That your body needs real food to perform optimally should be common sense, yet many ignore this foundational aspect of health. Even professional athletes sometimes fail to grasp the link between their diet and athletic performance. In this interview, Olympic swimmer Arkady Vyatchanin discusses the effects of the standard American diet, colloquially referred to as SAD, on sports performance.

Vyatchanin represented the Russian swim team at the Olympic Games in 2004, taking fourth place in the 100-meter medley relay, and 2008, taking bronze medals in 100 meter and 200-meter backstroke. In 2013, he announced he would no longer represent the Russian swim team.

Instead of going to the World Championships, he participated in the U.S. Open that summer, and ended up with the second-fastest time in the world. Last year he took home silver and gold medals in the AT&T Winter National Championships for the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke respectively.

Therapeutic Use Exemptions Versus Natural Treatments

In professional sports, there’s something called a therapeutic use exemption, which is part of the protocols created by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This exemption allows professional athletes to continue taking their medications while competing professionally. The problem with this exemption is that many of the medications taken are otherwise banned for healthy athletes.

For example, asthma medication is not permitted for healthy athletes, as it may give them an unfair advantage. Since it opens up the airway, it allows for easier breathing. Interestingly enough, a disproportionate number of professional athletes apparently have exercise-induced asthma, and the therapeutic use exemption allows them to take otherwise banned asthma medication while competing.

“When you’re swimming, you’re kind of losing your breath a little bit, so you’re breathing erratically and deeply,” Vyatchanin says. “In my mind, if people who don’t know the effect of fast swimming and fast-paced running or doing whatever exercise is losing their breath, then they might think, ‘Oh, I might have asthma. I better go talk to my doctor about it.’

The doctor will probably end up writing a prescription for medication. It’s kind of ridiculous … It’s kind of scary how many [athletes] are actually using this [medication]. Basically, I was trying to explain to a lot of people that it is possible to fight these conditions with natural remedies.”

Standard American Diet Quickly Resulted in 25-Pound Weight Gain

When Vyatchanin and his wife first came to the U.S. in 2011, they (as most immigrants) adopted the standard American approach to their diet. In Russia, they would cook their meals from scratch nearly every day. While there are many supermarkets selling processed food in Russia today, in the past there were very few, and most people would buy their food at the local fresh food market.

Contrary to the U.S., whole food is less expensive than processed food in Russia, which certainly shapes people’s choices as well. Eating real food is a foundational key to optimizing your health. “Also, people have to understand that it is actually really satisfying to make food and then eat it, because it’s something that you made on your own. It’s delicious,” Vyatchanin says.

Unfortunately, while it’s a simple enough concept, it’s rarely applied in the U.S., and our disease statistics reflect Americans’ preference for processed food. Vyatchanin also suffered the ramifications of his dietary switch.

“After completing the first season here — from September of 2011 until August of 2012 — I noticed that, while being on a break, I started to gain a lot of weight. In a short few weeks, I gained 25 pounds or something like that. My wife and I also noticed the change in our cats, which we brought with us. The thing is they were eating the same brand of dry food in Russia.

So, we started to research. Little by little, we came to realize that it’s all [about] our diet. It was quite a process. I’d say it took maybe a couple of years for us to [get] a full picture of what’s really going on and how the system works here. But we’re truly grateful to the information we found, especially on your website … We actually started visiting your site and reading about all this stuff and watching the interviews.”