By Kevin Kolodziejski
Michelle Kwan knows what we’re all about.
She’s the former ice skater who won 5 World Championships and 9 total World Championship medals over a period of 12 years. During that time, Kwan also earned silver and bronze medals at the Winter Olympic Games.
Near the end of her longer-than-normal career, I saw a TV interview where she was asked what still drove her to get up before the sun and train for several hours each day. I expected her to say the only real accomplishment that had eluded her: winning an Olympic gold medal. Instead, she spoke of love.
Her love of the life she leads before competition that makes the accolades after it possible. Her love of what she called the ice skating life.
In a similar way, I love the cycling life — and I know you do too. How can I state that with such confidence? Common sense.
If you felt less than love for what we do, you would’ve started doing something less time consuming a long time ago. Like running. I know runners who race and win their age group regularly and spend less time running in a typical week than I ride on a normal weekend.
And being a runner instead of cyclist saves something more tangible than time. Money. LoveAtFirstFit.com claims you can get a good pair of running shoes for between $75 and $100. Cannondale offers an entry-level road bike, the SuperSix EVO Carbon 105, through their website for $2,200, with the top-of-the-line SuperSix EVO going for $12,500. There’s no getting around it. While you can never place a price tag on happiness and health, experiencing both through cycling certainly gets pricey.
So where’s this column headed? To a time when your cycling life butts heads with your social life and a cold hard fact about bad-for-you food.
The Fourth of July and Food
Let’s say every year you go to your neighborhood’s Fourth of July picnic. Since you always get in some long rides in the summer sun beforehand, you always attend with raccoon eyes and a farmer’s tan — as well as freshly shaved legs. You handle the guaranteed wisecracks about all three graciously, but here’s my bigger concern: How do you handle with the offers to chow down on the less-than-good-for-you picnic foods? The hot dogs, hamburgers, macaroni and potato salads, the peach and apple pies? Or the suggestions to have a few hard seltzers or a few light — or not-so-light — beers?
While I won’t tell you what to do, I will tell you what I know. Dr. Karen Madsen knows it, too. And it flies in the face of the middle-of-the-road, all-things-in-moderation advice you so often hear.
There Is No Such Thing As A Neutral Food
Madsen, a professor in the Department of Medicine Division of Gastroenterology at the University of Alberta, expressed a similar sentiment for a ScienceDaily article. “This idea that it’s OK to eat well all week and indulge in junk food on the weekend,” she said, “is flawed.” She offered this after leading a study intended to determine how long it takes a bad change in your diet to adversely affect your health.
Madsen and colleagues fed one group of lab mice a sugar-laden diet for two days while feeding a second group a balanced one. Afterwards, they attempted to chemically create colitis in both groups and found the sugar-laden group to be far more susceptible, as well as more likely to have other gastrointestinal problems. Since the researchers didn’t expect such problems to emerge so quickly, Madsen called the results published in the November 2019 issue of Scientific Reports “really surprising.” You, however, might call them really trivial. After all, there has to be a half dozen diet-related problems that concern you more than the possibility of inflaming your colon.
Which is why you need to know what else happened after two days of bad eating.
The Sugar-Laden Diet Surprise
The mice given the sugar-loaded diet experienced a significant increase in “bad” gut bacteria and a decrease in “good” ones. Madsen and her colleagues found this combination increased gut permeability “quite dramatically.”
While some gut permeability in mice and humans is natural, it becomes unhealthy when large cracks or holes in the gut lining develop and partially digested food and toxins in those foods escape and affect other tissue. This escape helps create inflammation. Not only the sort a cyclist gets from ramping up the mileage or running into road furniture, but also the type that can lead to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Moreover, an overall increase in bad gut bacteria has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and chronic depression. All of which will adversely affect your rides — and are serious enough to make cycling seem inconsequential. And an increase in bad-gut bacteria can begin with a bad day or two of eating, the way you just might eat around the Fourth of July. (Or World Migratory Bird Day. If you love bad food the way you love cycling, you’ll rationalize that even the most obscure holidays justify the former after doing the latter.)
Conversely, good gut bacteria has been linked to preventing weight gain, fighting infection, improving brain function, and regulating high blood-sugar levels. But good gut bacteria thrive on fiber-rich food, something only 5 percent of Americans eat enough of. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, men should get 33.6 grams and women should get 28 grams of fiber every day. Most, though, fall woefully short of those numbers. Worse, I advise those who make optimal health their ultimate goal to double the government’s suggestion.
The Positive Effects of Fiber
To illustrate the positive effects of fiber, consider research published in the March 2017 issue of the journal Science. It found the composition of the bacteria in the colons of diabetics changed for the better after following a high-fiber diet for 12 weeks. The total number of the bacteria known to convert soluble fiber into the specific short-chained fatty acids that lower high-blood sugar and cholesterol levels had increased significantly.
In addition, the diabetics placed on the high-fiber diet experienced enough natural weight loss that the researchers deemed it “significant.”
Eating to Satisfy Your Social and Cycling Lives
What else is significant is how you eat to satisfy both your social and cycling lives. Cyclists who know my hardcore dietary beliefs sometimes argue that eating a pastry or even a candy bar during a middle-of-a-ride break provides perfectly fine fuel for the remainder. Since I believe that your way of processing calories is as unique to you as your fingerprints, I don’t argue with them on that. (Even though I once watched a seasoned cyclist violently shake 65 miles into a ride about 15 minutes after washing down a Snicker’s bar with a 20-ounce Coke.) What I vehemently argue, however, is that no food is neutral and that any bad food eaten for whatever reason has some sort of negative consequence, one that may not adversely affect a single ride but will detract from future ones in some way eventually.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.
Of course proper fiber intake and limitation of sugars are important, but any program of improving and MAINTAINING dietary habits must include REALISTIC (and hopefully scientifically-supported) goals to be successful. Fact is that VERY few people have the self discipline to actually follow highly rigid “no exceptions” diets. And there is NO credible medical evidence that eating a single hot dog/hamburger/potato salad/Snickers bar at a 4th of July picnic has “negative” consequences (short of individual food intolerance or Salmonella in the potato salad!). Advocating unsupported extreme dietary practices only DIScourages many athletes from improving their overall eating habits.
And FWIW- It is HIGHLY illogical to extrapolate observations from one poorly designed animal study into a risk of all sorts of diseases in humans. That study force fed a 50% sugar diet to mice for 2 days then poisoned their guts with DSS. The ‘diet’ used would be like humans eating that 50% sugar diet for THREE MONTHS (correcting for human-to-lab mouse lifespan difference, not to mention many other differences in human vs mouse physiology). And a FIFTY PERCENT sugar diet would make me puke in ONE DAY, never mind three months!!!!
(Link to the actual mouse study is here https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-48749-2)
Bob Wells says
I appreciate the link to the mouse study, something that should have accompanied the original article. Can we stop with the hysteria and consider applying some perspective to our writing and reporting?
“There Is No Such Thing As A Neutral Food”.
Oh, my dear, There Is No Such Thing As A Junk Food
Food escaping the gut through cracks or holes is a life threatening emergency. This invalidates any other claim based on this ridiculous claim.