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"When it Comes to Performance Nutrition, Whole Foods are the Foundation:" A Q&A with Performance Nutrition Expert Cynthia Sass

Cynthia Sass (MPH, MA, RD, CSSD) is a private practice performance nutritionist and a former nutrition consultant for five major sports franchises for over 12 years. As a three-time New York Times best-selling author, Cynthia has written and shared her passion on television about the power of food to optimize health and wellness, prevent disease, and maximize the way you look and feel. UPGRAID's Andrew Fixell interviewed Cynthia about her experiences and insight into the world of performance nutrition.

UPGRAID: Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Cynthia Sass: Absolutely!

UPGRAID: For starters, would you mind first sharing a bit about yourself and your experience in the health and wellness field?

Cynthia Sass: So a little bit about my background. I'm a registered dietician nutritionist and board-certified in sports dietetics. I've consulted for five pro sports teams and I've counseled athletes in numerous sports one-on-one through my private practice in addition to recreational athletes and other high performance people including musicians and entertainers. 

My specialties include plant-based performance nutrition and nutrition for optimal wellness and longevity.

I have a bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in nutrition science and a second Master's degree in public health.   

UPGRAID: For people who are new to the terminology, what is the overarching definition of performance nutrition?

Cynthia Sass: So there's no one formal definition for performance nutrition but I personally define it as nutrition strategies designed to optimize energy, strength, endurance, mental performance and mood. Exercise recovery, anti-inflammation, hydration, immunity, digestive health, sleep, body composition, overall wellness and longevity. So it's really all-encompassing.  

UPGRAID: What are common misconceptions about performance nutrition?

Cynthia Sass: In my experience, the most common misconceptions about performance nutrition are that it revolves around a single aspect of nutrition. Like, just protein or just supplementation OR that it's simply just about fueling exercise. In reality, performance nutrition is very holistic and it intersects with a lot of other areas including mental health. 

UPGRAID: I've been told by trainers in the past, "Have a shake before working. Food is fuel." I've also been told, "Have an espresso.' (that the caffeine is a solid stimulant to get my energy up. Who's right?

Cynthia Sass: Well, focusing on fuel, pre-exercise or trying to get your caffeine fix before exercise are two different strategies that people use and both really can be right. I think it's really important to properly fuel up before a workout. A fruit smoothie, for example, can be a really great option. But, there's also been some very solid research to show that caffeine consumed pre-exercise can improve circulation and enhance endurance. The bottom line, though, in my opinion is it’s important to listen to your body to determine the best pre-workout protocol for your body’s needs. For example, some people are sensitive to caffeine and they might experience an upset stomach, or irritability, or anxiety after they consume an espresso. For other people, digestive upset can be triggered by certain foods like bananas that might be put into a smoothie, which can interfere with optimal performance. So, there’s really no one-size-fits-all. It’s very important to tune into your body’s responses.     

UPGRAID: For someone who is committed to getting into shape, what's the first piece of advice you would give them in terms of nutrition?

Cynthia Sass: My very first piece of advice when it comes to nutrition, specifically performance nutrition is always focused on whole, unprocessed, naturally nutrient rich plant foods as your foundation. For example, I always recommend about seven servings of produce a day. So, ideally five cups of veggies and two cups of fruit every single day. And that’s from the raw state, so before cooking, if the vegetables are cooked, for example. The benefits of getting that seven servings a day are so numerous, including improved performance and fitness outcomes, as well as enhanced metabolism and mood. 

UPGRAID: Can you exercise on an unhealthy diet? 

Cynthia Sass: You cannot exercise without a healthy diet. No way. In addition to providing the fuel to power exercise performance, the foods you eat supply the raw materials that maintain, heal, and repair tissues in our body, from muscles and joints to organs and immune cells. Nothing can take the place of those building blocks. In addition, foods have both immediate and cumulative effects on outcomes like inflammation, circulation, artery and brain function, and even aging. So, regardless of how hard you work out, you cannot take the place of good nutrition.      

UPGRAID: What role does genetics play in performance nutrition?

Cynthia Sass: We’re still learning about the role of genetics in performance nutrition. For example, some people have a genetic variant that that slows the breakdown of caffeine in the body. For these people, caffeine can negatively impact exercise performance, and even increase certain health risks, including high blood pressure and heart disease. So the research on this is emerging and we're gonna have to keep our eye on it for more information.  

UPGRAID: Are the rules for nutrition different for athletes than they are for a regular person who wants to be healthier?

Cynthia Sass: The general philosophies of professional athletes versus a regular person who wants to be healthy are really identical. The differences generally involve the amount of food needed. So, for example, a professional athlete may burn several thousand calories a day, so he or she may get a LOT more food than the average person. But the goals and benefits for a recreational athlete and a pro athlete are really identical. 

UPGRAID: What are some absolute "NOs" when it comes to performance nutrition?

