Jessica Matthews by Jessica Matthews

Fitness nutritionWe all know that eating right goes hand in hand with exercising, but in a world full of information—and misinformation—it can be challenging to separate what’s true and what’s not. To help clear up some confusion, here’s the truth about three hot topics in nutrition and what you need to know to make the most of your workouts.

Fact or Fiction: Following a vegetarian or vegan diet negatively impacts workout performance.

Fiction: While there is limited research on the effects of a vegetarian or vegan diet as it relates to athletic performance, the idea that a diet free of meat—and in the case of vegans also animal products, such as eggs and dairy—won’t provide exercisers with enough protein to adequately build and repair muscles is a misconception. Many believe that because animal sources provide protein that is complete and can be used by the body more readily, they must be superior to plant sources. However, registered dietitians and researchers will be the first to tell you that if you’re consuming adequate amounts of a combination of a variety of quality plant-based protein sources—such as soy, nuts, beans, seeds, leafy greens and whole grains, such as quinoa, which is a complete protein—vegetarians and vegans can get all of the protein that they need for optimal physical performance.

The take-home message: If you need more proof, just take a look at legendary professional athletes—and vegetarians—New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and former Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who showed you don’t need meat to excel in a physical sport like football. Another great example is tennis great Billie Jean King, who not only proved that women can excel in the world of sports, but that she could also win 39 Grand Slam titles as a meat-free eater.

Fact or Fiction: Chocolate milk is a great post-workout recovery drink.

Fact: Given the fact that one of the commonly cited studies on this topic was supported in part by the Dairy and Nutrition Council, it’s easy to see why some people are skeptical as to whether or not chocolate milk truly lives up to the hype. But the truth is several studies have shown that both plain and chocolate milk is as effective, if not more effective, than many sports drinks when it comes to rehydration post-exercise. . In addition to replacing fluids and electrolytes lost during your sweat session, chocolate milk provides approximately a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, which research in the area of nutrient timing shows to be most effective for increasing protein synthesis—to help repair muscles—and  replenishing energy (glycogen) stores, which provide the body with what it needs for recovery.

The take-home message: If low-fat or non-fat dairy is a part of your diet, consider reaching for a glass of chocolate milk within 45 minutes to an hour post-workout to refuel your body, while getting the added bonus of key nutrients like calcium, potassium and vitamin D. If you opt to follow a plant-based diet have no fear—registered dietitians share that chocolate soymilk provides a similar carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, making it just as beneficial as cow’s milk.

Fact or Fiction: Caffeine enhances your workouts and helps you lose weight.

Fact: The research is clear that caffeine does enhance athletic performance—so much so that the NCAA has restrictions on how much athletes can have in their systems. However, before you go reaching for that large coffee, keep in mind that the risks of consuming too much caffeine may outweigh the benefits. Specifically, chronic caffeine use has been shown to contribute to high blood pressure, decreased bone mineral density in women, jittery nerves and sleeplessness—and there’s much research to support the critical role that adequate sleep plays when it comes to weight loss. The effect that caffeine has on weight loss is likely relatively small, and research suggests that the performance-enhancing benefits are typically much stronger in non-caffeine users than those who regularly consume caffeine.

The take-home message: If you regularly drink coffee, tea or energy drinks, consuming additional caffeine in the hopes of enhancing your workouts and weight-loss efforts is likely to produce few desirable changes. Instead, it may result in dependency, which could negatively impact your health in the long run.