The field of fitness nutrition is a fast developing one, with research regularly discovering new ways to improve the performance of top level athletes. However, for most people, the first step is to get their every day eating right – if you are eating a healthy diet on a regular basis, you will be getting most of the things you need to achieve your fitness goals.
When looking at fitness nutrition, there are two things to consider – what will good eating do for you (the benefits) and what will poor nutrition do to you (the problems).
We live in a society where poor diet is endemic, so let’s look first at what the typical American Diet, loaded with sugar, fat and salt, will do to you. The potential problems include:
- Illness – from a compromised immune system
- Lack of stamina – you need good food to give you energy
- Weight gain (fat) Sugar and insulin problems – (more about this later)
- Mood swings and increased mental illness (e.g. depression)
Conversely, eating nutritious meals will help in numerous areas including:
• Increased energy
• Lower body fat
• Increased ability to build muscle
• Better recovery from hard workouts
• Strengthened immune system (and therefore less illness)
• Fewer injuries
So how do you eat well? Let’s start by looking at some of the basics of fitness nutrition. All food contains three main ingredients (called macro-ingredients):
We’ll add a fourth that also needs to be included for good health and improved performance – water. Let’s look at each in turn.
Water is crucial for athletes. You can survive up to three weeks without food, but without water you would be dead in two days.
Not drinking enough water leads to dehydration, which has numerous consequences, including:
• Headaches (some doctors believe that 70 – 90% of all headaches can be attributed to dehydration)
• Loss of performance
• Poor skin, dry skin
• Excess body fat
• Poor muscle tone and size
• Decreased digestive efficiency and organ function (e. g. constipation)
• Increased toxicity in the body
• Joint and muscle soreness
• Water retention and bloating
Research suggests that a large percentage of the population suffer from dehydration – why? Because they don’t drink enough water – they down gallons of sodas, coffee, and sweet fruit drinks, and ignore the one thing their body really needs.
If you want to remain healthy and perform at your best you therefore need to drink water throughout the day – the rule of thumb is that you need at least eight glasses of water per day, but if you are exercising hard, especially in hot weather, you need to increase that.
It's sometimes easy to underestimate the value of water in your fitness nutrition plan.
Carbohydrates get a lot of bad press these days, but they are a vital part of fitness nutrition, and all athletes should get at least 50% of their calories from carbs. They are the body’s main source of energy, and the only fuel your brain can use. There are three main types:
• Sugars: Used for energy, these are found in fruits, some vegetables, milk, and most processed food and drink.
• Starches: Also used for energy and found in all grains (including rice), all vegetables (especially potatoes) and most refined foods.
• Fiber: Vital for good digestion, fiber is found in vegetables, whole grains, and unrefined foods.
Not all carbs are the same however – sugars and some starches (e.g. mashed potatoes) break down very quickly in the stomach, causing your blood sugar to rise too quickly. The body responds by pumping out insulin, which takes the excess sugar and stores it as fat – you then feel hungry and low on energy, and want to eat more sugar to jack your energy levels back up.
If you eat lots of simple, sugary carbs, you will gain weight, and suffer frequent highs and lows of energy – the last thing an athlete wants. So how do you know what to eat? Good sources of carbs include:
• Potatoes in skin
• Whole grains
Bad sources include:
• Breakfast cereals
• Junk food
• White flour
• White rice
• Refined cereals
• Instant mashed potato
• Candy bars
• Snack foods
Your aim should be to get the vast majority of your daily carbs from the good sources, with only occasional forays into the bad carbs.
Fats should be an essential part of your diet as they are involved in a wide range of essential processes including:
• Cell growth
• Healthy skin
• The structure of your nerves and brain
• Blood flow
• Hormone balance
• A healthy immune system
Again, there are good and bad fats, and you need to choose the right ones.
Bad fats: The worst are ‘trans’ fats, which are found in hydrogenated vegetable oils – they are typically in products such as cheap margarine, most commercial baked goods (cakes, cookies, pastries), fried ‘junk’ foods, potato chips, and salad dressings. Trans fats have no place in the human diet much less fitness nutrition. Why? Because they:
• Make bad (LDL) cholesterol rise and good (HDL) go down.
• Increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
• Soak up antioxidants, thus increase cellular damage.
• Affect (slow down) the function of brain cells.
OK fats: Natural saturated fats – these are found in animal fats (milk, butter, cream, cheese, lard, meat) and some tropical oils (coconut and palm). They should be eaten in moderation, making up no more than 10% of your diet.
These fall into two categories:
• Monounsaturates (olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado)
• Natural polyunsaturates (unprocessed vegetable oil, nuts and seeds, whole grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fish and sea food).
These include Omega 3 and 6, which research has shown to be vital for good health.
Protein is the main building block of living things, including muscles, tendons, and bones. Research has shown that a protein meal is the most satiating (filling), and thus protein can help in weight loss. It is also vital for building muscle, and recovering from tough workouts. Sources include:
• Lean meat
Many people don’t eat enough protein – you should aim to include some protein with every meal. If this is difficult, consider supplementing with whey protein – whey is a fantastic source of protein, easy to add to fruit smoothies, and a great way to supplement your protein.
Athletes should focus on getting their daily calories from fresh, natural ingredients – lean protein sources like fish and chicken, carbs from fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and good sources of fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds.
Endurance athletes typically need a higher percentage of carbs in their diet, while those seeking to build muscle – or indeed lose body fat – can reduce carbs slightly and add more protein.
Fitness nutrition isn’t hard if you stick to good, natural foods, and monitor your body’s response to your diet, by keeping a record of energy levels, workout quality, and weight.
Back to top of Fitness Nutrition