Youinverse Contributor: Amanda Loudin of Miss Zippy
Ever hear the phrase “abs are made in the kitchen”? In essence it means that no matter what you do in the gym, if you don’t manage the eating and drinking aspect of fitness, your payoff will be much smaller. Yet for many people, the nutrition side of the fitness equation can be extremely confusing.
It’s no wonder: Magazines, blogs and other media are filled with conflicting advice. Should you use supplements? Are there food groups to be avoided? Are carbs bad or good? How about fat? Somehow you need to sift through all these messages and find the right nutrition approach to both fuel and recover your body through workouts.
Here’s the good news, however: It doesn’t have to be overly complicated or confusing. Just as you can design your workouts to fit your individualized needs, you can customize your diet to achieve your health goals.
Let’s start with what to eat, when. Unless you have specific instructions from a doctor to replace a missing nutrient, in general, you don’t need all the extra supplements and products on the market. That means that with a few exceptions, most people can get all they need from real, whole foods.
In general, stay away from packaged, processed foods as much as possible. You can fuel up for your workouts with real food rather than bars, gels or electrolyte replacement drinks. The bonus to this approach is that you’re also helping the environment because you won’t have any packaging to dispose of.
A whole-foods diet will include plenty of fruits and vegetables, protein in the form of fish and/or lean meat, eggs, dairy or plant-based sources, whole grains and every now and again, a treat. You also want a diet full of color because it will increase the chances that you’re getting all the nutrients you need both for life and for your workout. Eat when truly hungry–not bored or out of habit– but not to the point of being stuffed, and you have the basic formula you need.
That said, you do want to consider your workouts when planning your daily eats, too. How and what you eat and drink before and after will vary because these foods will be serving different purposes.
Before a workout, you should focus on simple carbohydrates to give you the energy you need to get through. Great real-food choices in this category include bananas, dates, raisins or even homemade granola or energy bars. The sky is the limit, but the portion size should be relatively small unless you are doing a particularly long/hard workout. You’re after energy, and a quick hit of real food should do the trick.
When to eat these foods in relation to your workout is highly individual, meaning that some people can tolerate a piece of fruit as they walk out the door to the gym, while others might need to ingest it an hour or so earlier to avoid GI distress. The actual food that you eat will vary widely as well. A little trial and error will help you figure out what works best for you.
Most of these rules apply to early-morning exercisers or people who work out in the early evening prior to dinner. If you go mid-morning, after breakfast, for instance, you may not even need more fuel as your meal will carry you through. The same goes for post-lunch or post-dinner exercise.
Post workout, your focus should move to recovery. Again, no “extras” are needed, just real food. While you were aiming for simple carbohydrates to fuel your workout, after it is completed, you want to aim for a mix of carbohydrates, protein and unsaturated (good) fat. There are plenty of great ways to get this combination, without worrying about drilling down to exact percentages.
Ideally, you’re going to help your body recover from its hard work with a meal, but if the timing isn’t right for that, reach for a snack that meets these nutrient requirements. Examples of snacks could include plain Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts; a piece of whole-grain bread with nut butter; or a homemade trail mix with things like dried fruit, nuts and a few dark chocolate chips. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just nutrient dense.
Meal ideas might include salmon with roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes, with fruit for dessert, for instance. Another great meal is a hearty minestrone soup with whole-grain pasta or quinoa, topped with Parmesan cheese for a serving of calcium and added protein. Eggs also make a great meal choice and the combination possibilities are endless.
Many people like to end their workouts with a smoothie because it’s a convenient choice. This can work, too, as long as it includes a quality protein powder (read labels!) and some real fruits and/or vegetables. If it’s not going to be your meal, be careful on the size of the smoothie because you don’t want it to ruin a meal later on.
For years there has been a big push on hydration in our workout culture, but the bottom line is that we tend to go overboard on our need to replenish fluids. Faulty science, combined with sports drink marketing, has misled fitness buffs into believing that they need to stay ahead of thirst in order to be properly hydrated. In fact, it’s quite easy to drink too much, leading to uncomfortable sloshing in your stomach and sometimes GI distress.
More recent—and more credible—studies have shown this not to be the case. A 2007 research project from South African physician Dr. Timothy Noakes recommended drinking to thirst and nothing more. Trust that your body knows what it needs and will tell you through a beautifully designed thirst mechanism. Pay attention to your thirst, drink when your body tells you and you should be just fine.
What to drink? Water is the best choice, both in terms of what your body needs and what won’t add on unnecessary calories. A cup of tea or coffee in the morning, or a glass of wine or beer in the evening, however, isn’t going to hurt an overall healthy diet.
What about sports drinks? For the most part, these are unnecessary sugars and calories. A general rule of thumb has traditionally been that after 90 minutes of exercise, you should replace electrolytes. Again, this is a very individualized schedule, and everyone should experiment to determine what the right quantity and timing is for their needs. Even some marathon runners, for instance, opt to just use water and some sort of food to fuel their long runs, skipping the sports drink altogether.
Just as with exercise, nutrition comes in many forms and is best managed on an individual basis. Going back to the basics, focusing on whole foods and keeping it simple in a way that works for you is what it’s all about.