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Cycling nutrition / ultra-processed foods / cycling performance evidence

effect of ultra processed foods on cycling performance

Most cyclists know a few simple truths. To get better at cycling you need to have a goal and a proper training plan. You need to fuel your training with carbohydrates and fuel your recovery with protein. You may also want to reduce the weight (and improve the comfort) of your bike.

Most cyclists understand this. It’s when zooming in where things start to get complicated, and one of these areas is: what carbohydrates and protein should I be eating?

Most cyclists I know have heard about ultra-processed foods. But I think fewer cyclists realise just how ubiquitous these food types have become and could be limiting performance gains as well as increasing long-term health risks.  

Ultra-processed foods hit our shelves in the 1980s and while there is no definition of what ultra-processed food is, the term started to gain prominence in 2009 when a team of Brazilian researchers published a paper and developed the Nova classification system. The researchers put forward a long definition, too long to quote here, but I found a neat shorter one which defines ultra-processed foods as 'products with at least one ingredient you wouldn’t typically find in a home kitchen.'

It’s crazy to think that in the UK, more than half the average diet now consists of these ultra-processed food. For some, especially people who are younger, poorer or from disadvantaged areas, a diet comprising as much as 80% is typical.

Some ultra-processed foods are obvious. For example, packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or ready meals, go through multiple industrial processes and often contain colours, emulsifiers, flavours and other additives. These 'products' tend to be high in added sugar, fat, and salt, but are low in vitamins and fibre.

The food conglomerates who make these products use clever marketing to drive sales. Chris van Tulleken, author of the book Ultra Processed People, points out in his excellent Ted talk how these companies use mascots to show an additive relationship with food. The products that reach the shelves have all been carefully selected through A/B testing. Companies will study which version of the product people eat more of quicker and sell the one that drives excess consumption.

Even food that is marketed as healthy isn't always. Take a Pret sandwich for example. I looked up the ingredients of their chicken salad sandwich. The bread includes an ingredient called Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, also known as E471, an emulsifier that is regularly used in shop bought bread.

The problem with just how ubiquitous ultra-processed food has become is that their poor nutritional profile can cause harm. Emerging evidence suggests these foods compound health risks. In a recent British Medical Journal meta analysis, in other words a study of studies, “greater exposure to ultra-processed foods, whether measured as higher versus lower consumption, additional servings per day, or a 10% increment, was consistently associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes (71% of outcomes).

Where studies on athletes have been done, such as in Australia, approximately half of the participants were concerned about the health effects of consuming ultra-processed foods. This Spanish study specifically on the nutritional habits of cyclists during pre-season found that lower consumption of ultra-processed foods were reported by professional Spanish cyclists, compared to more amaetur cyclists. This suggests that professional cyclists have a better understanding of the negative effects this type of food has on health and performance.

More research is needed on how ultra-processed food consumption can affect athletic performance, including in cycling. One day I would like to see a study that compares racing performance and levels of ultra-processed food consumption though I suspect the sample size needed to properly account for other factors (such as training volume and previous performance) makes this unlikely any time soon. 


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