when she started out, protein was strictly for weightlifters.
ASCHWANDEN: Muscles are protein, right. And so it just makes intuitive sense that if you’re trying to build muscles you need to have protein. And this has been a concept that has been embraced by the bodybuilding and weightlifting community for a long time.
GRABER: But nobody had thought to make money off this focus on proteins for muscle mass until the 1950s. That’s when a bodybuilder named Bob Hoffman got the idea to sell protein powder.
TWILLEY: Bob Hoffman was an entrepreneur, as well as a weight lifter. He started a company called York Barbell, and he founded two magazines, the endlessly fascinating Muscular Development and also Strength and Health.
ASCHWANDEN: But at some point he and some other people in the field realize that, you know, if you sell a barbell or something to someone, they buy that once. But if you sell them a protein powder, they take that everyday. It was a way to sort of keep monetizing this whole business.
GRABER: Bob’s Hi-Proteen powder—that’s protein spelled een—it came in chocolate, vanilla, and black walnut. And it was marketed exclusively to bodybuilders.
TWILLEY: Hi-Proteen powder hit the shelves in the early 1950s. And before long it was joined by dozens of rival protein powders. Including our favorite, Muscle Milk.
CASEY JOHNSTON: According to the family that started the company, it was supposed to be a play on Mother’s Milk. Like the nutritional content of mother’s milk—like, breast milk basically, which is such a weird, like, oedipal thing for bodybuilders to be, like, wanting to drink.
GRABER: Casey Johnston is a powerlifter and a writer. She writes a column for Self magazine called “Ask A Swole Woman.” And I should say that despite the story behind the name, Muscle Milk doesn’t actually have the same nutrient balance as breast milk. It’s mostly protein.
TWILLEY: Last year, Casey wrote a story about Muscle Milk and the family that invented it, the Picketts, for Eater. Personally, I’ve somehow resisted the pleasure of cracking open a cold Muscle Milk, so I asked Casey to describe it.
JOHNSTON: So it’s just like a conveniently packaged drink that you can grab off a shelf and crack it open and it has usually like 25 to 50 grams of protein depending on what kind you get and how big the bottle is. And you drink it and it’s uh—doesn’t taste great. They’re sweet and, like, they’re fairly palatable. Not the best thing you’ve ever tasted.
GRABER: Muscle Milk is mostly made from the whey that’s leftover from making cheese. There’s a lot of protein in the liquid you get after creating cheese curds that you’ll use in cheddar or Gouda or mozzarella.
JOHNSTON: They’re fairly, like, secretive about it but they told me at one point, one of their major sources for their whey was the largest manufacturer of mozzarella cheese in the U.S.
ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, a lot of this protein powder is made from milk byproducts. And it’s really kind of a very clever way of taking something that would otherwise be, you know, this thing that there is no purpose for. And now you’re turning it into this thing that you can sell for a lot of money.
TWILLEY: For a long time, Muscle Milk was not something you would see unless you went to a supplement store or bought a specialist magazine called, say, Muscular Development. And then a couple of things changed. This is a story that Christie tells in her new book, Good to Go.
GRABER: The story starts in the 1980s. A researcher named John Ivy was working at the University of Texas Austin.
ASCHWANDEN: What Ivy’s research has shown is basically thinking like hey we know that for bodybuilders protein is really good it helps them recover it helps them to repair some of the damage that happens when they’re doing this hard work out. And he thought you know that’s happening to endurance athletes too. And so they played around with adding some protein to this post exercise you know whatever it is that you’re taking. and they found that that seemed to be beneficial. And so that was sort of the big revelation at that time, was like oh you know the endurance athletes, runners cyclists. They needed some protein too. Because prior to that you know protein was sort of for muscle heads. But now all of a sudden protein was for everyone.
TWILLEY: But still, non muscle heads were not necessarily into buying weird powders and mixing up drinks at home. And that’s where Muscle Milk had a breakthrough.
