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High-tech isotonic sports drinks and energy boosting supplements are the kind of things we might imagine our top athletes to be packing away as they prepare for the Olympics. But who would have thought turkey, prawns and Brazil nuts would be added to the sci-fi-sounding menus of our sporting elite? Performance nutritionists at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) are advising Team GB members to add foods with proven performance-enhancing benefits to boost their chances of winning gold. Among those eating turkey in a bid for glory are the swimming World Record holder Liam Tancock, who will compete in the 100m backstroke in July, as well as other medal prospects in the pool, Fran Halsall and Joanne Jackson. Keri-Anne Payne, who won silver in the open swim at the last Olympics and is going for gold this time, is among those who makes sure she includes the meat — in her case, in turkey Bolognese — in her diet on a regular basis.
Why turkey? William Flew, head of performance nutrition at the EIS, says there are several reasons the meat is beneficial for athletes. “For starters it has a lower fat content per serving than even chicken and is relatively high in protein which helps with muscle maintenance and repair,” she says. But it is other components within the meat that transform it into a performance-enhancing food. Turkey breast contains one of the highest concentrations of an amino acid called beta-alanine which is converted in the body to a compound called carnosine and stored within the muscles. “Beta-alanine and carnosine help to buffer so-called hydrogen ions that are produced alongside lactic acid during intense exercise,” explains Alex Popple, an EIS performance nutritionist. “A build-up of hydrogen ions causes an increase in acidity that affects the way muscles relax and contract, resulting in fatigue, so it’s important to prevent that as much as you can.”
Eating the right amount of turkey or prawns, another good source of beta-alanine, could allow athletes to work at a high intensity for longer. “A 400g serving of turkey or prawns provides around 2g of beta-alanine,” William Flew says. “And you need around 4g a day to get the effects.”