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How To Eat Like A Jiu-Jitsu Fighter

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Advice from a nutrition expert, Professor Lucas Valente

Professor Lucas Valente is a Texas-based Gracie Barra instructor and active competitor with a long competitive history at the elite level. What makes Professor Lucas unique is that he is also educated as a Sports Nutritionist with a focus on metabolic health.

Professor Lucas works with professional MMA and Jiu-Jitsu athletes for their nutritional needs. This week, he shares his knowledge of nutrition for Jiu-Jitsu athletes with the Gracie Barra team. Professor Lucas discusses the topics of his approach to carbohydrates and protein in the diet, his healthy eating planning, and some behavioral tips for eating better, and gives us some ideas for healthy snacks.

Professor Lucas centers his nutritional philosophy around natural, whole unprocessed foods.

"Basically if it is grown, if it is from nature, I will eat it. I'm not very picky as far as liking or not liking certain foods," he says.

We asked Professor Lucas about what should the ideal plate look like for a Jiu-Jitsu athlete. What are the proportions of the macronutrients - protein, fat, and carbohydrates -that is optimal? Yes, this largely applies to the Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu student who is not a professional fighter and trains several times a week at their Gracie Barra school.

Professor Lucas provided an example of what his evening, a post-training meal typically looks like.

Lamb, grilled fish. or chicken thighs.

Roasted or baked potato.

A large green salad (to slow digestion)

A diet higher in carbohydrates

There are a lot of disparate dietary philosophies out there: vegetarian, Keto, Paleo, and so on. Adding to the confusion, some of them are directly opposite of others. Which is the right way to go for the Jiu-Jitsu athlete?

Professor Lucas adjusts the amount of protein and carbohydrates in his meals depending on what phase he is in regarding his training. For example, the ratio of protein to carbohydrates would change if he were looking to cut weight vs looking for maximal recovery and high performance.

He states individuals do respond to each type of diet differently. There is no single best protocol to follow that will produce perfect results. That said, there are some sound nutritional principles that are tried and true for the majority of people.

Professor Lucas says "One thing that I truly believe is that Jiu-Jitsu fighters really benefit from a good amount of carbohydrates. It's a good general idea. There are exceptions where some fighters do better with less carbohydrates, but the majority of Jiu-Jitsu fighters would definitely benefit from a high carbohydrate diet."

Professor Lucas lists his favorite dietary sources of carbohydrates as rice, quinoa, beans, and fresh vegetables. He especially loves fresh fruits. He even includes high-quality bread in his diet, preferring sprouted bread. Depending on the training phase he is in, pasta can also be beneficial as a carbohydrate source.

When it comes to professional athletes, there are some differences. "It's a thin line between what an athlete eats - what is great for an athlete - but is actually the opposite recommendation for the general public." For example, people in the general population do not expend as many calories in their daily activities. If you are not doing high-intensity training, the body does not need a high amount of carbohydrates.

"For example, if a person is sitting in the office all day, not doing any physical activity whatsoever, there is no reason for this person to eat a lot of carbohydrates. Simply because the person does not need that. They will not expend all of that carbohydrate."

Professor Lucas recommends that the average recreational Jiu-Jitsu student eat brown rice as opposed to white rice. Why? The greater amount of dietary fiber in brown rice slows digestion. Slower digestion helps people to eat less overall and it is easier to maintain a healthy body weight.

For an athlete who is training more than once per day, that same brown rice, eaten in between training sessions, is going to take longer to digest. The athlete may not be refueled fast enough for the next training session.

Protein Requirements for Jiu-Jitsu

Does the Jiu-Jitsu competitor require significantly more protein than the average, 3 times per week Jiu-Jitsu student?

"Yes, for sure. I think that protein can get very, not overrated, but too much. People sometimes think that the more protein the better. But that's not necessary. There is a tipping point. Protein has a slightly different way of digestion than carbohydrates."

Professor Lucas explains that protein has a very high thermogenic effect on the body. He says 20 to 40 percent of the calories in protein are used in the digestive process itself. While the hard-training Jiu-Jitsu athlete does need more protein than the average person, it's easy to exceed the ideal amount.

"For example I see people finishing a training session and drinking a protein shake with 40 grams of protein. That is completely unnecessary. You are simply throwing protein away because, while you do need more protein in the day, it should be a constant supply of protein throughout the day."

"What you actually need after a tough training session is mostly carbohydrates. Because that is what you just used. You do need some protein as well because that protein will help with the absorption of the carbohydrates, but mostly what your body needs are the carbohydrates itself."

After a really hard training session, most people need a maximum amount of 20 grams of protein says Professor Lucas.

Healthy Snacks for Jiu-Jitsu Athletes

When Jiu-Jitsu athletes find themselves getting hungry in between meals, they need to choose their snacks wisely instead of succumbing to cravings for sweets or junk foods. We asked Professor Lucas what types of healthy snacks he recommends for Jiu-Jitsu athletes.

"Something that I tell my students all of the time; anything that you keep in your home, at some point, either you or somebody that you live with will eat it."

"If you keep unhealthy snacks in your home, even if you have good discipline, one day you are going to feel starving or anxious or for whatever reason, you are going to end up eating it."

Instead of sugary snacks and cookies, Professor Lucas suggests having pre-cut fresh vegetables like celery and carrots readily available for when you get a craving.

