I often get questions about diet and nutrition from grapplers and martial artists. People want to eat correctly because they think it will make them more effective in BJJ class, allow them to recover faster after training, and provide them with better health overall.
Well, it’s true. What you eat can have a HUGE effect on your performance.
Nutrition is a super-important piece of the puzzle. In fact eating right is maybe the single most important aspect of becoming strong, healthy and having enough energy to do all your stuff.
But food and diet is also a really confusing topic, because there are so many ‘experts’, each with their own axe to grind, books to sell, and supplements for you to take.
Changing your diet all at once is a big undertaking. And frankly, if you change too much too quickly then your solution probably won’t be sustainable. That’s why I advocate first picking the low-hanging fruit. If you start with the small changes that have the biggest effects then you’ll see results almost immediately, which might then inspire you to make even bigger changes in the future.
Here are my top five diet tips for BJJ:
1) Avoid as much sugar as possible. This can be tricky because sugar is hidden everywhere, including so-called healthy foods like salad dressings, yoghurt and tomato sauces.
You have to learn to read labels, because any of the following ingredients are basically just sugar by a different name: dextrose, maltose, corn syrup, molasses, glucose, fructose, turbinado, muscovado, or demerara sugar, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It’s all bad for you.
Chronic intake of large amounts of sugar will eventually lead to diabetes for many people.
This may seem like a distant, mostly theoretical problem, but let me assure you that it is a HORRIBLE disease. About 10 years ago I watched my great-aunt die from type 2 diabetes complications, and it was not a nice way to go. First her legs went numb, then turned completely black, and finally had to be amputated shortly before she died. All from what is essentially a completely preventable illness. So lay off the sugar!
The only exception to this rule is that consuming a limited amount of sugar immediately before, and possibly during, a hard workout may not be a bad thing. If you’re about to burn 1,000 calories in a workout then 30 grams of sugar (120 calories) in a sports drink will get used up pretty quick and may help you work out longer.
2) Drink lots of water. This means plain, unsweetened, unflavored water, NOT sports drinks, iced tea, lemonade, vitamin water, etc.
Diet drinks sweetened with sucralose, nutrasweet, aspartame, etc. are no better for you than regular sodas. In fact they may be worse! Some studies indicate that sugar-free sodas actually confuse your body and get you to eat MORE calories in total, leading to more obesity and more diabetes along with all their horrible side effects.
Teach yourself to enjoy drinking plain water. I drink about 4 litres, or 1 gallon, a day. I do this by carrying around a 1 litre bottle with me, with the goal of draining it completely four times each day (typically once before breakfast, once before lunch, once sometime in the afternoon, and once before dinner).
3) Eat lots and lots of colorful veggies. The main component of your diet should be vegetables; Gorillas get huge and strong on vegetables, and so can you.
I often call myself a ‘vegetablearian’ and try to eat a large variety of veggies every day. Your salads and stir-frys should be multicolored medleys with broccoli, kale, peppers, green onions, cauliflower, carrots, beets, sprouts, beans, cabbage, etc. etc. etc.
By the way, potatoes and rice don’t count as vegetables. They’re really just lumps of starch, which – biochemically speaking – is really just lots and lots of sugar molecules linked together. It’s interesting the world’s oldest man, 123 year old Carmelo Flores Laura, avoids rice and noodles and advocates eating barley instead. Barley is a so-called ‘low glycemic food,’ which means it releases its sugars much more slowly than most other grains and starches, and that means lower blood sugar levels and less damage to your insulin system.
(Here’s why I got a good giggle out of the world’s oldest man specifically recommending barley though… Barley contains a lot of gluten which the whole ‘wheat belly’ crowd would have you believe is the devil’s work. This will upset a lot of people, but my personal opinion is that high blood sugar and diabetes affect a MUCH larger percentage of the population than gluten sensitivity.)
The bottom line is that more vegan and/or raw food diet you go then the healthier you will be. But a pure vegan diet is a lot of work and requires a ton of commitment, so you may not want to completely avoid meat; just don’t have big, giant slabs of meat with every meal. Your system can’t absorb that much protein at one time anyway. A vegan or raw-inspired diet with a bit of meat added to it is probably one of the healthiest options for athletes.
4) The more you work out, the better your diet needs to be. Your body doesn’t get stronger during training; it’s AFTER training, when your body recovers, that it gets stronger. And the harder you train, the better your nutrition needs to be to provide your body with the building blocks for fast recovery. If you train hard and put garbage in your system then you’ll be far more susceptible to overtraining and all the injuries that come with it.
Post-workout meals are really important: try to eat some kind of carbohydrate and some kind of protein within half an hour of finishing your workouts. You may need to use a protein powder/meal replacement shake for this, but in general the less processed the food you eat, the better.
But if you’re not training hard then it’s STILL a good idea to keep a clean diet. First of all you’ll be building a habit, and that will serve you well for your entire life. Secondly, training layoffs become much harder to deal with if you’re also piling on the pounds during that break from training.
You want to be in as good a shape as possible when you get back to the mat, so at least keep your diet under control (click here for other tips on surviving a training layoff).
5) Almost all supplements are garbage. Maybe, maybe there is an advantage to taking a multivitamin and a multimineral supplement. At least it’s unlikely to do you harm.
That being said, most people, experts, and companies telling you about health and sports supplements have a hidden, yet obvious, agenda: to sell you more of their products. To make more money these experts stay one step ahead of the science, and make unproven promises of bigger muscles, faster reflexes, smoother skin, and male enhancement.
Plus people who’ve taken a lot supplements desperately want to have not wasted their money, so they’ll inadvertently lie to you as well. Please refer to my article, The Truth About Supplements, Everyone is Lying to You for more information.
Finally keep in mind that everyone is different. What works for me psychologically and biochemically may not work for you, so you have to experiment until you get it right for your own body, your own physiology, and your own unique situation.
Along these lines, if you have your own diet or nutrition tip to share with the readership, something that you’ve tried and really works for you, please feel free to share it in the comments section below.
P.S. I covered the topic of nutrition in episode 106 of my podcast (The Strenuous Life Podcast).