How to use Whole Food Nutrition for Exercise

Physical inactivity is one of the primary drivers of many of chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease. Moving your body every day is one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being. Daily exercise should be part of a healthy lifestyle, and the food you eat around this physical activity can really optimize your energy levels, your recovery, and changes in body composition that will further promote health.

This post isn’t really about sports nutrition which, as a science, is gleaned from research on highly conditioned individuals and elite athletes. It can’t always be transposed onto the average exerciser. Also, you need personalized advice based on your sport, your body composition, your age, gender, and wider commitments to your job and your family, which is impossible to do here. What this post is really speaking to is a phenomenon whereby people take a top-down approach to fueling their gym routines. They start with supplemental nutrition such as protein powders, multi-vitamins, electrolyte tablets, gels, pre-workouts, BCAAs, and all sorts of ergogenic aids before addressing their baseline food intake. Although I’m not against any of these additional supports, I recommend starting from the bottom up. In that way, it’s possible to achieve a whole new level of health while pursuing what was initially a singular goal, most often driven by aesthetics. Begin by ensuring that baseline nutrition is intact, and then lock-in some general pointers on nutrition for exercise. I’ll leave the supplements to your own discretion or that of your trainer/coach/teammates. Following these tips, you shouldn’t need much supplementation, but we’re all individual. If you’ve found a strategy that works for you; brilliant. If you’re stagnating, then come back to drawing board with me.

  1. Be Prepared – Batch Cooking

The old saying fail to prepare, prepare to fail is a bit harsh in my book. You won’t fail, you just might not succeed in the way you wanted to. That’s why batch-cooking is a constant recommendation of mine. The reasons, as I’ve outlined [previously], are never so integral than when attempting a change in body composition. Being prepared with homemade, nutritious food will bring you closer to your goals. Being ill-prepared, and relying on ‘handy’ but overly processed foods will keep you from hitting your goals fully. It doesn’t mean you’ll fail, but it’s disheartening to be so close and remain so far. Batch-cook stews and casseroles, grains and meats, so that they’re stored in the fridge or freezer ready to be used and reheated after an evening workout.

  1. Smart Carbs, Not Low Carb

Carbohydrates are integral to the fueling strategy of an athlete. 50-65% of your total caloric intake each day can afford to be from good quality carbohydrates. Foods like oats, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, veggies, salads, and fruits can comfortably take up space on your plate to fuel your day and replenish your glycogen stores after training. Simple carbohydrates can be used strategically. Bananas, dates, and bagels, for example, will convert to glucose quite quickly, providing immediate fuel pre-exercise, particularly for endurance athletes heading out for a long run or bike ride. Remove refined carbohydrates such as pastries, cakes, and biscuits; they provide little in the way of positive nutrition for exercise.

  1. Lean Protein and Plant-Based Protein

Animal protein should be lean, such as chicken, turkey, white fish. Small oily fish and organic free-range eggs are also excellent sources of protein, with the former being an additional source of omega 3 and both being a source of vitamin D.  Plant-protein is also an excellent option, and several high-profile vegan and vegetarian athletes prove that it is possible to build muscle and recover from exercise using beans, legumes, quinoa, and good quality tofu and tempeh. It’s also an additional source of fibre, vitamins and minerals.

  1. PUFA and MUFA

When and where possible, choose good quality monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as your main fat intake via whole, unprocessed foods. This means nuts, seeds, avocados, small oily fish. With each meal, add one of these sources. In your porridge, add chia, walnuts, or flaxseeds as your main fat source. For lunch, use tinned mackerel or sardines instead of tuna in your salad or wrap to increase your intake of omega 3 polyunsaturated fat. When cooking, a small amount of olive oil or coconut oil is fine, but do measure it out, particularly if you’re trying change your body composition. 1tsp of oil is enough to get the party started when cooking; use water thereafter if frying/sautéing.

