For a performance dietitian, like the Raptors own Jen Sygo, the saying “food is fuel” is a bit misleading. It is, of course. Sygo can quickly explain how our bodies break down a food’s individual components to deliver the nutrients we need. But she also sees food for its larger capabilities.
Food can be a bridge to bring people together. It can be a source of pleasure. It’s also a sensory host of textures, flavours and smells. It can be specialized to offer hyper-specific boosts to athletes when they need it most. So in a lot of ways, it can be magic.
"There is a downside to seeing food as fuel. If you take it too strictly, it dissociates food with excitement or pleasure or connection,” Sygo says. “It's more than just fuel.”
In Sygo’s work with the Raptors, she likes to get a sense of what each person likes. When a new player joins the team, she’ll chat with them about what they ate growing up. She asks about their favourite foods and how they cook (or don’t) for themselves. She treats this information like a snapshot of that person’s physical blueprint. She also says she acknowledges what it can reveal about people’s personalities. For example, what food they turn to in times of celebration or stress.
“The fueling element is great, and it's important because that teaches us to respect the food. But let's not think of it as a mathematical formula,” she adds, “it's a little bit of an art too.”
Tapping into food as art is one way that Sygo helps the team avoid diet pitfalls or too much of the same thing. Even for athletes who require the fine-tuned fuel the Raptors do, Sygo and the team chef like to ensure there’s plenty of colour, flavour and enjoyment in the meals they’re serving up.
It’s the same for us in our own kitchens. Even if we’re not going to stock them the same way the Raptors do to feed a roster of 15.
To avoid too much sameness, we can start by building variety right into our nutrition routines. Seasonal eating, for example, is a great way to get the most out of the best and freshest foods available. Not to mention these are usually the most budget-friendly foods. It can also be an excellent way to try new fruits and vegetables. If you find you’re going down all the same aisles at the grocery store, try a different store. Explore other cultural options to find new things to add to your own go-to roster of meals.
Not having time to cook can also lead to us eating the same foods over and over. Ordering in a few nights a week can come to feel like less of an occasion and more like a necessity when we do it too often. Sygo recommends batch-cooking big meals when you know you have some time, like chili or soups, congee and curries. That way, you know you’ll have a main meal ready the next time you get home late after a busy day. All you’ll have to do is switch up side dishes to vary the menu. Asking friends for some of their favourite go-to recipes can be a fool-proof way to add something different into the rotation. They already know you, so chances are they know what you’ll like. Taking the guesswork out of meals can do a lot for making cooking not feel like a chore.