Ryan Fernando is a hard core professional when it comes to sports nutrition in the country. He has made athletes realise that it is the food that they take could be the magical potion of turning them into champions. His long list of champion clients like Sushil Kumar, Shikhar Dhawan, Robin Uthappa, Anirbhan Lahiri, Johshna Chinappa etc is a testimony that sports nutrition is indeed a serious business.
He is the founder of Qua Nutrition which is a chain of signature nutrition clinics across the country. I caught up with him for an interview that opened my eyes that sports nutrition is the game changer and could make or break a champion.
ME: Thanks for your time Ryan. To start of with, I guess sports nutrition is a very complex subject since you have so many different athletes with different body types playing different sports. So how do you address that?
Ryan Fernando: Whenever I meet any athlete the first question I ask him is that are you eating for your Bio-Individuality? Each individual is so unique in the body type. In fact in a family itself, there is a variation in the body types. Thus I say that one food will benefit one family member while another food will benefit another family member. There has to be journey of self discovery either personally or through an expert called a nutritionist. How the nutritionist identifies is through a series of relevant tests like blood test, genetic test and physical assessment test in terms of muscle fat percentage, height weight parameters etc. After these initial tests we then evaluate what is the calorie expenditure of the athlete. It gives us the information as to how much does the athlete need in terms of the break down of carbs, proteins and fats.
ME: However different athletes have different eating habits depending on the cultural background? How do you address it?
Ryan Fernando: Yes, up till now what might have been happening with the young athletes is that they take food like dal, rice and sabji that revolved around the love and affection of the mother and the traditional and cultural background. The moment science is added to it, it becomes sports nutrition. Serious players will want to do sports nutrition because like the way they would want to use the best equipment which is extremely accurate and effective then they would also want best the diet inside the body that would be the defining outcome into making them champions.
Having said so, things have changed quite a bit in India. Players have realised that if you put a general focus on their diet then they will get general outcome. If they put specific focus on their diet then they will get specific results. This is also because of the awareness created by the internet and the right kind of healthy marketing that is done by companies themselves.
ME: We spoke about diet about different body types. How different is the nutrition for the female athletes from the male athletes?
Ryan Fernando: Yes there is a big difference. One thing that straightaway that can be factored is in terms of the difference in size of both the genders, while men can have greater height and weight so they will have more calorie expenditure. But in addition to the greater physical prowess of the men in terms of the muscle and height distribution and other things, we also have biochemistry coming into play. For example, a simple parameter is that women undergo menstrual cycles that affect the body in which they lose blood during their cycles and hence hemoglobin, iron levels and even the RBC volume go down.
Another perspective is the level of puberty that both girls and boys reach. A boy attains puberty around 14 years while girls can attain puberty around 10 years. Thus it is paramount that a girl who will attain faster growth till 10 years should be given the right scientific nutrition by parents
Nutrition for female athletes has to be different from their male counterparts
It is common to find parents saying that the older sibling who is a boy should be given more importance in terms of the diet than the girl as she is still young. If at all that is the logic, then the girl should be given more importance in terms of her nutrition as she has only a few years left for her to attain puberty.
As the female athlete grows, her monthly cycle still continues and her hemoglobin levels dips and she tires out faster due to lower oxygen carrying capacity. Thus a diet added with dates, figs and spirulina is advantageous.
ONLY ORGANIC MILK
“For all female athletes I recommend that milk be avoided. Instead, curd or alternatives like almond or soya milk can be used if you are looking for additional protein. Cows are injected with hormones to increase milk production and it can play havoc with the female reproductive hormones”
The third perspective is that the rigours of the physicality of the men and women game is often different. For example, in tennis the men play the 5 setters and the women matches are capped to three sets. Thus the volume metrics in terms of training, matches and thus the eating dependent on it is different for women.
ME: This clearly shows that we are not taking the diet of our budding players seriously and maybe this could be one of the reasons that kids find it tough once they go to the senior circuit.
Ryan Fernando: Absolutely! The diet that the kids are fed are not scientific. Till 16 years, a kid has the growth hormone working for him and enough of repair hormone
Both growth and immunity is affected because the nutrition is not properly fed. This is why we win medals in the junior category and do not do so in the senior category. This is because when you are young the body somehow adapts but between 18 to 25 years there are so many injuries and other fitness issues that the player cannot take it.
