You are what you think you eat

Mood affects thought and the two underpin our decision-making ability.

The carbs and protein debate isn’t just about fuelling your body, it’s about keeping your mind energised.

By Alex Harris

Over the last couple of years a frenzy of opinions and books have hit the shelves, stoking that age-old debate: more protein or more carbs? Theories posed as breakthroughs and recent discoveries seem to be nothing more than ideas that were first put forward 20 to 30 years ago. And so, on the weekend rides and coffee stops, I find myself once again fielding questions about which theory is right and which is wrong.

Here’s the thing, while most of these theories have some element of truth to them, one thing has never changed: what you eat affects not only your performance on the bike, but also how you feel and what you think.

This latter part is critical, because the link between thought and feeling is subtle but vital. Mood affects thought and the two underpin our decision-making ability. Ever get four hours into an early-season ride and suddenly bonk because you haven’t had a proper breakfast? The thought of going another two hours is anathema. More appropriately, you are probably wondering how you will get home and get your bike to Cash Converters. In your mind, in that abysmal trough of self-pity, you seriously doubt whether you will ever go for a long ride again.

Thankfully, most of these moments are experienced at a time and place where you have no alternative but to soldier on. By the time you get back on your bike a day or two later, you have forgotten how close you came to quitting. Occasionally though, these times of abstract doubt do occur at critical junctures in a race or tour. It’s at these moments that you have to make sure your body is fuelled so your mind can functional optimally.

Going back to the earlier debate, much of the controversy hinges on the quantities of either carb or protein in a diet and their relative effect on performance. The problem with this debate is that most of the empirical data focuses on physical performance and very little on mental performance. It also seems to ignore a profound but often overlooked fact: your brain has virtually no way of storing fuel. This makes it highly sensitive to both the source of food energy and the regularity with which it is supplied. Simply put, eat the wrong kind of food, or the right kind too seldom, and your brain will starve and send your mind on a downward spiral.

This can get way too complicated and I guess that might be part of the problem. But it is possible to keep things relatively simple with just a few principles. Firstly, understand that when your blood-sugar level is low, your brain is going to run out of energy and you will start to feel lousy. You will also start to think negatively about your performance. This will manifest as shorter rides, cancelled rides, or the classic catastrophic bonk. And becoming one of the many angry and aggressive riders out there.

Rather continue to eat small amounts throughout the day and during the ride as opposed to big binges. This will keep a steady supply of glucose to your brain. Secondly, too many carbs, and too few carbs, will affect your riding mood. Vociferous and influential proponents of the high protein diet have created an unwanted consequence and caused a wave of ignorant athletes to flee from carbs. The result: unsettled brain chemistry. The key is moderation. Try not to get hung up on specific quantities, but rather just eat reasonable amounts of all food types.

Finally, you should focus on the quality of whichever type of food you eat. Remember that it’s not just going into your body, but it’s fuelling your mind. You will ride for longer, be in a better mood and your ride memories will be more compelling.


ALEX HARRIS is one of South Africa’s most renowned adventurers, having led expeditions to Borneo, Tibet, the North Pole, the Seven Summits and Antarctica. He also happens to be pretty good at riding a bike, and won an age-group medal at the World Track Champs on his first attempt. Alex is a founder at Xplore, there he heads up a team that offers hikes, mountain climbs and mountain biking experiences to iconic parts of the world

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You are what you think you eat
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