Eating healthy for better performance
“Divers, just like anyone else enjoying sport events or outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking or climbing, need to be careful about eating the right foods,” explains Bev Leslie-Suddaby. Bev is a registered dietician who, when not managing food and nutrition services for several hospitals, is an avid runner and kayaker.
She explains that to get the most out of their bodies, divers need to fuel up on snacks that carry a long-term release of energy rather than the quick rush that junk snacks like candy bars and chips and dips deliver.
“Everyone’s heard the mantra,” she quips. “We should eat a balanced diet with full grains, fruits and veggies, protein – meat and meat alternatives like beans and lentils – diary, including soy milk, and the right kind of fats, which of course means unsaturated fats from lean meats, fish and vegetable oils.”
A good policy before diving – or any outdoor sports activity – is to “travel” on a light stomach. Be careful not the dive on a full stomach but also not to begin a dive feeling hungry, Bev cautions. “A simple guideline to follow is to leave at least three to four hours between a full meals and your activity. A smaller meal is OK two to three hours before and snacks one to two hours before is usually good.” But she points out, times and what constitutes a full meal or a light snack will vary somewhat from person to person.
“There are examples in the literature defining what constitutes each type of meal, but once again it depends so much on the individual’s tolerance and habits. People can come up with their own working guideline, the key is don’t start diving feeling bloated or full, and don’t jump into the water thinking how hungry you feel.”
Another key message for divers is to plan pre-dive meals and snacks by staying with well-known and well-tolerated food choices. “Everyone responds a little differently to various foods and it would be a mistake to try something exotic and brand new just before a dive. Eating something unfamiliar because you’ve read someplace that it works for someone else could unset you and your dive plans!”
Long dives and days with multiple dives do require some thought with regards nutrition. Don’t leave home for a day of diving with no plan, no food and a view to grab a bag of corn ships in a variety store on route. “That is NOT the path to a successful day of diving,” Bev hints.
“A diver should be cautious to snack lightly after every dive, especially ones that net him or her more than forty minutes in the water. Dives longer than an hour, really do require some topping up of resources otherwise there could be serious issues with regard ability to work and concentrate.”
So what snacks are the best? The good old standby and something Bev admits she enjoys when on the water is a wholegrain bagel with crunchy peanut butter. Other good and tasty treats include fruit yogurt, pita bread and humus, tuna salad (be careful to keep in a chilled cooler!) and fresh fruit. Fruit smoothies made with soy beverages and a sprinkle of nuts and wheat germ make a great between dive snack, Bev says.
“Home-made are best but, many of the store-bought smoothie products are great too, but be watchful of the quantities of added sugar and sweeteners.” Too much sugar, Bev warns, can result in a very edgy and very tired diver an hour or so after eating.
She also advices a good sandwich at midday. “Don’t scrimp on the serving either,” she says. Diving burns off a lot of calories, and divers get hungry. “Whole grain breads or buns with lean meats, such as boned, skinned chicken breast, livened up with sprouts and greens are among the best and simplest thing to prepare the morning of or even the night before going diving,” she says. “If you like spicy, use mustard or horseradish instead of margarine and if you do add cheese, keep it low fat.”
As a consultant dietician on several technical dive expeditions, Bev is also familiar with the special needs of divers doing multiple dives in a day. “Hydration is key and of course the best solution for that is to get your body well watered several days before you start diving. Then on dive day, the guideline I’d suggest to divers is to drink about one litre (a quart) of clear water for every hour spent in the water.”
What does she think of sports drinks? “In moderation, great for refreshing the taste buds immediately post dive,” she says.
Sports drinks do contain sugars and electrolytes which can be necessary if suiting up for the dive and sun and heat during the surface interval results in sweating. But most important she explains, to replace liquids and give the body some help to stay hydrated.
“Dehydration affects performance and concentration in all athletes and divers are no exception. Muscle cramps are often triggered by dehydration, but of course divers need to be cautious on this front because of the links between decompression sickness and lack of suitable fluids.”
As for coffee and tea… well, Bev has read the literature and says that there are studies now that seem to contradict some of the old adages about coffee being a bad thing. “I’m not saying coffee or tea replaces good clean water, but the rule should be that if you start your day with a couple of cups of coffee, don’t change that habit.” She smiles. “I need a little caffeine in the morning before my run and I certainly know many divers who love coffee and are going to drink it anyway!” Moderation is the key and don’t substitute it for water she concludes.