Another point is that a vegetarian diet 50 percent of Indians have make it all the more difficult for us to go through the rigours of professional circuit. Since the Europeans by default have a lot of carbs and proteins because of their continental diet, we have to be all the more scientific in our approach.
ME: That is another important point that you have touched upon. How do you tackle a situation when the players are vegetarian or has just converted to a new non vegetarian regime?
Ryan Fernando: Yes we have often a situation when a young player has just started taking a non-vegetarian meal at the age of 14 years. In such a scenario I definitely cannot compensate for the 7 cms of growth that he might have missed in his earlier years. But what I can do is refocus on his new diet and make him a stronger athlete.
When one turns to non-veg there is sudden spurt in protein in the diet. A recent survey shows that 80% of the Indian diet lacks protein. Most vegetarians believe that there is enough of protein in their diet but this is actually not the case. If one is an exceptional power house like a Sushil Kumar who has a vegetarian diet then it is a different case.
Ryan Fernando with his top client,Sushil Kumar who is a vegetarian. Vegetarian diet lacks proteins and it is okay only if one is a natural powerhouse like Sushil Kumar.
Another huge problem that vegetarian players face is when they go abroad where there in non availability of good vegetarian food. Only high end tournaments offer good vegetarian options otherwise players find it extremely difficult to adjust and thus hamper their performance and career in the long run
Sooner the better as we cannot have a situation where the coaches are over training the kids but the parents are under feeding them.
ME: Taking the discussion a step ahead we also have times when a world class player like a Novak Djokovic found out that the gluten free diet was the need of the hour which transformed him miraculously into a demon of an athlete. Now that off course happened at a very higher level but how do you manage to do it with a player who is still trying to get into the professional circuit. I mean are there any diagnostic measurement that you actually find out such cases with a player being sensitive to particular sets of food?
Ryan: Let me categorically put it that gluten which in Latin means glue is the messenger of death leading to at times early end to a player`s career. Gluten is mostly found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. Like you rightly mentioned that Novak Djokovic became the champion that we all know him to be because he stopped eating gluten.
Now talking about finding out if a player is sensitive to certain types of food, we as sports nutritionists can do it several ways. Food can be an enhancer or can be a trigger. When we eat, we eat out of culture. We can do via certain DNA test, genetic test and blood test. We can also do it via symptoms which however at times might not be totally accurate. It can be done as early as 6 months of age. In fact, my son was the earliest sports and nutrition gene tested in the country when he was born.
There are different genes like injury gene,power gene, endurance gene, recovery gene, sports gene that figures out the person`s natural ability or inability for different aspects. There is even a gene that figures out a person`s motivation to exercise. Likewise there is a nutrition gene which includes things like gluten. The gluten in many people does not allow absorption of food because it damages the intestinal villi.
With gene based gluten intolerance test, one can easily find out the risk factors that could otherwise severely hamper the career of an athlete. After having the gluten test, I have recommended players like Shikhar Dhawan, Shubhankar Sharma and Trishul Chinappa to go gluten-free as they were found to be gluten intolerant. However, not everyone is gluten intolerant so eating chapattis and bread is fine but to have the knowledge of it is important or it might go the other way round.
What if Djokovic would have discovered it when he was 10 years old?
“All athletes believe that food is an escape for the hard work that they do”
So when Ryan Fernando as a sports nutrition tell them they cannot do cakes, pastries, biscuits or rosgollas as their body is not tolerant to these food then they think that they are given a prison sentence. So what we need to ask the young player is if the desire to be a Novak Djokovic is more than satisfying their taste buds.
ME: We have so many different sports so do you have different diet plans for players from different sports?
Ryan Fernando: Yes it varies quite a bit. In fact it varies even within the same sport. For example, Robin Uthappa as a wicket keeper who used to crouch the whole day had stiff calf and thigh muscles. So I realised that he will need more magnesium level in his body. When we did a gene test on him, we found out that he anyways was low on magnesium level. Thus we had to accordingly plan a diet for him. Also there are other permutations and combinations that come into play. For example when he is playing a 5 day first class cricket the loss of magnesium will be more than a twenty over match. Thus when I am doing his monthly blood test, I have to take all these different factors in mind so that I do not miscalculate the level.
