Nutrition and sport: Silvio Reffo interviews Chiara Ferro, biologist-nutritionist

You have never seen Silvio Reffo in this role before, instead of him being our consultant, he has taken off his physiotherapist’s white coat and he is acting as interviewer. For a theme which is very interesting especially for climbers: nutrition.

“In the previous articles, we have talked about prevention, training and preparation. Nutrition in the climbing world is a very important topic and very important for many climbers. Here, below, an interesting interview with Doctor Chiara Ferro, who is a biologist-nutritionist.

We are what we eat? How is nutrition considered nowadays?

We have to make a distinction between nutrition and food: eating food is the simple act of introducing food into our body to give us energy, just like when we put petrol in our car, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of this action, that is if we eat food that is good or bad for us. To nourish oneself instead has a deeper meaning: we give our body nutrients, to help it keep well and help it work as it should, “to nourish” in fact, like a mother who breastfeeds her baby. Unfortunately, nowadays this distinction has been lost or it has become more extreme: we go from fast food to the extremists of healthy and “fit” food, where the only thing that is healthy is the food, because being this extreme with one’s eating habits brings to disorders. There are a multitude of false beliefs on food, miraculous foods and foods which are bad for you by just looking at them, foods which help you get better and others that make you sick. Unfortunately, we have reached this point because people look for quick and easy solutions to getting better, people think that the secret remedy is a special “super food” (wolfberries, turmeric, spirulina, coconut oil etc.), when the answer to get better, instead lies within us, and not outside. What I always recommend is to look for balance, simplicity and regularity: our body does not need many things, but they must be the correct things, there are no nutrition regimes which are universally better than others, the secret is to listen to our body and give it what it needs, nothing more, nothing less.

Carefully planning one’s training programme including rests are fundamental points for reaching excellent results for an athlete, what role does nutrition play for this part of the population?

That’s right, for athletes, training and recovery are at the base for achieving the best performances. In the same way, eating well helps and supports an athlete to reach his/her objective in various ways: on the one hand it is essential to load up one’s organism with the necessary energy needed for sporting activities, on the other hand muscular recovery after a competition or intense training, supporting the endurance to fatigue and stress both physical and mental is just as important.

Further more, correct nutrition is at the base to reach optimal body composition, in terms of muscle and fat mass, whatever sport is undertaken: cyclists should have a minimum percentage of body fat, a rugby player, depending on his role can afford to eat a little bit more. Nutrition for sportsmen and women varies from sport to sport, but also from seasons and from person to person, because it depends a lot on the starting point: everybody responds differently to the same amount of quantity of calories, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Therefore there is the need to make up tailor made individual plans, and modify them month by month because needs change as well as training conditions.

Food supplements, pros and cons, can they be useful in preventing injuries?

For sportsmen and women supplements are the icing on the cake, the last element that can help in improving performance and recovery. As the name says, supplements, “supply”, and they do not substitute a balanced nutrition, but they can give us the extra edge. There are many types of supplements in commerce, but you have to be careful because there are very few that work really well, all the others are produced thanks to great marketing behind them, which only helps us spend too much money.

Supplements therefore are absolutely positive if taken properly. Above all, we must not expect any miracles: it must be supported by the correct nutrition, otherwise it would be like making pneumonia better with hot tea. We have to understand what we need and be objective: if we read that a supplement burns fat, do we believe it? If losing weight were so easy why are some people over weight? Therefore before choosing a supplement you need to document yourself on the effective efficiency and usefulness, try to understand when and how to take it, in what dose and for how long. Supplements are not like doping, they do not cause damage, but the majority are only a waste of time and money. In terms of prevention for injuries, supplements can be very useful. The first supplement I recommend is….water! Speaking to my patients, I realise that people live on the limit of dehydration: 2 litres of water per day are the minimum amount which we should be drinking, quantity that should increase if you do physical activity and if the environmental temperature is over 15°C. Water is used to hydrate muscles and make them more elastic, avoiding therefore muscle tears and contractures. As well as water I recommend taking creatine to increase muscular hydration, vitamin C to strengthen cartilage and vitamin D for bone density.

Many inflammatory illnesses are connected to metabolic ailments such as diabetes etc. What role does nutrition have in chronic inflammatory pathologies? What evidence?

All metabolic pathologies (diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, blood clots etc) are characterised by a low level chronic inflammatory state. In the hours following a meal, there is a transitory increase of the inflammatory markers: such a response even if momentarily, is drastically increased in obese people, because for example the fat cells secrete pro-inflammatory substances which are then spread around the entire organism through blood circulation, and favour this low grade chronic inflammation, which is not  possible to detect with classic blood tests.

The diet, including the content and type of fat, can influence the inflammatory response both acutely and chronically, independently from the state of health and the body composition of a person. The diet and type of fat found in food which is introduced daily can represent factors that increase the development and progression of inflammatory diseases. Studies have shown with strong evidence that the substitution of saturated fats with unsaturated fats, both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, carbohydrates from wheat which is full of fibres and pulses are beneficial for one’s health, with an anti inflammatory effect. This effect is partly due to the presence of fibre, which has a beneficial effect on the lipid profile and therefore on the risk of having metabolic diseases. One can deduce that the most anti inflammatory diet is the Mediterranean one: wholegrain cereals, pulses, lean meat, fish in abundance to get omega 3 and vegetable fats, to the detriment of animal fats. I wish to point out that lately we have lost sight of the 2 key concepts of the Mediterranean diet: “moderation” of the amount of food eaten and “physical activity” which must be undertaken daily are the essential prerogatives to decrease the risk of metabolic illnesses brought on by an inflammatory state.

Nutrition & prevention what does research tell us?

Research tells us that prevention also comes from nutrition. Currently what is considered to be the best kind of nutrition is the one based on the true Mediterranean diet, therefore based on vegetable fat, whole grain foods, lean meat, fish, together with moderation and daily physical exercise. This though does not exclude that in a few years’ time this idea may change: science is continuously on the go, and therefore always open to change. In terms of specific foods it must be stated that just like supplements are not 100% reliable,  even a lot of scientific research isn’t trustworthy since they might be financed by multinational giants.

For example, after the war news came out on newspapers that smoking was actually good for you! Or that wine, especially red, can be good for you since it contains polyphenols: to get the required amount we would need to drink a quantity of wine that would give us an alcohol intoxication: is it worth it? Without being so extremist, we must not always believe everything we read.

A few scientific studies don’t have to be necessarily steered by multinational companies, but simply they are at their first phase and therefore the results are never definite, but the findings might be shocking and people might consider them to be real also thanks to all the media hype. Therefore it is best to be cautious instead of being too enthusiastic: there is no food for example that cures cancer, because if they had discovered curative food then this illness would have already been eradicated. To check the validity of any type of news I recommend to be informed for example by checking out the website of the health ministry, or else official websites of associations on various illnesses. Going back to the first point: there are no magic ailments, our body, above all, requires simplicity, balance, and regularity, magical potions (except in cartoons) do not exist!

Thanks ever so much to Doctor Ferro for being here with us, I wish everyone happy climbing and …bon apetit!


Silvio Reffo