Whether you're an athlete or just starting an exercise routine, it is important to understand nutrition's role. What you eat and drink, and when, can make all of the difference in how you perform, recover and improve.
Nutrition for Energy
Eating a balanced diet and getting the proper amount of calories, nutrients and fluids will give you the energy and stamina you need to lead an active, healthy lifestyle. However, it is important to understand what certain types of foods can and cannot do for you.
Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy and therefore are needed before, during and after exercise. The best choices are complex carbohydrates like whole grains including brown rice, whole wheat pastas and breads. Fruits, dairy and vegetables will also provide carbohydrates.
While protein is important for muscles, according to the National Institutes of Health and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it is a myth that a high-protein diet promotes muscle growth. Only exercise and resistance training transform muscles.
Be aware, too much protein can:
• Lead to fatigue if replacing necessary carbohydrate;
• Be stored as fat;
• Increase the chance for calcium loss;
• Increase workload for the kidneys.
Proper hydration is important for performance as well as preventing dehydration, over-hydration and heat-related issues.
To monitor your hydration status, look at the color of your urine. Dark urine (like apple juice or tea) indicates dehydration. Light, pale yellow urine is a sign of adequate hydration.
Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) provide these recommendations:
• For activity less than 60 minutes at a low to moderate intensity, drink water before, during, and after exercise.
• Sports drinks are good options for moderate to high intensity activity lasting more than 60 minutes.
• If you are a very salty sweater, eat salty foods before activity and replace after with watery foods that contain salt, like soups or vegetable juice.
Just as you fuel your car before a trip, you must also fuel your body before exercise. Typically eating a meal two to three hours before a workout is sufficient. But if you have gone several hours without eating (like exercising first thing in the morning), eat a snack 30 minutes to one hour before. Some examples include:
• Small serving of oatmeal
• Slice of toast with jam or honey
• Fat free milk
Avoid eating foods that are high in fat, protein or fiber before a workout. These slow down the digestion and may cause cramps or leave you feeling sluggish.
If you plan to exercise vigorously for more than an hour, you may need to eat during activity. Eating foods that are mainly composed of carbohydrate should help prevent gastrointestinal issues.
Some examples include:
• Energy bar
• Bread with jelly
If your workout was intense and/or lasted for a long period of time, you will likely need to replenish your nutrient and energy stores. Aim to eat within 45 minutes of finishing a workout. In this time period, your blood is still pumping quickly and can rapidly restore electrolytes, replace muscle fuel and repair muscles.
If consuming a meal, make it balanced by including carbohydrate, protein and a small amount of fat. Some example recovery meals suggested by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are:
• Whole wheat pita bread with turkey, vegetables and a side of pretzels with low-fat milk.
• Brown rice, beans, cheese, salsa and avocado in a whole wheat tortilla.
• Stir fry with lean beef, vegetables and brown rice.
If you aren't very hungry or you don't plan to eat a meal right away, opt for a balanced snack instead:
• Smoothie made with fruit and yogurt.
• Peanut butter and a banana with low fat milk.
Keep in mind, everyone is different. You may find some suggested foods are helpful, while others may leave you feeling full or heavy, especially before or during exercise. Try different foods at different times to see how your body reacts. Consider keeping a journal so that you can make adjustments to help you reach your peak performance.
Mandy Seay is a bilingual registered and licensed dietitian who holds both a bachelor's degree in nutrition and in journalism. After gaining 30 pounds while living abroad, Mandy worked to lose the weight and regain her health. It was here that she discovered her passion for nutrition and went on to pursue a career as a dietitian. Mandy currently works as a nutrition consultant and freelance writer in Austin, Texas, where she specializes in diabetes, weight management and general and preventive nutrition. She recently published her first book, Your Best Health, a personalized program to losing weight and gaining a healthy lifestyle. Please visit Mandy's website at Nutritionistics.com.