Likewise, when it comes to Shikhar Dhawan who has to bat for a long period of time it becomes a different form of nutrition. When it came to bowlers like Laxmipathi Balaji and Sreesanth who had to bowl explosive overs, the diet was different as chances of ligament and tendon tear were at risk as they were also vegetarians at times.
Now when it comes to different sports the calorie burn out is different. The calorie burn out in a 90 minute football match is totally different then a cricket match. Thus we have to look into all these parameters to give customised nutrition plans to different players at different levels.
ME: How do you also assess the player`s development in terms of the nutrition plan?
Ryan Fernando: A good question. With elite clients like Adil Kalyanpur we have the food diary where he reports back with pictures of his food and other things. With the not so elite players we do weekly follow up call. The third is the monthly face to face meeting and they give us feedback.
Muscle percentage, fat percentage, muscle dimension, growth and height parameters are a few base points we take into account.
Also when a client is not following the plans then there are two ways to deal with it; one is when we directly confront the client as to why is he not following the plan and the other is a democratic way when we involve all the parties including the parents and try to address the problem.
ME: How different is to handle a player like an Olympic winner like Sushil Kumar compared from someone who has just started his professional journey?
Ryan Fernando: Everything boils down to the desire to succeed. However, less experienced nutritionists can get away with less experienced players but less experienced nutritionists cannot get away with experienced players. This is simply because the nutritionist has to understand the rigors and dynamics of a professional in his field of sport.
ME: Now a lot of us think that it is not in the Indian gene to play sports like football, tennis and athletics? Do you believe in this?
Ryan Fernando: I highly disagree. Now we have a population 1.6 billion population but we have the wrong people playing the sport. For example we have a lot of players who ultimately want a good government job and a future life. In highly evolved economies you have players who enter sports because they are passionate about it and they are backed by the state driven resources and infrastructure. Thus only the right people enter sports to represent the country who come from this pool of talent.
Also it is not that certain countries have better genes but it is just that we have been cheated with performance enhanced doping as well. If you watch a documentary, Icarus on Netflix you will come to know as to what level of doping is taking place in a country like Russia. It is about state sponsored doping in Russia.
Doping is either privately funded in countries like the US while it is state funded in countries like Russia. It is a mandate of bringing about super human athletes via these means. China has gone ahead with gene doping.
“Other countries are not genetically superior but they have been cheating us”
So my point is that the gap between such countries and India has widened because of this. On one hand countries US, Russia, China etc have gone ahead with scientific doping and India is lagging behind even with even the basic scientific nutrition.
ME: What is you take on food supplements?
Ryan Fernando: My first take on supplements is that it will harm the body if it is taken as a fashion statement. I always say that supplements if taken are to be taken under expert guidance.
Today you will find a lot of products in the market which are marketed with wrong facts, claims and literature. For example, liquid serum ceratine is not the superlative version of ceratine monohydrate.
Also the athletes have to be careful if the supplements fall under the WADA guidelines. Also one supplement does not fit all.
ME: What I can also understand from the discussion so far is that gene testing is something unique that you offer in your clinic. Is this the future in a way?
Ryan Fernando: I have brought this into my realm so that I have a tool in my hand to prepare athletes with better nutrition and other related things pertaining to the performance of the athletes.
Gene Testing Is Going To Be The Future – For Better Pool Of Athletes
I started this some 8 years ago with a gene called ACT3N that is responsible for power and endurance in an athlete. With this I can give athletes customised diet. Likewise there are so many genes that can tell so many hidden stories of an athlete.
I can tell you that going forward this will define the way sports is managed by sporting bodies and government also. Government will mandate the way athletes are sponsored. As an example if an athlete has an injury gene that is genetic and he is bound to be injured in year to come then the government will out rightly reject such athletes. I mean why should the government sponsor an athlete which it knows will not be able to show his full potential.
On a positive side, it will help everyone make the right choices and India can benefit with the best gene pool of athletes who will represent the country.
ME: That has been some really good insights from you and I am sure you will keep on providing our athletes with the best possible nutrition and help them bring more laurels for the country. Thank you so much for your time.
Ryan Fernando: Thank you and it was also great meeting someone who cares for Indian sports.