Cynthia Sass: In my opinion, the two biggest No-No’s of performance nutrition are underfueling, and not prioritizing nutrition. Meaning maybe you’re getting enough calories, but you’re not getting enough nutrients. 

UPGRAID: Is it possible to get the protein you need from a vegan or vegetarian diet?

Cynthia Sass: It is entirely possible to meet all of your protein and nutrient needs from a plant-based diet. However, you do need to be aware of what plant foods provide protein, you need to eat an adequate amount of plant foods in order to obtain a broad range of amino acids, and you need to eat enough total calories in order to use the protein you eat for maintenance, healing, and repair protein tissues in the body, in using that protein to be used as fuel. So, it's definitely possible, you just need to have some help and know how to do it correctly.

UPGRAID: What's the worse advice you've ever been told or a former client was given before they came to you?

Cynthia Sass: The worst advice I've ever heard when it comes to performance nutrition is to cut out all carbs. In addition to providing fuel for your brain, muscles, and other active cells, whole food carbohydrates like, say, fruit and potatoes, whole grains provide fiber, prebiotics which feed the good beneficial bacteria in our gut and antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive compounds that enhance health in numerous ways. So, you definitely cannot be as healthy when it comes to performance nutrition without eating an adequate amount of carbohydrates. 

UPGRAID: I'm sure people have come to you to talk about some advice that they received regarding performance nutrition. Does anything stand out in your own experience?

Cynthia Sass: I could probably think of a lot of examples of things that clients told me that they were told by other people that really aren't quite accurate or maybe even harmful. I think one is that it just simply is calories in, calories out. You can eat whatever you want, as long as you eat enough calories. And we definitely know that that's not true because nutrition is a lot more than just calories. Nutrition is nutrients. It's vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber. So many of these bioactive compounds that help reduce inflammation and improve, you know, brain function, even enhanced immunity and mood. So, the bigger picture of nutrition is very important, especially for performance-focused nutrition.      

UPGRAID: What have you been most proud of in your career?

Cynthia Sass: Hands down the greatest reward of my career, and what I've been most proud of have been being a part of helping an individual improve his or her health, and enhance their quality of life in really meaningful ways. I really truly believe that health is priceless. So to be part of that for someone has been incredibly rewarding.    

UPGRAID: What inspired you to get into this field?

Cynthia Sass: My biggest influence for getting into this field was a professor I had at Syracuse University. Her name was Dr. Sarah Short. I was her teaching assistant for a couple of years in graduate school and she was a real pioneer in both sports nutrition and nutrition communications. So she really inspired me to follow in her footsteps.

UPGRAID: Let's say I need help improving my nutrition and I go to you. What is it like to work with a performance nutritionist one-on-one?

Cynthia Sass: When I work with a client one-on-one as a performance nutritionist, it's very individualized and hands on. I often meet with the individual, sometimes at his or her home, but I also work with clients long distance. And the first time we talk or meet, we really delve into their medical, their nutrition history, training program, and identify some  goals. Then, I develop a tailored plan, and have ongoing communication with the client which could be weekly or even daily, usually for at least 30 days to answer any questions that they have, adjust the plan if needed, and track progress and results with them and make sure that they're well and getting everything that they need. Now for the clients that I have worked with in the past in person, I might meet them at their local grocery store or farmer’s market so that we can source the best foods and ingredients together. And I typically have regular communication with the client’s trainer or physical therapist, their physician, chef, or other performance professionals, depending on their situation and goals. So, it's really all-encompassing.     

UPGRAID: What is the difference between a dietitian and nutritionist? 

Cynthia Sass: The difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist lies in the depth, scope, length, and type of formal education and training. For example, the term nutritionist isn’t regulated, so technically, anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist is not regulated. Even with no formal training, license, or certification, you can call yourself a nutritionist. On the other hand, dietitians, specifically registered dietitian, noted by RD after one’s name, or RDN for registered dietitian nutritionist (both are used by dietitians), has a very specific meaning. So that title requires 1) a minimum of a four year college degree from an accredited university that provides specific course work in human physiology, nutrition science, and other sciences, although they've recently increased the minimum education requirement to a Master’s degree starting in 2024. They also have to complete a 1,200 hour supervised hands-on internship, then pass a comprehensive standardized examination, complete ongoing continuing education, and RDs or RDNs are also held to a professional code of ethics. So, two very different things when it comes to a title.

Personally, I like the term ‘nutritionist’ so I identify myself as both a nutritionist and a registered dietician. I also have a board certification in sports dietetics and that requires the RD/RDN credential first, in addition to advanced experience specifically in performance nutrition, and then passing another board examination, which has to be retaken every five years. I think it's really important to look at the credentials of someone that you're getting nutrition information from and really understand the potential differences and the depth of education that is required for those credentials. 

UPGRAID: Thanks so much for chatting with us.

Cynthia Sass: Absolutely! Great to chat with you as well.

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