  1. Food is Fuel: Time it Right

When you’re training for an event, or exercising to change body composition, food should be considered fuel – it’s what pushes you further, and what helps you recover faster. Timing your food intake around your exercise regime is important. If you work out first thing in the morning, make sure your dinner the night before is on point with complex carbs and protein, and try and put something in just before the session if you can, like half a banana. Fasted workouts work well for some people, but others find it greatly increases their RPE (rate of perceived exertion) so everything feels harder and less satisfying. If you work out in the evening, you can afford to have good quality carbohydrates in the morning and afternoon meals, utilizing them as fuel for your evening workout. Afterwards, focus mainly on protein, greens, veggies, and salad.

  1. Timing Protein

Protein is an essential macronutrient, and many people overlook its importance when their focus is carbs or fat. However, many more obsess over it. You need protein, don’t ignore it, but you don’t need protein in excess so don’t shovel shake after shake into you. Whole food can deliver your protein needs from your meals and snacks. For someone working out 4-5 times a week for up to an hour at a time, 1.2g-1.7g of protein per kilo of body weight is a good range to aim for. For most people, that works out at about 20-30g of protein for each of their 3 main meals as well as their 2 snacks.

What does this translate to in real food?

Breakfast: 3 eggs scrambled on toast with grilled mushrooms, tomatoes, courgette and spinach (29g). Mid-morning: Greek yoghurt with walnuts and berries (19g). Lunch: bowl of kidney bean chili with quinoa (20g). Mid-afternoon: banana bread and peanut butter (15g). Dinner: chicken fillet, with sautéed greens, a small baked sweet potato, and rocket salad (35g). Many studies show that there is a plateau with protein assimilation, so more is not necessarily better. Above 35-40g may not provide any further uptake within the muscle than 25-30g, so that’s why timing is important. Steady intakes throughout the day will see you hit your macronutrient needs for change in body composition as well as keeping you feeling fuller for longer.

  1. Overestimate Your Calories In, Underestimate Your Calories Out.

Tech resources for tracking your calories consumed and calories burned can serve really well for many people. In my clinic, most clients will either track their intake using an app, or track their output using a watch or Fitbit-type device. Many do both but always err on the side of caution. Overestimate what you ate and underestimate what you burned.

  1. ‘Healthy’ Can be High Energy

It’s important to create a baseline nutritional intake that does not rely on synthetic or overly processed foods. It is also important that you keep total energy in mind, even if the food is healthy. Snacking on a bag of cashew nuts because you’re watching your sugar intake, or creating protein balls from peanut butter, oats, and dates because you want to eat real food, can increase your energy intake by hundreds of calories. This will drastically reduce your chances of hitting your goals. Aim for the whole-food option, where possible, but don’t get blind-sided by the concept of ‘healthy’. Always keep that caloric intake in check.

  1. Boost Your Immune System

It’s soul-destroying getting to the end of a 12-week training cycle and being unable to compete due to illness. Runs in the rain, warm and damp fitness studios, humid swimming pools, all can present ideal conditions for bacteria and viruses to incubate and proliferate. If your body is being pushed to its capacity at peak training times, protecting itself against colds and flu, respiratory tract infections, and viral infections is a challenge. Because the bulk of your immunity is in your gut, probiotic foods such as kefir, live yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha are excellent additions to your meal plan. Anti-inflammatory foods are also essential to add, so infuse your stews and soups with garlic, turmeric, and ginger. Omega 3 fats such as found in small oily fish can help dampen inflammation also. Basically, if you’re following tip 1-4, you’re most of the way to eating an anti-inflammatory, immunity-boosting diet that will offset some of the more common complaints of the immune-compromised athlete.

  1. Hydrate

Electrolytes and glucose change the osmolarity of water on par with blood and plasma, and thus water is absorbed into the bloodstream and around the body for use more efficiently. That’s why sports drinks are marketed so heavily for hydration. Any exercise session less than an hour, really shouldn’t require much in the way of added liquid nutrition, but that depends on your chosen sport and how much you sweat. As a baseline, water should be your main fluid source throughout the day. Use the calculation 35mls/kg to work out your individual needs e.g. 70kg adult= 35×70= 2,450mls or 2.45L. Sip your water steadily throughout the day while at work/college to maintain optimum hydration.

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