The dinner table is lavishly set, the guests are arriving, and you start to serve the feast: appetizers of thinly sliced soy lecithin and grilled soy protein isolate, a lovely vegetable glycerin loaf sparked by artificial flavor-enhancer calcium caseinate. To drink? High-fructose corn syrup with brominated vegetable oil.
Ew, that's gross, right? No one would ever do that, at least not knowingly.
Why then, nutrition expert Allen Lim wonders, when our bodies are at their most stressed and vulnerable -- in the middle of a marathon, on mile 60 of a 100-mile, high-altitude bike race, or halfway through a grueling triathlon -- do we consume those ingredients in massive quantities by the tube, bar and bottleful?
"There's this huge, unfathomable sports industry out there, and it's trying to serve the modern athlete," says Lim, "It suffers from the same problems that industrialized food does, though, in trying to produce huge quantities and preserve it and ship it all over the place.
"But the thing is, a lot of the stuff athletes put in their bodies while training and in a race is stuff that wouldn't be serviceable to eat at home," he says. "It's not food."
And that, Lim maintains, is why so many athletes suffer from cramps, bloating, nausea and other gastrointestinal issues, as well as fatigue and dehydration and other symptoms connected to poor performance.
"Real food is what works best, and the simpler the better," he says.
Lim was speaking last week from along the route of the Tour of Utah, where he and the company he founded, Boulder-based Skratch Labs, provided nutritional support for cyclists before heading back to Colorado to do the same for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge -- Skratch is responsible for the menus and providing the ride food for the athletes -- which started Monday and continues through Sunday.
Lim knows a little something about athletes and nutrition. A lover of bicycles from the age of 4 -- when he taught himself to ride -- he became a cycling coach and sports physiologist, earning his master's degree in kinesiology and a Ph.D. in integrative physiology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2004.
Along the way, he became fascinated with the issues that athletes have with their guts while they ride -- to the point that he was the only American scientist invited to the Tour de France to help fix those issues -- and was famous for creating the "secret drink mix" athletes used to replace their sponsored drinks on the route, the rehydration and nutrition formula that is now known as Skratch.
"If you were to look at the GI tract, one of the biggest organ systems in the body, from a neurological perspective, there are so many nerves enervating our guts," Lim says. "If you didn't take anything else into account, you'd think our gut was a second brain."
For that reason alone, Lim preaches that athletes -- as well as the weekend warrior -- should follow their guts, listening to their own bodies to know what is needed and when, instead of trying to follow sports nutrition fads or "what your neighbor says you should be eating."
"Hey, everyone says I need to be dating a Victoria's Secret model," Lim says, laughing. "But that's not going to happen, right? The marketing, though, is so pervasive, of how that's what should be happening for all of us. But there's a disconnect between what marketing wants for us and what's really right for us."
He suggests that when trying to figure out what to consume while working out, training or racing, experiment with a variety of food and drink combinations -- but not on race day, of course.
"I really just have three basic tenets," Lim says. "They are: Pay attention to hydration. Pay attention to nutrition. Pay attention to bacon."
Bacon? Sure, Lim says. If you're not a vegetarian and are craving bacon while you ride or run, and if your gut can handle it, go for it.
The same follows for white rice. Lim uses it liberally; in fact, his cookbooks with chef Biju Thomas -- "The Feed Zone Cookbook: Fast and Flavorful Food for Athletes" and the newer "The Feed Zone Portables: A Cookbook of On-the-Go Food for Athletes" -- almost exclusively call for sticky rice as a base.
Lim says this is because people who need quick access to calories need the carbohydrates that are readily available in the body.
"This is something that people struggle with, this idea of when they can eat what," Lim says. "You have to think about how much energy you are expending and what you need to do that effectively and be smart about it.
"Think of it this way: Everything that is good for you when you're being chased by a wild animal is bad for you when you're sitting at home playing video games."
In other words, if you're not working out like an elite athlete, don't eat like one. But if you are in training, eat simple, real-food carbohydrates: white rice, white and sweet potatoes, fruits, honey.
"We've lost touch with food, and these things that we think are bad for us, they're actually good for us," Lim says. "Food scientists have been able to manipulate us through our desires, but we were kind of designed for running dozens of miles every single day to seek out these foods that we crave."
Allen Lim's fueling tips for top performance
Beware of paralysis by analysis. "The first pitfall with trying to fuel and hydrate is that people start to over-analyze all the details," Lim says. "Really listen to your body. Find a way to eat if you're hungry, get yourself something to drink if you're thirsty, ride within your limits."
Follow your gut, literally, in terms of food preferences.
Start with what you like to eat, and go from there. If there are foods you don't like or ingredients that upset your stomach in a race, avoid them. "If there's something you haven't had a good experience with, there's no reason to try it over and over," he says. "I don't care how fashionable it is; it's not ever going to work for you. Let it go."
Eat real foods. Stick with simple, high-glycemic foods with a high-moisture content that digest easily -- white rice, potatoes, waffles, muffins. "Make them yourself so they aren't packed with chemicals and stuff you can't pronounce," Lim says.
Salt loss matters. "If you're really craving salt when you exercise, you need to work at replenishing it," he says. The average person loses 600-700 mg of salt per liter of sweat while exercising, and if you end a run or bike ride with a face covered in a dry white crust, you're probably at the upper end of the spectrum -- and maybe even more. The general rule is to consume 200-400 mg of sodium per hour, and if you're on the higher side of loss, you should be on the higher side of consumption, as well.