JOHNSTON: They started making ready to drink bottles in the mid 2000s. And initially it was just sort of like an offshoot product and then they started flying off the shelves in these supplement stores. And it just sort of blew up into this whole thing. And now at least when I walk into like a bodega or a convenience store in New York if I’m going to see a protein drink Muscle Milk is the brand that I see.
GRABER: Today, as you might have already heard, a lot of people—particularly let’s say the upper middle class—they’re obsessed with getting enough protein.
JOHNSTON: This has been the thing that’s been going on for a few years like even even predating the piece that I wrote which is that different foods have started to advertise themselves based on the amount of protein that’s in them even if they’re not a good source of protein such as cereal. But yeah that’s really just sort of the degree of ridiculousness that it has gotten to that foods are trying to get in on this protein craze
TWILLEY: Whenever I hear this kind of hype, I want to hear some science. So we asked Christie.
ASCHWANDEN: So protein is absolutely important for athlete. If you’re damaging your muscle, your body needs protein in order to recover. But we’ve sort of made it unduly complicated. You do not need any special powders. you don’t need special drinks. you don’t need any sort of special supplements. You know the best sources of protein is actually food
GRABER: Louise agrees.
BURKE: Well we always go for a food first focus. and there are plenty of ways to quickly add protein to meals.
GRABER: And actually, we can’t even absorb a huge amount of protein at once, like the amount that’s in those big bottles of muscle milk.
TWILLEY: And it’s not just that we can’t absorb big doses of protein particularly well— in the past five to ten years, Louise and her colleagues have discovered that it’s actually better to get your protein in smaller, regular amounts anyway.
BURKE: So our guidelines are probably coming back to—it’s not important to eat more protein overall than most western people do but rather to spread it over the day so that your body has always got a good source of protein to keep using to take advantage of the fact that when you’ve done some exercise you’ve got a stimulus that lasts probably about 24 hours to make new proteins in the body. And if you can spread your protein over the day then you’re going to maximize your ability to respond to that muscle message.
GRABER: That’s true for all athletes—and actually it’s true for non-athletes, too.
BURKE: And in most western societies when you look at the way people eat protein. they don’t spread it well over the day. They eat most of it at their evening meal. and in many cases they either skip breakfast or have sort of carbohydrate-rich, protein-poor breakfasts.
TWILLEY: I hate to sound like a broken record here, but, just like you don’t need Gatorade, you don’t need Muscle Milk. But what you could use is some eggs or yogurt or peanut butter or heck even beans for breakfast!
GRABER: Beans are definitely one of my favorite breakfast foods, as anyone who listened to our breakfast episode knows. If you haven’t heard it, it’s called Breakfast of Champions.
TWILLEY: So so far, we have been doing a lot of debunking, which is one of my favorite things to do. But there’s more to this story than just myth-busting. There is actually a long history and a science here, of sports nutrition, and that’s what we’re going to dive into next.
GRABER: Louise thinks beans are a great source of protein at any time of day—and guess what, gladiators competing in the Olympics, the very earliest ancient Greek olympics, the original ones—those elite athletes ate beans, too.
TWILLEY: Galen, a famous ancient Greek physician, highly recommended beans to help athletes bulk up—although he did warn that the beans should be boiled long enough to avoid flatulence.
GRABER: Galen also said that heavyweight athletes like wrestlers and boxers needed fattier foods. But all Olympians should avoid the very weakest foods—vegetable stalks and cucumbers and olives and shellfish.
TWILLEY: Snails were also off the menu for athletes. Maybe because they’re slow?
BURKE: Sometimes people believed that you needed to eat the animal whose attribute you wanted to have. so you needed to eat cheetahs if you wanted to be very strong and fast. And I think in most cases it was always about having to have something special or different to the community. so whatever the community was eating, an athlete needed to do something better and special to to optimize their performance.
TWILLEY: This idea—that athletes have to eat something different from the rest of us, something carefully designed to make them into winners—that’s something that inspired an entire field of study—a field that Louise has devoted her scientific career to.
