An interview with Olympic Tennis player, Taro Daniel. Comments by Sam Bourne, POW Food Head Nutritional Therapist.
1. Have you used / are you using a sports nutritionist to help support your performance in tennis training? (any off season/ on season difference?)
Taro: I currently do not have a nutritionist. My physical trainer has general and applicable knowledge about recovery meals and fuelling. As a tennis player traveling 30-35 weeks a year, I believe the nutrition has to be a bit more flexible since it is almost impossible to go on a strict diet unless you can afford to have a nutritionist traveling with you all the time
- Understanding how to get enough fuel and protein so that an athlete can perform and have enough energy is vital and Taro’s PT is helping with that. However performance and recovery can be hampered by inflammation and fatigue, and looking at Taros diet there are some simple things that he can do to reduce the affect of inflammation both in terms of dietary choices, supplements and improving gut health.
2. Do you notice any differences in performance, muscle recovery, mental clarity, appetite, sleep, workout intensity or duration when you’re eating ‘well’ vs eating ‘junk’?
Taro: I think as I become closer to the age 30, I do start to feel the differences when I eat high nutritional value things VS junk. You get almost like a hangover after you eat McDonald’s or at any of these fast food restaurants. I do try to eat as clean as possible given the circumstances
- Junk foods can have a profound effect on systemic inflammation and can give that ‘hangover’ feeling. This is due to multiple factors:
– High salt is toxic to all cells and can dehydrate cells so that performance is affected
– Sugar has both a detrimental effect on bacterial balance in the gut, increasing risk of yeast overgrowth and non-beneficial bacteria- this is especially true if you have had antibiotics, but also a risk if you train physically hard as all athletes do.
3. Do you mostly follow any of the well known ‘diets’ such as Paleo, Ketogenic, Vegan, Vegetarian etc?
Taro: I will consider these diets when I am done with my career. The most realistic step I could take during my career is becoming a pescatarian but I believe that any kind of food is dependent on quality.
- My advice is to find the right diet for you and what your training requires, once you give up the training it’s important to adjust carefully as your metabolism will change. I would also advise a healing diet that addresses the stresses and the strains that both body and mind go through with intense training and competition. The high circulating cortisol levels whilst in a training state can suppress inflammation, disease and tissue damage.
- There is no doubt that even making small adjustments to a training diet to be more supportive of detoxification, microbiome health and immune function can reduce many health issues and could improve performance.
4. How much of your meals (as a percentage %) is Japanese cuisine? Can you give examples of your go-to dishes?
Taro: I love eating Japanese food when I am in Japan but I do not go for it when I am abroad since it is not the same. My go-to dishes are the Udons and Ramens haha. I also love the traditional vegetable side dishes which are fermented. They always give great nutrition and you feel great after eating them. Ramens can be junk and you do need to be careful with how much of it you eat.
- Japanese style of eating can be much lighter on digestion and nutrient dense, however it can contain a lot of sodium plus the noodles and even the sushi rolls can be laced with gluten which may cause food sensitivity and inflammation and can affect joint health. Seaweed, kimchi and quickly cooked fresh vegetables can be very health supportive, along with fresh stir fries and baked fish.
5. Can you tell me what your typical go to meals are when training/competing vs every day life (if there is a difference?)
Taro: My meals do not really change because of match vs practice days. It changes when I change the country I am in. In japan, I tend to have for breakfast a big bowl of rice a grilled fish, miso soup, some side vegetables and perhaps around two eggs. In Europe or in the US, the rice gets replaced with bread for source of carbs and change the fish to ham or scrambled eggs. For lunch and dinner, I eat more or less around 1.5-2 times the food that normal people consume. I’ll have a big portion of pasta/noodles/fried rice etc, 200g of meat or fish and some vegetables. The general amount of calorie intake is 3-4000 calories a day. Carbohydrate intakes are very important especially during tournament days because that is the direct source of energy but on practice days, I might go more for protein based meals with fish preferably but also meat.
Taro’s diet during training and performance appears to contain many of the nutrients an athlete needs. My advice would be to include as many supportive foods that he can find wherever he travels.
Include foods that support the following:
- Immune function: Fermented vegetables, kefir, natural yogurt, blueberries, purple grapes, carrots and carrot juice, oily fish, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, lemon peel, apples, microgreens due to Vitamin C content, sprouted seeds, fresh spinach, kale and broccoli.
- Drinks: Green tea, ginger & turmeric shots, fibre smoothies (with water not milk)
- Inflammation reducing foods: Turmeric, ginger, garlic, seaweed, green powders, fish oil, rosemary, papaya, kiwi, pineapple.
- Sustained energy: organic eggs, oats, basmati brown rice, tahini, coconut oil and fresh coconut. Fresh almonds and sunflower seeds (avoid peanuts). Make your own energy balls – I can supply a recipe.
