Championship Level Nutrition: Cassius Clay & Gatorade

Championship Level Nutrition: Cassius Clay & Gatorade

 A few years ago, one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known passed away after years of struggling with health issues. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., and he became famous for his boxing skill and his mouth, later changing his name to Muhammad Ali.

Ali once said, "Champions aren't made in gyms [...] They have to have the skill and the will." He essentially advocated that effort is just as important -if not more important- than talent when it comes to achieving championship level accomplishment. Ali was right, but he didn't have the knowledge of physiology to help him understand the weight of what he was saying. For most athletes, especially at the youth, high school, and amateur levels talent certainly matters, but two things are significantly more important: dedication to training and dedication to fuel.

I have been blessed to speak to the students of St. Hilary, Hudson, Medina and others over the last 5 years. In an attempt to keep them awake I try to ask them a lot of questions. One question I ask the athletes is "If I gave you a Lamborghini would you put premium fuel in it or just standard?"

I'm not a mechanic (or even much of a car guy) and most of them don't know cars especially well, but of course many of them answer that they'd rather use the premium fuel. Because it makes sense. Common sense. So I just want you to follow me on the common sense train and we'll discuss some championship level nutrition that athletes should be abiding by, but most aren't. Maybe some common sense on some common pitfalls will take your game to the next level.

Protein shakes and Vitamin A

Frequently, the people asking me questions after classes or booster club speeches are athletes trying to either “bulk up” or just improve their performance. That being said, many ask me whether or not they should take protein shakes. Often, my answer to them is simply, “no.”

When it comes to most high school athletes, most have little to know knowledge of nutrition. If they’re an athlete, the majority of that information is heresay from teammates and can often amount to oversimplification. In this case, the problem is that they simply equate protein with muscle growth and assume that if some is good, more must be better. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, so I’ll give you two examples of how there’s more at play here.

First, if you’re a parent reading this, take notice of the fact that your teenager eats you out of house and home. This teenager -if she or he is like many Americans her/his own age- will indulge in just about any food kept in the pantry/refrigerator or readily available through the nearest fast food window.

To put it quite simply, the initial place to start if an athlete is concerned about protein is not begin supplementing with some expensive synthetic, it is to begin by eating actual foods that provide protein in its natural state. Some awesome examples are eggs (we can discuss your misconceptions about cholesterol later), grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, and sprouted nuts. Second, protein doesn’t just go from our mouth to our stomach and stomach to muscle. It goes through a process of digestion; there are multiple steps to this digestion, many of which occur in the liver which requires vitamins A and B6 to breakdown and utilize protein.

The reason this is important is that most young athletes are -like we discussed- eating a lot of junk devoid of quality vitamin sources. This is the part where athletes will often show me their protein container if they have one on hand and say, “see Dr. Bob, mine has vitamin A and bunch of B’s.” To which I often respond, “you’re wrong.” I wish I had, in all of these conversations found at least 1 protein with a good source of vitamin A, but I have not yet. The most common source on the market is “beta-carotene” which is actually a pigment in plants that gives it an orange color. It is technically a carotenoid which essentially equates to a pre-cursor for vitamin A which requires a long list of steps to become vitamin A.

Rather than go the route of expensive shakes which deplete your body of vitamins it needs to function; I suggest improving the diet overall so that the protein is coming from a good source. However, if you’re looking for a fantastic source of vitamin A, look to where it was discovered in the year 1913: high dose omega 3's/cod liver oil (a staple of your grandparents and great grandparents diet regimen). Boom, science.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably been wondering when I was going to mention this colorful drink, I mean it’s in the title right? The answer is now, but before we discuss it you need an abbreviated history of Gatorade.

The year was 1965 and a coach from the Florida Gators football team allowed the team of several doctors to research ways to improve the resilience of his players in the hot Florida summers. Of course, the skeptical coaching staff only allowed research to be performed on freshman athletes. The team, led by Dr. Robert Cade set out to find a recipe to replace the water, electrolytes and carbohydrates that were lost through exercise.