BURKE: Even now sometimes, you know, I think what I do is pretty frivolous trying to make athletes go higher, faster, stronger when there are other things that you could be contributing to the world. But it’s a fascinating area because it goes to the the limits of the human body and what it can do.
GRABER: Louise says that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ideas about nutrition that Galen and his contemporaries held in ancient Greece are now considered mostly passé. But even in modern times, Louise has seen broad prescriptions for what athletes should eat come and go.
BURKE: I think the changing ideas about carbohydrate have been really interesting. So when I started sports nutrition we probably had a view that there was one diet for an athlete and it should be based on high carbohydrate eating. And that was based on the idea that when you’re doing sport particularly at high intensity that carbohydrate stores provide the main muscle fuel.
TWILLEY: And so the idea was that all athletes need to carbo load. You’ve heard this term, you’ve maybe even used to refer to a giant pasta dinner—but that was the mantra
BURKE: It was applied uniformly across all sports. and so we had all athletes thinking that they needed to carbo load every day.
GRABER: And it turns out that, just like we’ve learned that the rest of us shouldn’t be eating carbohydrates all the time, well, athletes shouldn’t either.
TWILLEY: Obviously, athletes don’t want to run out of fuel. That’s where the idea of carbo loading came from—that you could sort of bank extra carbs as fuel. But carbs are not the only fuel.
BURKE: So when you look at the fuel sources in the muscle, in the body, the body sources of carbohydrate are so minor compared to body fat stores. it’s really intriguing to think, well how can we more make more use of fat as a fuel. because it’s there in relatively unlimited amounts even in the leanest of athletes. So it just makes sense to look at it and think we have to think of ways of making more use of it.
GRABER: Louise wondered if she could help an athlete’s body learn to use fat more effectively. And maybe she could do this by changing their diet, by having athletes eat fewer carbs and more fat. So she tested it out.
BURKE: And so when you do studies that have athletes exposed to high fat diets—and it doesn’t take very long as little as five days if exposure’s enough—it greatly retools the muscle and a whole lot of pathways involved in the delivery of fat into the muscle and into the mitochondria where the fat is oxidized to fuel. It upregulates all those those pathways and makes the muscle very good at fat burning. So we can show that.
TWILLEY: Awesome. So that means, athletes should be eating a stick of butter, hold the bread, right?
BURKE: What we haven’t been able to show this is over 25 years is that it can then translate into better performance of endurance sports.
GRABER: Right. Louise tested this with elite race walkers, if you’ve ever watched them they do that really awesome funny butt wiggle as they walk. And they are freaking fast.
BURKE: And so what we found in race walkers was that when we converted them to being able to burn fat, it reduced their speed
TWILLEY: Basically, it turns out that however good your body gets at burning fat for energy, it’s still less efficient than burning carbs. So low-carb, high-fat diets—those are actually not great for athletes. But nor is constant carbo loading.
GRABER: Just like Louise said that protein is important, but the timing matters, the same thing is true for carbohydrates—at least for elite athletes.
BURKE: We’re now talking to athletes about periodizing their carbohydrate intake. and not necessarily eating high carbohydrate intakes on a daily basis.
TWILLEY: Periodizing sounds complicated, and certainly Louise has put a lot of research into it, but at its simplest, it really boils down to matching the amount of carbohydrate you eat to different training goals. So if you’re doing a long slow training session, Louise might recommend not taking in a lot of carbs, because being low on carbs will stress your body and encourage it to make more mitochondria, which will help your muscles become more efficient.
GRABER: But if an athlete is working on sprints, then yeah, carbs are critical. And those carbs are crucial on race day, too, because your body needs that ready, available energy to burn. That’s what’ll keep you going.
TWILLEY: That took about a minute to explain but Louise has spent twenty-five years carefully parsing out the science on carbs vs fat as fuel. And it’s not that she’s slow, or even just that she’s a very rigorous scientist who wants to replicate her results, which she is. It’s because studying sports nutrition is really hard, for a lot of reasons.
