Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarian Udit Raj has triggered an intriguing debate, whether beef, or lack of it, in the diet of the Indian athletes, is to be blamed for the poor showing at the Rio Olympics.
Raj tweeted on Monday: “(sic) usain bolt of jamaica was poor and trainer advised him to eat beef both the times and he scored 9 gold medals in Olympic.” He later clarified that his comment was not an endorsement for beef eating. “It’s 200% wrong to interpret my comment as an endorsement of beef eating,” he told HT.
However, the Twitter statement triggered a troll outburst on social media. Diet is an important part of an athlete’s training. But not all Indian athletes are non-vegetarian so the question HT asked experts was whether a vegetarian diet put our athlete at a disadvantage.
“I don’t want to get into the controversy of beef due to cultural and religious issues,” says sports medicine specialist, Dr. Ashok Ahuja, former head of the department of medicine at Sports Authority of India centre in Patiala. “Red meat alone can’t make every sprinter run like Bolt. By the way, red meat also means lamb, horse and even camel meat, not just beef.
“Ultimately it’s the training that proves the difference. And looking at Bolt, you can fathom his kinetic advantage in terms of height-weight ratio (Bolt is 1.95 meters tall and weighs 94kg ). His stride length is 2.44 metres and completes the 100m with 41-42 strides.”
When we compare that to the top Indian sprinters, the disadvantage is glaring. Besides, Bolt also has a genetic advantage too.
“Scientists have looked into the genetics of Jamaican sprinters trying to understand their dominance,” adds Ahuja. “The first gene associated with powerful sprinting is the angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE, gene. If you have a particular variant of this gene (known as the “D allele”) you are likely to have a larger than average heart capable of pumping highly oxygenated blood to muscles quicker than the average human.
“That also gives your body a better response to training. In people of West African origin, the frequency of the variant is slightly higher than in those of European and Japanese origin. In Jamaica, it’s a little higher than in West Africa,” explains Ahuja. “This small effect may be amplified by the ACTN3 gene.
This encodes instructions to create a protein called alpha-actinin-3, which helps muscles generate strong, repetitive contractions. Like the ACE gene, it comes in different types. The desirable variant for a sprinter is known as 577RR. While only 70% of US international-standard athletes have the desirable variant, 75% of Jamaicans have it whether they are athletes or not. That gives Jamaica another edge.”
The Indian diet
Top Indian athletes and coaches believe healthy diet is must for recovery, and is one of the components of good system for development.
Dietary habits have a deep association with the cultural and societal norms prevalent in a country, but individual preference matters most.
“No doubt red meat has high protein and iron content, but there are other sources of protein and iron to supplement the diet. It all depends on the individual,” says Ahuja, adding these days the market is flooded with food supplements. “So there is always option of having essential nutrients through supplements in case natural food doesn’t provide.”
Indian wrestlers are mostly vegetarian and used to vouch by a diet comprising mostly of dairy products and sources of proteins such as lentils and pulses. But of late, things have changed though our champion wrestlers such as double Olympic medalist, Sushil Kumar, still prefers a vegetarian diet.
International grappler Amit Dhankar has made some changes in his eating habits, following his trips abroad. “Generally when we travel for competitions it becomes a challenging task to stick to Indian food,” says Dhankar. “So, I have made some changes in my diet and have included fish and chicken which is easily available within India as well other places where we travel for competition.”
While former International judo player and coach, Yashpal Solanki, says he too had to change his eating habits during his competitive days.
Solanki, who was finished fourth in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, said he included chicken in his diet, a rich source of lean protein. “I have changed to vegetarian again as I am into coaching now and don’t need high level of protein,” he adds.
Satyapal Singh, a Dronacharya Award winner for coaching para-athletes, said he doesn’t prescribe any particular diet, but advices his athletes to follow good habits. “Basically the food should be of good quality. The athletes shouldn’t be forced to eat something which they don’t like,” he says.