It’s difficult to find details on the original recipe developed at the University of Florida, but many claim that it was a combination of salt (sodium, potassium and phosphate), sugar, water, and lemon juice. Some sources suggest that the very first attempt did not even include lemon juice and that the researchers could barely stomach the drink. One of the main measures they used to determine the effectiveness of the drink was blood glucose, and this is the fatal flaw, but we’ll get there.

So, after they had what they believed was a worthy solution, it was supposedly tested using a scrimmage between the junior varsity and freshmen teams in a Florida practice. In this case, the freshmen team came back in the 3rd and 4th quarters to defeat the JV who had not consumed the yet unnamed beverage. That was all the evidence the coaching staff of the Gators needed to see; they immediately requested a full supply for the next game against the LSU Tigers.

The team won a game where they came from behind in the second half and a legend was born. After being defeated by the Gators in the Orange Bowl 2 years later, Coach Bobby Dodd stated that the team lost because “[they] didn’t have Gatorade. That made the difference.” That sealed the deal; Gatorade would end up in every locker room and on every field.1

There are a few interesting things to note about Gatorade’s history that make this apparent success more uncertain. First, no randomized controlled trials were every done to establish an efficacy of Gatorade on any certain factors. The only tests performed were when one team drank the solution and played against another, but what happened in the years surrounding Gatorade’s discovery? Florida went 7-3 in 1964 the year before Gatorade, 7-4 in 1965 the year they began using it, and 9-2 in 1966 when they would go on to win the Orange Bowl in January.

The interesting this is that the 1966 team was objectively better talent-wise than previous team as they were led by two top 10 NFL draft talents in QB Steve Spurrier and RB Larry Smith. The team would return to similar mediocre records by the 1967 season.

I’m not saying that Gatorade didn’t help, I’m just saying this doesn’t scream objective proof. The other sketchy aspect to Gatorade’s history is that originally, they wanted to name it “Gator-aid” which makes complete sense since they believed it aided the Florida Gators right? Guess what, they changed their minds because the FDA prohibited it unless they had legitimate research to show this “aid” that it provided to athletes. Rather than opt for higher quality research, they used a different name with the same sound. Again, doesn’t appear the most legitimate way of doing things.2

Fortunately, the University of Florida is pretty upfront about the history of the subject. On the unfortunate end, the sketchiness doesn’t end there. So far, we’ve seen that there’s little evidence for Gatorade benefiting us, but the real question I want to know is whether it’s harming us. So who owns Gatorade? Well first it was bought from the inventors by Stokely-Van Camp, Inc. (a food packaging company) who made it the official sports drink of the NFL. They also ran into some issues with the FDA when they tried to replace some of the sugar with an artificial sweetener called cyclamate which was cheap, but not proven to be safe.

Then, in ’83 Quaker Oats Company bought Stokely-Van Camp and grew the product more and more. Finally, when Gatorade was purchased by Pepsico in 2001 it had grown so large it was unstoppable. Now in all this time, Gatorade had plenty of time, and plenty of money to improve its product, it didn’t.

In fact, they tried multiple times to replace ingredients with cheaper substitutes like artificial sweeteners to replace the sugar, lowering the electrolyte content, even using high fructose corn syrup until there was public outcry. This certainly doesn’t lend credibility to the product. So I want to leave you with a few questions. Hasn’t research in the last five years shown that sugar consumption especially high concentrations is nearly as addictive as drug use? And doesn’t Pepsico have something to gain by having every aspect of the market from coach to couch potato addicted to sugar? And shouldn’t a product basically marketing itself as the largest sports nutritional leap in history be all over sharing awesome research about how effective it is? And wait, haven’t we all heard that frequent and prolonged blood sugar spikes lead to type II diabetes?

The answer to every single one of those questions is yes. And this isn’t the stuff Ali meant when he said champions are made of something more. Stick to the natural stuff.

Stay health my friends,

Dr. Bob Griesse, DC, CSCS

  1. Kays, Joe (2003)."Gatorade - The Idea that Launched an Industry". University of Florida Research.

    "Gatorade - The Idea that Launched an Industry"

  2. Shires, Dana. "Dana Leroy Shires, Jr.". University of Florida Digital Collection.