BURKE: Oh gosh, there’s a million. We could start with the funding. There’s very little funding availability for doing this kind of research because there’s very little funding for sport or for nutrition research anyway but then want to try and drag that money that is available to the pointy end of sport is a bit frivolous as I’ve said.
TWILLEY: Side note, this is part of why so many scientists will take Gatorade money to study hydration in athletes. You can’t do science without money. But, as we’ve seen again and again, your funding source does tend to influence your results.
BURKE: But even if you can get the money then the next kind of challenge is going to be getting the athletes to want to be part of the research. Because, you know, it is very demanding if you want to do very invasive and sort of far reaching research, you need to have the cooperation of athletes to be able to give up their time and change their training and be able to be available to be in the lab on the conditions and the days that you want them to be there. And so getting athletes to be able to commit that kind of time and motivation is difficult.
GRABER: Louise is fortunate, though—because she’s basically the top sports nutrition scientist in Australia, elite athletes do want to work with her. Because they think her work is important, and they think it might also help give them an edge.
BURKE: But even once you’ve done that then you’ve got sort of all the problems about—how can you measure this, and how can you measure that in a way that’s meaningful.
TWILLEY: This question of measurement is something that Christie actually ran into when she designed an experiment of her own to study the recovery beverage of champions.
ASCHWANDEN: You’re talking about beer, of course.
GRABER: Yes we are.
TWILLEY: Of course we are.
GRABER: Something that I have to say is pretty surprising to me of a recovery food.
TWILLEY: I have it, post CrossFit beer is the best beer of the week.
ASCHWANDEN: Cynthia that makes me think that perhaps you’re not an athlete.
GRABER: I mean, I run a lot! I go running and I cycle a lot. Maybe I’m not part of like athlete circles.
TWILLEY: I was going to say you don’t train with a group of people
GRABER: I don’t train, no.
ASCHWANDEN: Well it is interesting there’s actually some some research suggesting that athletes do tend to drink a little bit more than some other people which is kind of interesting.
GRABER: Like writers.
TWILLEY: That’s going to be my excuse: I’m just an athlete.
GRABER: Christie enjoys a beer after working out, and she’s apparently not unusual there. In fact, there are even low-alcohol beers marketed basically as sport recovery drinks. And there wasn’t much scientific literature on whether or not this actually worked. So she thought, well, why not dig into this herself?
ASCHWANDEN: So at the at the time I was a contributing editor for Runner’s World magazine. And I ended up talking the magazine into sponsoring the study. I went to my local university which is Colorado Mesa University, and we actually devised a study to look at this.
TWILLEY: Christie’s hypothesis was that if you ran and then you had a beer, it would affect your run the next day. So everyone in her study came into the lab and did a pretty hard run.
ASCHWANDEN: And then afterwards we fed them with a pasta dinner and also gave them beer. And the amount of beer that people got was just below the legal limit to be intoxicated for driving in Colorado. And then the next day we brought people in and tested them again So we basically put them back on the treadmill and had them run at a pretty hard pace until they could go no longer. And that was our measure of how recovered they were.
GRABER: And what everyone wants to know: does beer work?
ASCHWANDEN: And, what we found was that women actually did better on the run to exhaustion the morning after they’d had the beer. Whereas men did worse.
TWILLEY: Hell yeah! This is the kind of science I can get behind. Pass me a cold one.
GRABER: I don’t want to burst your bubble, Nicky, but, well, Christie’s about to do just that.
ASCHWANDEN: Taken together as averages, women did better and men did worse after drinking the beer. But there was an incredible amount of individual variability. So there was one guy who did much much worse and that sort of brought the average down. And there was one woman who did a lot better, but if you looked at the individual data points it didn’t look as convincing.
TWILLEY: For Christie, doing this experiment really revealed how hard it is to study sports nutrition. For one, there were only ten people in the study— and that’s pretty normal. Like Louise said, it’s hard to get people to volunteer their time for this kind of research. But ten people— that’s hardly enough to see a clear pattern out of all the individual variation.
