Eating should be simple, right? The truth is, it’s anything but!
In fact, we are the only species on earth that has to consult professionals on what we should be eating!
What you put in your mouth directly impacts your health, and your diet can end up becoming a juggling act to meet your body’s needs to prevent deficiencies and illness.
With so much contradicting information, it’s not easy to know exactly what foods you should be eating, in the first place! But, there’s something even more difficult: trying to figure out what to eat, when to eat, and why you may have different nutrient needs when you take part in regular physical activity.
When you know the answer to these questions, you can formulate a plan, and make the most of your diet to keep up with your body’s demands from a workout.
So, let’s get to answering them - starting with the basics of why!
Why you need to eat
While the answer to this question may seem obvious, eating becomes more complex when you partake in regular strenuous activity. During exercise, the demands on your body increase 10-fold. The stress, breakdown of tissues, and the use of energy become exorbitant - and, your diet is one of the areas that can mitigate injury and damage resulting from the factors produced by your workout1.
The more intense the exercise, the more you have to pay attention to your diet. After all, you are what you eat.
That brings us to the what. What exactly do you eat?
Choosing the right foods
Diet is a key component of success when you’re trying to achieve your fitness goals. While a meal plan should always be tailored to an individual’s needs and their training program2, becoming generally educated on food can still assist you in making the right decision of what to eat.
So, let’s get into macros:
Because carbs are one of the most controversial topics in nutrition nowadays, let’s start with them.
Carbohydrates are made up of a single or multiple sugar molecule. In food, they are typically strung together to make up a complex chain of sugars, which the body breaks down to use as energy. Carbs are, in fact, one of the most readily available sources of energy. It’s why sugars are even stored in the muscle for easy access to energy when they are at work. The more they work, the more energy is needed..
When you eat the right amount of carbohydrates, the body can keep up with this energetic demand, preventing low blood sugar levels, which can negatively impact your ability to train. Research shows that including carbs into your workout routine has both positive effects on your ability to perform, and holds general benefits to your fitness routine overall3,4,5.
When it comes to fat, some may argue that it is the best source of energy during exercise and, in fact, overall.
When fat intake outweighs carb consumption, the body becomes used to burning fat byproducts, called ketones, as fuel. Through carb depletion, it takes around 3 days for the body to begin getting into ketosis and switching to completely fat burning may take several weeks6. To stay in ketosis, you have to follow a high fat low carb diet, and any increases in carbohydrates means you will revert to burning sugar again, as this is the body’s preferred fuel source. It’s a delicate balance that works for some and not for others; again, diet has to be tailored for the individual7.
Lastly, there’s protein, which is another much debated topic when it comes to exercise.
Protein is an important nutrient in those who exercise, especially in activities that require a significant amount of muscle power8,9. Muscles that work hard need their protein building blocks, called amino acids, to be replenished so they can heal and repair. But, the amount needed is debated.
Although higher amounts of protein are required for those wanting to pack on muscle, the reality is that if you aim to have some form of protein (whether it’s from animal products, supplements or vegan/vegetarian sources), you’re probably going to be reaching the nutritional target on a daily basis. Aim for a minimum of 0.9-1.2g/kg body weight to support the nutritional needs of your muscle tissues - however, if you’re going heavy on the strength routine, you may want to up your protein further to see even more results.
Now you need to know when to eat...
Snacks, meals, pre- and post-workouts! What gives?
On top of your normal meal times, it’s important to consider how you’re fueling your body before and after exercise. The food you have before exercise provides your body with the energy you need to get through the workout, to delay the onset of fatigue and to reduce the risk of injury.
If you’re opting for a high fat diet, consuming fats around 2 hours before training is optimal - however, if carbs are included as a regular macro, it’s better to get carbohydrates in around 30 minutes before training.
Following your workout, it is suggested that a balanced meal of carbohydrates, protein and fat be eaten within 30 minutes10-13. This is where a shake can come in handy as they are easy to whip up and drink on-the-go. A good quality premixed shake can also provide the nutrients your body needs in the right ratios as per your body’s requirements.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
Nutrition is a complex topic, and gets even more complex when the body’s environments changes like it does when you take part in exercise. The important thing to remember is that wholesome foods are best, that you need to eat a balance of carbs, protein and fat, and that your body needs fuel both before and after your workout. With these basics on hand, you can feed your body right to ensure you reach those fitness goals!
- Tipton, K. Nutritional Support for Exercise-Induced Injuries. Sports Medicine. 2015. 45: 93–104.
- Pendergast, D., et al. Influence of exercise on nutritional requirements. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011. 111(3):379-90.
- Casey, A., et al. Effect of carbohydrate ingestion on glycogen resynthesis in human liver and skeletal muscle, measured by (13)C MRS. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2000. 278(1):E65-75.
- Burke, L., et al. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci. 2011. 29(1):S17-27.
- Haff, G., et al. Carbohydrate supplementation and resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2003. 17(1):187-96.
- Cipryan, L., et al. Effects of a 4-Week Very Low-Carbohydrate Diet on High-Intensity Interval Training Responses. J Sports Sci Med. 2018. 17(2): 259–268.
- Burke L.M. Re-Examining High-Fat Diets for Sports Performance: Did We Call the “Nail in the Coffin” Too Soon? Sports Medicine. 2015. 45(S1): 33-49.
- Campbell, B., et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2007. 4:8
- Kerksick, C., et al. The effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on performance and training adaptations during ten weeks of resistance training. 2006. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association.
- Aragon, A., & Schoenfeld, B. Nutrient timing revisited: Is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2013. 10(5).
- Berardi JM, et al. Postexercise muscle glycogen recovery enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006. 38(6):1106-13.
- Moore, D., et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009. 89(1):161-168.
- Jeukendrup, A. A step towards personalized sports nutrition: carbohydrate intake during exercise. Sports Med. 2014. 44(1):S25-33.