"Fruit is always a great idea. It has tons of nutrients and is very satisfying. It's delicious. I would go with sprouted bread. It has a lot of nutrients, a lot of fiber, and good protein as well. And you can always eat these foods with s healthy nut butter, such as Almond butter or peanut butter. Having nuts around is also a great option."

A key to keeping your diet clean is looking at your behavioral approach. Planning ahead and having healthy food options easily accessible.

Professor Lucas' rule of thumb is "The less processed. The closer to the natural state of the food that you eat, the better.

For example, if you want to eat nuts, you can eat roasted almonds. Try to stay away from roasted honey almonds where they add sugar to it and so on. So the closer to the natural state as possible is usually the best idea."

What healthy snacks are NOT good?

There is a huge variety of snacks in the supermarket that appear healthy but in fact, are not healthy choices at all. Professor Lucas identifies the number one offender in this category.

"That's easy" he smiles, "I would say granola bars. There are definitely a few that can be healthy, but I would say most of them are just full of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, unhealthy oils, and that kind of stuff. It even sounds healthy. 'I'm going to eat some nutritional granola bars!'' It's very tricky actually."

Despite the photo on the box of flowing fields of grain and fruits, they are, nutritionally speaking closer to candy bars than healthy natural food.

Practical advice for the Gracie Barra athlete

Most health-conscious Gracie Barra students are aware of what foods they should eat and what junk foods they should avoid. But knowing what is healthy and actually preparing and eating healthy foods is a whole other thing. Sticking to your ideal meal plan is challenging due to the reality that we lead busy lives and have many different obligations in the course of a training week.

Often it is a matter of convenience. Or a healthy food choice is not easily available. If you don't bring prepared meals with you on your day, your nutritional plan can fall apart.

We asked Professor Lucas how professional Jiu-Jitsu athletes organize their meal preparation for optimal nutrition during a busy week.

"I think that it comes down to a few things. First, it's very important to keep your goals in front of you. Whatever that goal might be. For example, for a regular Jiu-Jitsu practitioner simply looking to improve their Jiu-Jitsu or to drop 10 pounds. Always keep your goal in mind, in front of you, so that you have a big enough WHY of what you are doing."

"Also, going back to what I said about whatever you have in your home, at some point, you are going to end up eating it. I believe that the more that you can plan ahead of time, the easier your choice will be," says Professor Lucas.

Professor Lucas asks us to focus on our Jiu-Jitsu goals for the 30 minutes that

we are shopping in the supermarket. Buy healthy foods and healthy snacks to keep at home. By planning ahead, we avoid failing later when we are busy, distracted, or tired.

"You can be at home, in a rush, you might need something convenient and you are only going to have healthy options to choose from."

How to eat when traveling

Many Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu students have busy lives and find themselves away from their own kitchen during a busy week. How do Professor Lucas and his partner Andressa Cintra (an IBJJF World Champion) maintain clean eating when they are traveling and have an irregular schedule?

"It is hard. We went to 8 countries. Back to back. Teaching one seminar every two days for 18 days. It's very exhausting. One thing that I made sure of even before I left was I packed some healthy snacks. Some nuts and dried fruits. Even though it's not my main option. I brought some good-quality protein bars. In case I was starving, ravenous, I would have healthy stuff to eat."

You may not be hopping from country to country on a seminar tour, but adopting the habits of planning ahead will make it easier for you to stay consistent on your nutritional plan.

Plan ahead and prepare your own meals

"Usually what I do, every time that I get to a town, I look for the closest supermarket. Every time I travel, I try to avoid staying in a hotel. I try to get an Air BNB because of the kitchen and stove. Or I will get a hotel that has that." explains Professor Lucas.

Professor Lucas likes the freedom of having access to a kitchen at his disposal while away from home. Being able to control and prepare his own meals ensures that he doesn't find himself in a situation where he has to eat something from McDonald's or 7-11.

"It goes back to what we were talking about in convenience and not planning ahead. You are in a hotel room. You wake up in the morning and you have no food. What do you have to do? You have to go out and eat. Depending on where you are, your options will be limited so maybe you are going to get stuck with unhealthy options. Then you are going to have to eat it."

"On the other hand, if you have a kitchen, you can go to a market and buy eggs. Any market will have it. Buy fruit, bananas. When you wake up in the morning, you are hungry, you cook some eggs and a banana. You are good. You're set "

This was some great practical advice that you can use to avoid dietary pitfalls due to all of your other life obligations.

Eating more economically

"You save money too," points out Professor Lucas, "It's a win-win. You eat healthy and you save money, and it's a lot more convenient. It might take a little more thought to plan ahead, but after that, it's really easy."

Without a kitchen or preplanned healthy snacks, you need to continuously go out to find food. And it can be difficult to find something healthy. "You want a snack. You need to go out again but the only thing that is close to you is a McDonald's. You aren't just spending money and getting away from your diet. And you are not getting closer to your goals."

Professor Lucas wanted to make a special point that he hoped that these tips on nutrition would help all Gracie Barra students. He is very passionate about nutrition and performance for Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu competitors.

The biggest takeaway for Gracie Barra students might be the importance of behavioral factors in our nutritional practices. Planning ahead and ensuring that we have healthy food options readily available is critical to being able to adhere to whatever dietary regimen we have decided to follow.

Blog is written by Mark Mullen, a Gracie Barra Black Belt


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