GRABER: The other problem that Christie faced was something Louise also mentioned, and that’s how to choose what you’re measuring. Christie chose this idea of doing something ‘til exhaustion, and that’s also really common in sports nutrition research.
TWILLEY: But really, what is exhaustion? There’s where you want to stop and where you physically have to stop and they’re not necessarily the same thing.
ASCHWANDEN: As a participant, I sort of lost faith in it because it really felt like it was a test of mental tenacity or sort of like how interested I was in like really helping the study.
GRABER: Christie even got some evidence that her concern that the measurement wasn’t great, that concern might be justified.
ASCHWANDEN: Before the study we had asked the leader, the lead researcher, how long we would expect to be able to run on this run to exhaustion and everyone wanted to know that and he said oh, about 20 minutes. And pretty much everyone afterwards—you know this is sort of in the debriefing later. people said yeah you know I sort of felt like after 20 minutes people felt like they sort of had permission to step off if they wanted to.
ASCHWANDEN: But there were two people that ended up missing that initial meeting were where he had divulged that information. And they lasted not nearly as long. In fact they were I think they were the only ones who didn’t go at least 20 minutes.
TWILLEY: In other words, exhaustion really is a relative concept.
GRABER: Frankly, Christie is not a huge fan of a lot of the nutrition science that’s been done. That said, she does admire Louise Burke and the work of her lab in Australia—it’s rigorous. But even Louise agrees that part of why sports nutrition science is so hard to do is that it’s hard to choose a measurement of improvement, and then to measure it.
BURKE: When you’re working with elite athletes very small improvements in performance make the difference between a gold medal and coming eighth in the final. and it’s very difficult to measure performance. Because performance changes from day to day for so many different reasons. and when you’re wanting to get an elite athlete to perform as hard as possible you have to have them fully motivated and able to do it. because it’s not something that most people can reach inside themselves and produce their absolute best on any given day. They may be able to do it for an Olympic Games because they’ve been building up to it and they’ve got a lot of belief in why they need to do it that day and also they’ll be rewarded. But when you’re trying to get them to repeat that inside your lab to see whether your intervention is going to add that tiny little bit of improvement to performance that could be meaningful. It’s really difficult to try to get all those things happening in the lab the same way they do out in the Olympic arena.
TWILLEY: There’s another not-so-small problem, which is that actually, we don’t fully understand what happens in our bodies when we exercise. Literally, when we exercise there are roughly a thousand chemical changes that take place in our muscles and we understand about ten percent of them.
GRABER: Still, Louise’s research overall has contributed a lot to understanding how the bodies of elite athletes work, and how they use food. And this has trickled down to a better understanding of the role of food and exercise for the rest of us, too. But this is clearly ongoing science.
TWILLEY: And, frankly, when you’re talking about a hundredth of a second, the placebo effect—the belief that what you’ve eaten will give you an edge—that’s just as strong.
BURKE: The placebo effect is an incredibly important effect in research and real life.
ASCHWANDEN: Athletes are the most superstitious people you’ll ever meet. So people definitely have yes superstitions about what they should eat.
TWILLEY: Yes they most certainly do. And there’s not a lot of science behind it.
ASCHWANDEN: It’s interesting if you look around the world at what different athletes from different cultures eat they’re not all eating the same thing. And you know in Norway where some of the best Nordic skiers in the world live, you know they start their days by eating this brown cheese, which no one in the U.S. eats. People in the US eat different things.
ASCHWANDEN: And so you know I’m not about to say that Norwegians skiers are good because of that brown cheese. But I think what it shows is that there are a lot of different ways to eat. NBA players love their pb&j’s.
ESPN SEGMENT: The best team in the NBA is addicted to PB and J.
STEPH CURRY (SEGMENT): I need somebody to make my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for me. I’m real high maintenance like that. Eric Hausen, he makes the sandwich for me, he puts his love in it, he sits it right on my chair in my locker, and that’s my snack.
CHRISTIE: You know some other players from another culture might like you know ramen. It’s all good.
THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW SEGMENT: Like when you were going into a major competition, what did you eat? Vegetables?
USAIN BOLT(SEGMENT): No.
ARSENIO HALL (SEGMENT): Tofu? What is it? I want to be fast!
BOLT (SEGMENT): Mostly chicken nuggets. It works. Stick to what works.
ARSENIO HALL (SEGMENT): Really?
ASCHWANDEN: Usain Bolt won gold medals eating McDonald’s at the Olympic Village. So you know, there is that.
GRABER: Not what I personally might want to eat before a race, but frankly I’m nowhere near the league that Usain Bolt was in, ever in his life.
TWILLEY: But the larger point here is not that chicken nuggets are the secret to success. It’s that you know sometimes some of these sports nutrition things seem almost more like a religion— like you have to chug protein shakes or you need to drink your electrolytes. And that’s just not where the science is at.
ASCHWANDEN: We have this idea that what we put in our bodies must be really really important. Right. I mean it makes intuitive sense. of course whatever fuel you’re taking in is going to affect your performance. It’s like you know that’s why race car drivers pay attention to what kind of fuel they’re putting in their tanks right. But at the same time we don’t really know. We have this idea or this feeling that we really want to optimize everything. and if we really just perfectly optimize whatever we’re putting into our bodies or with food, that performance would just be so much better. And you know I don’t think that we have evidence in that sort of granularity to say you know this particular food or this exact amount of some nutrient is going to make you perform better. And so you know I think if I were to give sort of just catch our overall advice, it’d be you know eat real food. Pay attention to your hunger signals. You know, if you’re hungry for salty food you probably need a little bit of salt. If you are you know craving a steak maybe you need some protein. It’s good to eat things in balance. You need protein, you need some fat, you need carbohydrates. But this idea that there’s an absolute perfect ratio or an absolute perfect food—I just don’t think that we have the evidence for that.
GRABER: Louise is focused on the slivers of difference for elite athletes, the hundredths of a second that can make the difference for them between medaling and coming in eighth.
TWILLEY: Food could make that kind of difference. So could the right shoes. So could believing you have the right shoes or you ate the right thing.
GRABER: But most of us aren’t worried about hundredths of a second.
ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, well I mean think of it this way if if what you ate made an enormous difference you wouldn’t need a study to know it. Right?
GRABER: Right. If one particular dish suddenly made me shave a minute off my average mile pace, I’d know.
TWILLEY: And you’d stop making Gastropod and go make your fortune selling that dish high and low. But meanwhile, back in the real world, for all of us regular non-elite athletes, obsessing about coconut water and cherry juice and whatever can actually be a distraction
ASCHWANDEN: I mean I think the downside is that you’re paying attention and you’re focusing and you’re sort of obsessing over these things that best case scenario would make a tiny little sliver of a difference. When what you should really be focusing on are the things that are really important. So like for recovery that’s sleep number one, and number two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. You know probably the top 20 is sleep right. And so you know that’s so much more important like orders of magnitude more important.
GRABER: Christie’s take home for 99 percent of us, supported by Louise’s research: eat real food, maybe sprinkle your protein throughout the day instead of getting it all at night, complex carbs are critical if you get a lot of exercise… And get your sleep.
TWILLEY: Moreso even than beer as a recovery beverage, that is advice I can live with. Sleep is my favorite part of the day!
TWILLEY: A huge thanks this episode to Christie Aschwanden. Her brand new book is called Good to Go. And we only touched on a tiny bit of it— the part to do with food and drink. There’s so much more in there— like whether those fancy cryotherapy treatments do anything.
GRABER: Or whether you should float in those sensory deprivation tanks. I’m planning to try that soon, just for fun. Anyway, check out the book, Good to Go. We have a link on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Louise Burke, from the Australian Institute of Sports Nutrition, and Casey Johnston, aka Ask a Swole Woman. We have links to their work and stories on our website too.
TWILLEY: Next time, Cynthia and I go through one of life’s major milestones together: losing our pawpaw virginity.