The Importance of Raw Foods for Athletes

I always enjoy responding to those who tell me, "I don't have time to cook."

"That's great," I say. "You do have time to eat, so incorporate raw foods into your diet. You'll have better digestion, absorb more nutrients, diminish your cooking time, prevent injury and increase your performance by developing a strong foundational diet to build upon." Sound good?

Unfortunately, in today's world the concept of diet has extended beyond what one eats to how they live and the identity that gets associated with it. In a lot of ways, what you eat is how society places and categorizes you. When considered in this way, the idea of eating raw foods as an athlete becomes more of an emotional response than one rooted in resourceful thinking about how to improve health and performance.

However, for you as an athlete, when you examine your reasons for eating, the main purpose is to absorb nutrients from food to be converted into energy. The problem is that without the necessary enzymes that come from raw foods, the body has to produce them on its own. The more the body has to produce, the less energy it has for performance and maintaining overall health.

When considering their importance, enzymes could very well be the most underrated and under appreciated elements the body needs. It's easy to focus on the macro systems of the body (cardio, immune, etc.) as well as the major organs, but its critical to recognize that any cellular activity taking place in the body at any given time is being facilitated by the work of over 5,000 enzymes. They are essentially catalysts responsible for almost every biochemical process that happens in the body and facilitate those chemical reactions quickly so the cells can do their work. However, the majority of this activity, specifically for athletes, is dependent upon the presence of quality vitamins and minerals within the body that is sourced from food.

Enzymes are comprised of up to 1,000 amino acids, hence they are actually complex proteins, that are strung together in varying unique shapes that allow them to perform specific functions. There are three major classifications of enzymes: metabolic enzymes, which assist in all bodily processes such as breathing, moving and the maintenance of the immune system; digestive enzymes, which are manufactured, mainly, in the pancreas, and aim to break-down the partially digested food exiting the stomach; and food enzymes, which are abundantly present in the majority of raw and fermented foods. These food enzymes begin the digestive process in the mouth, via saliva, and stomach and are then completed by others in the body.

There are obvious relationships that these have to athletes but in more specific ways food enzymes include proteases for digesting proteins; lipases for digesting fats; and amylases for digesting carbohydrates, the macronutrients that athletes need in their diet. These can get even more specific, such as when, after the amylases break down starches into smaller sugar molecules like, for example, maltose, which is present in many sports fueling products, and needs the enzyme maltase to help convert those molecules into glycogen so that it can be absorbed by the body and preferentially used by the muscles to support your athletic pursuits.

As definitively linked all of this is to one's performance it might be a long cast that is difficult for the mind to reel in. So let's get even more specific for athletes and consider glycolsysis, the metabolic process that converts glucose into pyruvate during which ATP, the only energy source that drives muscle contraction, is released, is controlled by 10 specific enzymes. Another eight enzymes control the Krebs Cycle, which help to convert macronutrients into usable energy. Without the necessary enzymes to stimulate these reactions your race calendar would be nothing but a blank page.

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