If it’s January, you can bet someone is telling you what you should and should not be eating. This year that includes the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, who once again have issued a raft of guidelines aimed at telling Americans what to eat. There weren’t any big surprises this time around. Fruits, vegetables and whole grainsare still good for you. Processed junk is bad. But there were some highlights worth noting, as well as a few cases where you might want to take the recommendations with a, um, grain of salt.
“For very active cyclists it’s the tale of two lives,” says Stanford-based sports nutritionist and physiologist Stacy Sims, PhD, explaining that following the guidelines is pretty prudent off the bike, no matter how active you are. But behind those bars? Sometimes you need to break “the rules.” Here are the highlights and what it means for you.
Slash Sugar Intake Dramatically: Dietary sugar—especially the added, nutritionally empty kind found in sodas, sweets, dressings, cereals, and well, pretty much everywhere in the processed food world—is the big story of the new guidelines. Americans today consume about 88 grams or 22 teaspoons a day of the sweet stuff. The new guidelines urge less than 10 percent of your calories from added (not naturally occurring sugar found in whole food) sugar. That’s about 49 grams or 12 to 13 teaspoons for a 2,000-calorie a day diet.
To put that in perspective, consider that there are 4 grams of sugar in every teaspoon/cube and that there are 4 calories per gram, so you get 16 calories with every teaspoon. Twelve ounces of Gatorade delivers 21 grams, 5 teaspoons, and 84 calories of sugar—nearly half the daily limit and it doesn’t even fill the average cycling water bottle. Let’s say you’re very active and eat 3000 calories a day. A full 24-oz bike bottle of Gatorade still takes you over half the daily recommendation at 42 grams/10 ½ teaspoons and 170 calories. That’s not to say you shouldn’t drink sports drinks any longer, but it’s a wake up call to be more mindful of how much sugar you’re slurping down, especially since that doesn’t count gels, blocks, bars, and other sports foods, which are also loaded with sugar.
“In general, a diet low in sugar is the way to go regardless of how active you are,” says Sims. “But training food is different. There are times you need more carbs/sugar to keep pace.” Generally, if you’re doing a short or low-intensity ride, you don’t need a lot of added sugar to keep going. Put a banana in your pocket and water or low-carb drink in your bottles and go. When you’re going hard and tapping out your glycogen stores, you’re going to need that added sugar to keep the hammer down. For most rides, whole food snacks and low-carb drinks do the trick.
3-Egg Omelets are A-Ok: The longstanding cholesterol limits have been kicked to the curb. This one’s been in the works for years as the connection between the cholesterol you eat and the amount of the artery-clogging LDL cholesterol floating in your bloodstream never really materialized. This is great news for cyclists who need plenty of high quality, easy-to-digest, accessible (and when you hard-boil them, portable) protein to keep their muscles mended and ready to ride. Enjoy those eggs guilt free. Ditto for shrimp and other shellfish.
That Bacon Hand-up is Alright, but Expand Your Protein Horizons: Speaking of protein, the government didn’t come out and say you should put the brakes on red meat or even processed meats (ahem, bacon), but it did mention that those foods have been linked to an increased heart disease and/or cancer risk, so you should expand your protein palate to include a variety of protein foods, including seafood (the guidelines recommend 8 ounces a week), lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
Interestingly, they also called out men and teenage boys for eating too much protein. Cyclists definitely need their fair share, but this serves as a reminder that you can get too much of a good thing. In general, aim for about 30% of your daily calories in the form of protein, or 0.8 grams per pound of body weight if you’re very active. That’s 132 to 150 grams for a 165 male cyclist eating 2,000 calories a day.
Make it a Doppio!: In case you needed the government’s approval for your java jones, you now have it. The new guidelines give the green light for up to 5 cups of coffee a day. Coffee is a big source of antioxidants for most Americans. It’s also been linked to a reduced risk for Type 2 diabetes.
Sodium is Still in the Spotlight: The government hasn’t lightened up its limits on how much sodium you should eat, despite a fair amount of conflicting evidence on just how bad (or not) a lot of salt is for you. One analysis that included more than 25 studies of more than 274,000 people published in the American Journal of Hypertension found that people who consume in range of between 2,645 and 4,945 milligrams of sodium a day (which is about what the world’s population gets) had a lower risk of death than those who regularly took in much higher or lower amounts. The issue seems to be that some people are particularly salt-sensitive and experience blood pressure problems with high amounts, so if your doctor has specifically put limits on your sodium intake, you’re wise to heed that advice (and of course if your sodium is coming in the form of a steady diet of fried mozzarella sticks, pizza, and potato chips, you could stand to reduce it via eating less of those foods). But many people are not sodium-sensitive and active cyclists who sweat a lot need their fair share, especially for long rides in the heat. In those situations, guidelines go out the window. A good rule of thumb is to consume between 500 and 700 milligrams per hour, which is about how much you can absorb within that time.
RELATED: How Much Sodium Should You Consume
Fat is (Mostly) Fine: Finally, low fat diets have officially gone the way of the dinosaur…sort of. Though there is no longer a ceiling on total daily fat intake, the Dietary Guidelines kept a cap on saturated fats to no more than 10 percent of daily calories per day, despite recent research challenging the assertion that this type of fat is inherently bad for you. The commonsense takeaway for cyclists here is the same as it is for everyone: Eat a balanced diet with lots of whole vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and a variety of protein sources. Limit processed foods, especially snacks and sweets, and the rest should take care of itself.