The Macronutrient of the Day

Athletes have been using food and drink to boost their performance for centuries. Does it work?

A soccer team eats a large spread at an Italian restaurant.
Clayton Chase / Getty

Ancient Greek Olympians swore by beans to give them a competitive edge. Japanese sumo wrestlers rely on a protein-rich soup called chanko-nabe to get into peak condition. And the NBA all-stars Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, and Steph Curry credit their success to a pregame PB&J. Throughout history, athletes have traditionally eaten something special that they hope will up their game. But is there any science behind these special drinks and diets—and will consuming them help those of us who are not destined for sporting glory, too? Listen in this episode as we reveal the backstory behind such stadium staples as Gatorade and Muscle Milk—and the evidence for their efficacy.

When the Florida Gators beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to win the 1967 Orange Bowl, a hydration legend was born. The Florida football team supposedly had a secret weapon to beat the heat: lemon-flavored salty water mixed up by the team’s doctor, Robert Cade. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets relied on the regular stuff from the tap. As their coach Bobby Dodd said after the game, “We didn’t have Gatorade. That made the difference.” Today, Gatorade—the “professional thirst-quencher”—is chugged by 5K fun-runners and ultramarathon racers alike. But what are electrolytes, and how can we replenish them? Do we really need to drink before we even feel thirsty, as the Gatorade marketing messages would have us believe? Christie Aschwanden, who explores the science of recovery in her new book, Good to Go, joins us to untangle the science behind the hype.

That’s hydration, but what about nutrition? Is carbo-loading—the traditional spaghetti dinner the night before a sporting event—the way to go, or are athletes who eat a high-fat diet better equipped to take advantage of their body’s fuel reserves instead? Louise Burke is head of sports nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, where she works with and studies many of the world’s best athletes. She shares the wisdom gained from decades spent teasing out the impact of high-carbohydrate and high-fat diets on athletic performance.

Today, another macronutrient is enjoying its day in the sun: protein. It was once the exclusive province of bodybuilders, but today everyone and their aunt can be found downing high-protein snacks and supplements. Casey Johnston, a powerlifter and writer known for her advice column, “Ask a Swole Woman,” tells us how Muscle Milk made the leap from niche to mainstream.

Faced with conflicting advice about nutrition and hydration, what is an elite athlete—or a weekend warrior—to do? And why is it so hard to figure out how to use food to go faster, higher, farther, for longer? Listen in this episode as we discuss everything from the merits of beer as a recovery drink to the curiously oedipal logic behind Muscle Milk’s original formula—and reveal the best advice science can offer today.

This post appears courtesy of  Gastropod.