Nutritionism vs. Superstition: Seeking the Competitive Edge

Take your fitness to the next level with select nutrients and individualized mental strategies.


By Erica Green


No matter our fitness level, we seek angles for a competitive edge over our perceived opponent. We want tips to train a little longer, feel a little stronger, and obtain greater mental toughness to achieve our best performance. To gain this advantage, there are undoubtedly many ways to get there. Sure, you can spend a fortune on the latest technological advancements in performance enhancers, but first, it begins with fuel and our basic beliefs. However, which gives us the greater edge? The food we eat or the rituals we instill?

When I was competing in track & field some years ago, I would always remember the words of my brother, a competitive bodybuilder, "Eat to win!" The idea was to be selective in the foods we consume because it could mean the difference between first and second place. I had many coaches who supported this belief by suggesting carbo loading the night before a meet. Later, as an épée fencer, the trend continued.

I always made sure I had sports drinks high in electrolytes on hand to rehydrate between lengthy bouts. I did not know it then, but there is actually a word for this training ideology. Some would call it nutritionism.

Michael Pollan, journalist and nutrition guru, defines nutritionism in the New York Times as “the belief that the purpose of food is to promote bodily health.” Eating for enjoyment or ritualistic purposes (i.e. birthdays) is sidelined for performance pursuits of better health and longevity. Pollan also suggests an air of faith for science has never seen a nutrient, yet some foods are believed to be packed with such. Vitamins and minerals can be proven, but not a nutrient. At least, not yet.

What is a nutrient you ask? Well, the  British Nutrition Foundation defines nutrients as foods that offer energy or facilitates body functions. So perhaps it is like the octane number with automobile gasoline. Does octane make a difference in performance? Does a potassium filled banana make much of difference in a cool-down? If you ask a top performing athlete, they would most likely respond with “yes.”

The National Institutes of Health listed the following to be quickly depleted in athletes: calories, carbohydrates, fluids, vitamins, minerals, and proteins. They also note there is not much variation in how the athlete burns these compared to the average healthy person.

The particular sport and the duration of the activity determines the nutritional needs. So for example, épée fencing practice might require more endurance and different nutrients than perhaps the long jump. It may take some research or a meeting with a nutritionist to discover what nutrients to utilize when, but may be well worth the time.

Then there are pre-performance rituals or what others may call little superstitions about performance. Can these rituals actually offer an edge over a bowl of pasta? Some choose to clean their lucky shoes the night before a game or leave the mud from their last conquest. Some have visualization exercises, specific stretches, music, and so on. Men's Fitness identified some of the superstitions of our best athletes. Whether it was the Great Bambino's silk stockings worn off the field, Michael Jordan's University of North Carolina shorts worn under his Bulls uniform or NHL playoff beards, the magazine argues these athletes win and win often in their careers. They believe their behavior is a factor in their success, they win so they repeat that behavior -positive reinforcement.

This is not a scientific study by far. However, we might infer that maybe one method is not overtly superior over another. If we think about it, each (nutritionism and superstition) enhances a different aspect of the athlete: body versus the mind. Perhaps combining them will offer the peak performance angle that fitness-minded individuals seek. A compilation of select nutrients and individualized mental strategies can raise our athletic prowess a step beyond the raw physical talent to the medal platform.

Be tenacious!

Erica is a psychotherapist and humanitarian aid coordinator who has a background in health psychology, global health, and addictions. She has over 16 years of counseling, teaching, and coaching experience. Erica has several masters degrees, is a licensed counselor, and has an addiction certification. She has worked with all ages in the US and abroad. Follow Erica on Twitter. Se habla español.

Main Photo Credit: Stock-Asso/; Second Photo Credit: oneinchpunch/; Third Photo Credit: Gabi Moisa/