The word ‘diet’ has gotten a bad name for itself – diet is the food you choose to feed your body, the body that helps you climb over mountains, explore new roads and maybe even win races.
There are loads of different structured diets available out there, designed to help people lose weight or just live a healthier lifestyle. Most of them have some good ideas, and some major flaws – especially if you're looking to drop weight AND exercise.
Across the 5:2, Low GI, Gluten Free, Mediterranean, Paleo and old-fashioned calorie counting approach, the obvious link is reducing processed, high-calorie foods, and replacing them with lots of natural foods – often fruits and vegetables. Just like our mothers told us.
A structured diet, like those listed on the next few pages, can bring your diet to the front of your mind – encouraging healthy choices, rather than hasty 4 pm trips to the vending machine.
Most of these diets, however, remove certain food groups which might not benefit you as a cyclist. For example, before a tough event, you might want to go for simple carbs, to avoid “complications" born from too much fibre. Before training or mid-race, you might benefit from quick release, high GI refined carbs or energy gels that result in the sudden spike you need to power over that hill.
With that in mind, take a look at the next six diets – some of their characteristics might help you to fuel more effectively for cycling, or lose weight to help you over those pesky hills (though there is more to hill climbing than weight - check out these tips) – but remember that above all, a balanced, healthy diet is the top priority.
This diet encourages you to eat lots of fruit, vegetables and natural foods – processed and often high-calorie options are often discounted, which means it is generally a fairly effective way to lose weight. However, to eat enough calories from these foods, you might need to be popping to the shops to top-up your fridge quite often, so be prepared.
As the NHS site points out: “There are no accurate records of the diet of our Stone Age ancestors, so the paleo diet is largely based on an educated guess" – so it can take a little work to figure out what you can and can’t have. Many people prefer to opt to eat paleo ‘most’ of the time, allowing themselves a few non-Stone Age treats.
The 5:2 diet is simple – you eat a normal diet five days a week, but focusing on making healthy choices, then have a very limited calorie intake of around 500 calories on the other two.
This is known as intermittent fasting and is effectively a way to limit overall calorie intake over time.
Fans of the diet claim it can help improve lifespan, brain function, and protect against conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s – though the evidence is limited.
Having to stick to the regime on just two days a week can mean that it’s easier keep it up – so those that struggle with daily discipline may get on well with this diet.
This diet is difficult for people who lead a very active lifestyle if they are fasting on exercise days, as this could lead to a real calorie deficit, so it’s probably best avoided if you are riding every day.
Low GI Diet
The glycemic index (GI) was created to help people with diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels, but it can be helpful for non-diabetics looking to watch their diet.
Foods are indexed based on the rate at which they are broken down into glucose. Too much glucose causes a release of insulin – which brings levels back to ‘normal’, lowers the speed at which the body burns fat, and can result in fatigue and a desire to top energy levels up soon after. A low GI diet seeks to avoid these peaks and troughs.
All carbohydrates will raise glucose levels in the blood, but those that are digested more slowly, provide a steadier provision of glucose. Slowly digested foods have a low GI score, and quickly digested foods have a high GI score.
Foods with a GI of 70 or more are considered ‘high’, 55-69 are ‘medium’ and sub 55 are ‘low’.
Following this diet can be helpful when you want to keep your energy levels steady for cycling, for example, a low GI snack 2 hours before you ride will leave you raring to go, whilst a high GI nibble might give you a surge of energy, then a drop. When you want quick bursts of energy on a ride, however, you might be better for opting for a high GI energy gel.
This one sounds like the yummiest by a long way!
Based on the diets of people in Crete, Greece and Southern Italy, a Mediterranean diet includes lots of plant foods, beans, nuts and cereals (wheat, oats, barley), cheese and yoghurt are the main dairy foods. Red meat consumption is quite low, with moderate amounts of fish and poultry.
Fat and fibre are high in this diet - 25-35% of calorie intake is fat, with saturated fat making up no more than 8% - and most of the fat comes from olive oil.
Basically – the perfect meal might be bread and olives, with a little meat and lots of veggies, with fruit for pudding.
Although the diet is high in fat, cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer are all very low in these countries – and it’s believed much of this is down to the inclusion of a high percentage of fresh plant-based produce – fruit and vegetables.
As we discussed here, including more fat in your diet could mean you store more of it in your muscles, which could well help your body to burn more fat during exercise, allowing you to keep going without needing to top up your carbohydrate levels so often.
A few years ago, gluten-free diets were reserved for people with Coeliac Disease – an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks itself when the person eats gluten, causing damage to the lining of the gut.
However, recently it’s been suggested that more people are sensitive to gluten than initially believed. People with a gluten sensitivity might suffer symptoms of diarrhoea, constipation, wind, tiredness or joint pain, after eating gluten and can benefit dramatically from cutting out the cause of this discomfort.
Many athletes choose to go gluten-free to avoid tummy problems during events – especially runners and triathletes.
Not only that, but even people who have no sensitivity at all report feeling more energised, and losing weight, after going ‘gluten-free’.
Gluten is found in bread, cakes, pasta, cereals, and most deep fried or battered foods – any many people end up swapping these for fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, yoghurts, nut butter, quinoa and so on – so it’s not surprising the swap is beneficial.
Gluten-free alternatives - gluten free pasta and bread, for example - are often higher in sugar, and more expensive, so best opted for if you have a sensitivity or intolerance.
A lot of well advertised 'diet plans' revolve around the simple fact that in order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume.
Counting calories is an effective way to document how much you are eating - it's easy to drastically increase your calorie intake with just a few snacks here, or a larger portion there.
You should be wary of low-calorie foods that advertise themselves as sugar-free though. Often they will curb your appetite in the short term and cause a momentary spike in energy but what goes up comes crashing back down and these foods or drinks offer zero nutritional value.
Of course, when you live an active lifestyle, you do need to make sure you are eating enough calories to fuel your activities. Too few calories will result in bonking: lethargy, dizziness, and generally not the best athletic performance. Healthy salads and green vegetables are a great way to bulk up the volume of food you are eating without the calories.
So - calorie counting is an effective method, as long as you also account for the extra burn of cycling and ensure you that you are eating balanced meals.
There you go - six of the most popular diets around - their pros, and cons.
Overall, we would advocate a well-balanced diet - lots of fruit and veg to provide enough vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates to fuel a ride, protein to aid muscle repair and fats and fibre.