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Nutrition and Metabolism
Date: 13 Feb, 2006
Contact: Dr Ben Miller

A big challenge to scientists is making science comprehensible to the general public.  The reason for this is that just like any profession there are technical terms, jargon, and concepts that we have spent many years working with and we forget that they are not always simple without the appropriate background.  The difficulty in translating scientific research to lay language can be dealt with in two main ways and each has its own problems in regards to what ultimately reaches the target audience, which in this case is the athlete. 

 

Approach 1: Explain the science as it was actually designed with all of its complexities and limitations.   This approach is the only way to relay the real information and what can be concluded from it.  However, the downfall of this technique is that the athlete often gets nothing from it because they are lost in the technicalities. 

 

Approach 2:  Simplify the research and generalize difficult concepts.  The advantage of this technique is that the athlete understands the information provided and benefits from it.  The disadvantage is that often in an attempt to simplify and generalize, the science is stretched to say more than it really does. 

 

In my opinion, approach 2 has been very damaging to the knowledge base of cyclists.  There is a saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Therefore, what often passes as "science" is what someone read in a magazine, because if you read it in a magazine, it must be true.  In reality what is in the magazine is usually someone's poor interpretation of the real science itself.  This problem is amplified when the authors throw a couple of fancy letters after their names, which then of course makes them an expert.  But, as I often tell people, you don't go to a proctologist for brain surgery unless your head is up you're a***.  In other words, a proctologist and a neurologist are both doctors but they do not have the specialized knowledge to do what the other does.  Similarly, just because someone has letters after their name does not mean they are qualified to interpret physiological science.  The end result is that myths and pseudoscience get propagated through the peloton and athletes eat it up in an attempt to get better, because how are they supposed to know otherwise. 

 

It was recently that I was riding with a group and heard for somewhere around the 3 millionth time that a person was over their anaerobic threshold and I finally cracked (about 25 years ago it was demonstrated that the anaerobic threshold concept is physiologically meaningless). At around the same time I was approached to write a column for CyclingNZ and for once I said yes.  This is a significant departure from my usual strategy of firing off emails to other column writers kindly telling them they are butchering the science.  The truth is though, for reasons I explained above it is very difficult to write a meaningful column while still being true to the science.  Some people are very good at it and I envy that skill.  So, I guess I decided that just criticising others was the easy way out and perhaps I should put myself on the line to try to emulate those who do a good job.  Therefore, here begins my attempt to make science comprehensible to the non-scientist cyclist. 

 

My approach will mostly focus on taking different research articles or even lay publications and explaining, "what does it really mean".  I thought it best to keep within my comfort zone, which happens to be nutrition and metabolism.  But, since I told you not to believe someone just because they have fancy letters after their name, you can choose what you decide to take on board…scepticism is encouraged since in reality all the column really is an opinion piece.   

 

Since I have spent most of this first column explaining myself, I have only a little bit of space to give you some meaningful information.  However, I think some information is good to understand subsequent columns.  Therefore, I will provide a little background into what exactly nutrition and metabolism are.  

 

Metabolism is a very general term and is usually defined as the sum of the chemical processes that take place in the body.  In plain English, these are the ways by which your body performs work and the way it adapts to imposed stress.  Critical to these processes are the building blocks that we provide the body to work with, which of course is nutrition.  Therefore, nutrition and metabolism go hand in hand because nutrition provides the units from which metabolic processes provide usable energy and body structures.

 

Finally, it is necessary to describe Newton's First Law of Thermodynamics since it is critical to the understanding of nutrition and metabolism.  The First Law of Thermodynamics states that in any process the total energy in the Universe remains constant, or more commonly, energy is neither created nor destroyed, but is simply transferred from one species to another.  For our discussions food contains energy in the form of carbohydrates, fat, and protein (the macronutrients).  The energy from these nutrients is then used to fuel the metabolic processes in our body that result in muscles propelling a bicycle forward.  Calorie is the common unit for the amount of energy we take in from food, and kilojoule (kJ) is the common unit for the amount of work produced.  The greater the amount of work a cyclist can perform and sustain, the greater chance they have of winning.  Obviously, what the cyclist eats has a lot to do with how much work they can perform.  A lot of special diets, supplements, training programs and voodoo try to circumvent the First Law of Thermodynamics by guaranteeing more for less, but inevitably fail. Hopefully over the course of this column we will try to explore where these concepts work and where they fail in an understandable but scientifically correct way.

 

Ben Miller is Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland.  Ben did a PhD at the University of California – Berkeley and a Post-Doc at the Institute for Sports Medicine, Copenhagen before arriving in Auckland.  As a departure from his life in a closed scientific box safe from the realities of the world, he is a cyclist regularly taking his life in his own hands on the streets of Auckland and in the local club racing and criteriums.  Ben's wife is much more successful at cycling having competed full-time in Europe and the US for the last 4 years.  

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