“We’ve all got the same gut, all have a stomach, liver, kidneys and a colon that need to be healthy,” David Smith says bluntly.
British boccia’s most decorated player, the five-time Paralympian and four-time World Champion may seem like the perfect man to ask about healthy eating.
As a nutrition coach with Herbalife, he knows his stuff today – but that hasn’t always been the case.
“I used to skip breakfast, have a cheese toasty for lunch and have God knows what for dinner,” he says. “It was awful. To be fair, I thought: ‘I’m an elite athlete, therefore everything I’m doing is perfect.”
Smith had something of an epiphany during lockdown, when he joined a nutrition-focused call. He had fallen out of love with sport somewhat and was going through a divorce, so lockdown provided a chance to slow down and reflect. He channelled that time into changing his diet; the effect was transformational.
“In lockdown I spent a couple of weeks doing literally nothing and then eventually decided to emerge. I went on a call with Herbalife, started listening to a [Royal] Marine, and what he said resonated in terms of fuelling the body and making changes to make a difference.
“I listened, and made some changes in lockdown. I came out of lockdown better in terms of fitness and health. When I started playing boccia again it felt easy.
“I used to skip breakfast, have a cheese toasty for lunch and have God knows what for dinner... I made some changes in lockdown. I came out of lockdown better in terms of fitness and health. When I started playing boccia again it felt easy.”
“I took my products to [the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics]. I didn’t bother going to the food hall for breakfast because it gave me an extra 20 minutes in bed, and meant when I got on the bus I was buzzing and ready to go while everybody else was falling asleep. I thought: ‘Right, I’m onto a winner here.’
“At the venue at lunchtime when everyone else was eating crap, I was there with my shake, knocking it back, feeling good, thinking: ‘I’m going to play you in two hours. Happy days.’ That was it, I felt great, and Tokyo was Tokyo.” David won gold in the Individual BC1.
“I was nominated to be a flag bearer for the closing ceremony, which was kind of weird given I was getting ready to jack in sport less than a year earlier. The whole turnaround was based on changing my mindset and doing a few things different with my nutrition.”
With an Aerospace Engineering degree, David compares a proper diet with using the best fuel in an aircraft: “In the Second World War, the RAF used special American 100-octane fuel, which gave the Merlin engine an extra 270 break horsepower, so the Hurricanes could get up to the bombers and shoot them down.
“Without that extra horsepower we’d have been at a serious disadvantage. It’s the same with your body, and as an athlete you want to put in the best fuel possible. If you’re not putting in the best fuel possible you’re probably not going to reach the bombers.”
While his metaphors may be militant, his advice to fellow athletes isn’t. David says proper nutrition is about balance and making sensible decisions – even at a fast food chain.
“You’re not trying to get rid of fat, carbs, not trying to get rid of stuff. What you’re trying to do is get a balance… most of our diets are nutritionally imbalanced or lacking in some areas.
“You can’t solve all problems but you can mitigate against the decisions you make. For example, the other day I was at the services coming back from Largs [in Scotland]. The only choice I had there was Burger King. But I knew the plant-based options are, while not perfect, a bit better for my gut and usually help with digestion and with filling you up. So I went down that route.
“Everybody has got to eat. Not everybody is going to be a boccia player and not everybody is going to be a Paralympian, but everybody has to eat… I can help inspire other people.”
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