If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected—which is exactly what athletes are trained to do. To perform at their peak, athletes are taught to focus on the fundamentals, no matter what happens around them.
This applies on the field and in the kitchen. Whether an elite athlete, weekend warrior or busy parent, the food and drink active consumers take in can make a huge difference in how their body and mind react under stress.
Proprietary market research indicates more than half of health-conscious consumers search for information on how to lead a healthier lifestyle, with this trend accelerating due to COVID-19. Consumers are increasingly taking nutrition into their own hands, educating themselves about the different ingredients that will help them achieve their goals.
Athletes and health-conscious consumers are looking beyond protein for ingredients that offer potential support to areas such as gut health, cognition and immunity. Additionally, the aging population of seniors who want to stay active longer is driving trends in purchase decisions based on a food’s functional benefits beyond basic nutrition.
Whether it is an athlete reaching for nutrient-rich foods to give them the winning edge, an active consumer or an energetic senior, people are looking for foods that will help get their brain in the game, fortify their frame and guard their gut against whatever life brings their way.
Getting the brain in the game
Although food has been perceived in the past as solely a way to provide energy and build and repair muscles, research now shows the importance of food for mental health and brain function.1
Brain health is important for athletes looking to control mental stress from elite competition, as well as for consumers seeking to manage mental well-being. According to the 2019 “Functional Foods Report” from Tastewise, mentions of the brain and food are up 46% over the past year.
Certain nutrients play an important role in keeping the mind sharp and brain healthy. This applies to all consumers, not just athletes.
Antioxidants in berries include anthocyanin, caffeic acid, catechin and quercetin. A study in the Neurological Regenerating Research journal showed these antioxidants positively impacted the brain by improving communication between brain cells, boosting learning and memory and reducing/delaying cognitive decline.2
A 2017 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed people with high levels of omega-3s in their diets had increased blood flow in the brain, and the researchers noted a connection between omega-3 levels and better thinking abilities.3
Fortifying the frame
The ability to be active throughout life depends on the strength of one’s framework, which is made up of a whopping 206 bones and 600 muscles.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), stress fractures make up 15% of athletic injuries, but athletes are not the only ones at risk for bone problems. Half of women and up to one-fourth of men age 50 and older are estimated to break a bone due to osteoporosis in their lifetime. Developing peak bone mass (maximum bone size and strength) is an important factor in warding off stress fractures and osteoporosis. Peak bone mass is affected by many factors; however, 20% to 40% of adult peak bone mass is influenced by lifestyle choices, including diet.4
Both the National Osteoporosis Foundation's position statement on peak bone mass development and lifestyle factors, and the 2015 Dietary Guideline for Americans, highlight the importance of dairy foods, calcium and vitamin D for building strong bones. Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are the No. 1 food source of both calcium and vitamin D in the diets of children and adults, and also contain high-quality protein and significant amounts of potassium and phosphorus—all of which support bone health.
Milk is important in the diet of an athlete, not only to support bone health, but also as an important player in hydration. In fact, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested trading in one’s water bottle for a milk bottle for best hydration.5 Additional research showed chocolate milk after a workout was an effective recovery beverage.6 The protein in milk helps muscles recover after a workout and stimulates muscle growth, while the calcium and vitamin D strengthen bones against injuries. Milk also naturally provides some of the same electrolytes added to commercial sports drinks like calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium.
Guard the gut
Gut health has a direct link to overall health. Everything from anxiety disorders, hormonal imbalances and immunity have been linked to gut function. According to a 2019 Mintel survey, “Attitudes towards Healthy Eating - UK,” the number of internet searches for “gut health” grew 669% over the last five years. Research highlighted by the ACSM’s Current Sports Medicine Reports states gastric problems among athletes are prevalent, adding to interest in the gut microbiome and nutrition.7
Both fiber and probiotics are integral in supporting gut health. Foods high in fiber, such as fruit, whole grains and vegetables, not only aid in weight management and fending off certain diseases, but also promote good gut health and reduce inflammation. Consumers should aim for 25 to 35 g of fiber daily.
Lucie Lingrand—product manager, marketing and communications at Lallemand Health Solutions—noted 70% of consumers interested in sports nutrition are considering adding probiotics to their diets. One way to do this is through kefir, a fermented milk drink, and yogurt. These fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria called probiotics, that, when present in adequate amounts, may help strengthen the digestive tract8 and boost immune function.9 Kefir has been linked to several health benefits, including improved bone health10,aiding digestion8 and protecting against infections.11 Probiotics in yogurt12 and kefir13 also aid digestion of lactose, making them a great option for people managing lactose intolerance. Dietitians surveyed in Today’s Dietitian magazine stated fermented foods, including yogurt and kefir, were the No. 1 superfood trend in 2019.
Mental and physical health are becoming important to both athletes and active consumers in achieving overall well-being, in addition to continued awareness from the consumer on gut health. Consumers’ increased interest in their food choices and nutrition has set the stage for an opportunity to highlight functional ingredients and health benefits of food beyond basic nutrition.
Geri Berdak is CEO for The Dairy Alliance, a nonprofit funded by dairy farm families of the Southeast that brings together dairy farmers, retailers, schools, sports teams, health professionals, state leaders, the media and the public to promote nutrition and wellness. Berdak has dedicated her career to the broader health and wellness category, leading marketing and product innovation efforts for Fortune 500 companies like PepsiCo, Monsanto, Solae/DuPont, as well as the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Kerry and Isagenix.
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2. Subash S et al. “Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases.” Neural Regen Res. 2014;9(16):1557-1566.
3. Amen DG et al. “Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;58(4):1189-1199.
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