- Boost energy: Beetroot(raw, baked, juice), Molasses, coconut oil, dried prunes, organic deglet noir dates
- Muscle health: Oats, and pulses. Organic lean meats and fresh fish. Muscles, shellfish, seaweed.
6. Do your meals follow a macronutrient breakdown (Protein/Carb/Fat ratio) on your meal time plates?
Taro: I do not count the macronutrients because it is currently too much of an effort while traveling. I do believe it would help a lot because when you are faced with facts, you have a lot easier time directing yourself towards your goals.
- I believe that even when an athlete needs more carbs and protein than other people, the ratios should still be the same as what I consider a healthy plate. However, the 50% portion of vegetable foods could include more pulse like butterbeans and chickpeas as these contain healthy carbs, protein and fibre. You could also include quinoa as this is such a nutrient rich food that contains vital proteins and carbs for sustained energy.
7. Are there foods you avoid when you’re training?
Taro: Yes. I try to avoid white bread, sugary cereals, sodas, candies, & anything else that do not have any purpose for my well-being. When I am training, I am more concerned with what I put in to my body. When I am playing matches I am more concerned with the timing of my meals.
- Whilst avoiding sugars and refined carbohydrates is very helpful and vital for health, there may be foods in the diet that are affecting performance without you realising it. For example, some people cannot metabolise fruit acids well and this can create cause fogginess, sore joints and impair performance. Fruit juice like orange, lemons and lime juice (many of these are in ‘healthy’ green juices). Tomatoes, lentils and certain beans can cause discomfort and inflammation or increase hay fever like symptoms. Athletes tend to consume a lot of animal protein and this can create excess uric acid in the blood as the protein is broken down. All of the above affects immune responses and can cause general inflammation.
8. Do you take any natural supplements i.e. fish oils, magnesium, vitamin D etc.
Taro: Yes I do take Omega 3 and vitamin D! I think that omega 3 is not easy to get with foods especially when you are in a place that does not have a lot of seafood. I also do take some multivitamins when I feel that I have not been able to take those nutrients through the day. I think that Omega3 and vitamin D are extremely important for heart health and especially during the pandemic, it helps with preventing getting bad Covid symptoms. At least that’s what I’ve read haha!
- Omega 3 is good, I would advise at least 2000mg of purified high quality fish oil that has a good ratio of EPA and he should take Vitamin E with that to guard against oxidation. Vitamin D3 is vital for immune function and very supportive to athletes, this also help with well-being, the dose should be 2000-4000iu. Taro has not mentioned Vitamin C and I highly recommend any athlete to take high doses in buffered form to help protect immunity, reduce inflammation and to relieve the stress on the body from training. I would also recommend a good quality magnesium to keep muscles healthy and help with stiffness post training.
- Turmeric, probiotics and zinc are also highly recommended not as a multivitamin but in therapeutic dose.
9. How do you source your food in a typical week? (cook yourself, meal prep delivery i.e. hello fresh etc.)
Taro: Unfortunately, I eat out for most of my meals because I travel so much. We also stay in hotels in 99 percent of the tournaments, so cooking is not an option. We do the best we can with the restaurants given on those weeks. At home, I try to have meals prepared by my family or my girlfriend when possible.
Keeping up good nutrition can’t be easy when travelling, but here’s my advice:
- Talk to Managers of the restaurants and request healthier meals that contain less salt.
- Travel with probiotics/digestive enzymes
- Travel with a green powder to have in a fibre smoothie every day
- Talk to a nutritional therapist to create a travel plan for nutrition.
- Include some Yogic breathing and relaxation to calm the digestion and immune system.
- Get a comprehensive digestive stool and gut microbiome test done so you will know what support your digestion needs – it is the engine that fuels the body, make sure it’s running smoothly.
10. What is your favourite post match meal or snack?
Taro: Post match, the main focus is to get glycogen very quickly so that we do not lose any muscle and also it is the first step to recover as quickly as possible. I usually have my coach or one of my team members bring up anything they can grab their hands on while I am on the bike cooling down. This could be a smoothie or even a plate of pasta with some chicken. My preference is to have a smoothie straight away and then have hard food 30-40 mn afterwards since it is very difficult to swallow down solid foods for a good hour after the match because of all the tension in the body.
- Post intensive exercise it is hard to eat due to the body going into stress mode. This includes the blood and energy being withdrawn from the digestive tract. The lining of the gut also thins and becomes more fragile during this process. Athletes tend to just think about muscles and energy but disregard their gut. I recommend straight after exercise a smoothie or drink that is not only designed to replenish lost electrolytes and proteins but contains nutrients that heal and support the gut lining and the microbiome. By doing this Taro will be creating better gut health which means less inflammation, better absorption of all nutrients and better recovery. This will also protect his immune function.