Updated: Jan 8, 2020
When it comes down to it, food is fuel. It can be delicious, enjoyable fuel, but it’s helpful to remember that the primary purpose of food is to make our bodies function. What we fuel ourselves with will either help or hinder our progress towards our goals. Something that helped me shift my attitude towards food was a quote by Dr Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die and How Not to Diet – “Food is a zero-sum game. By putting something in our mouth we are, by definition, not putting something else in our mouth.” This seems obvious now, but I hadn’t ever thought about food like that before. Every time we choose what to eat, we are either eating something healthy or we aren’t. There are a limited number of calories we eat throughout the day – so if we have goals, why wouldn’t we want to fuel our bodies with foods that support those goals?
That’s easier said than done though – often life gets in the way and it’s more convenient to eat something we know isn’t great. Or maybe we feel like treating ourselves? Well, I think as long as the majority of what we eat is healthy fuel, those times we treat ourselves are fine. This post is designed to be an overview of the principles of nutrition to support exercise – I hope this will give you a baseline to know how best to support your goals, but understand the chances of everyone being able to follow all of these principles all of the time are slim.
In order to get the best out of our bodies, we need to keep them supplied with the right kinds of foods and fluids. Not only that, but if we really want the best from our bodies, we need to do this at the right times too!
Healthy eating advice will be different for different goals. I won’t go into detail about different goals here, but instead I want to give an overview of general principles.
Carbs, carbs, carbs – our bodies love carbs for fuel! Regardless of the type of sport or exercise you’re doing, healthy carbs provide a good source of energy for your body to perform at its best. Sorry to break it to you, but that doesn’t mean unlimited pizza or deep fried foods – they need to be quality carbs. When choosing your carbs, you should look to eat whole wheat versions of pasta and bread, look to eat brown, red, black or wild rice, and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
In general, the more you exercise, the more carbs your body will want. An intense exercise regime will use up your stores of energy very quickly, so you should be looking to include quality carbs in every meal.
Protein – contrary to popular belief, eating a shed load of protein wont, on it’s own, build muscles. Muscle is gained through exercises aimed to break down the muscle fibres, eating enough protein to allow the muscles to repair, and having a sufficient supply of energy from carbs and fats to support this process. Your body can only use a limited amount of protein for muscle gain, so there isn’t much benefit to massively overdoing it on the protein – and you might cause other health issues for yourself. If you are looking to build muscle, you should look to include a healthy source of protein at every meal (for ideas on healthy sources of protein, check out our blog post here).
Some people are able to train fasted (I’m not one of them, I get hangry!), but for the rest of us, what should we be looking to eat before training? Ideally, about an hour before exercising you should look to eat a high-carb snack that contains some protein. Porridge, fruit or whole grain toast with a small amount of nut butter are good choices.
Foods you should avoid just before exercising are foods that are very high in fats or very high in fibre, as these might cause discomfort.
If you’re going to eat a big meal before exercising, then ideally you should look to leave about 3 hours between eating and exercising.
Unless you’re participating in an endurance event, you shouldn’t need anything more than water during an exercise session (see below for more information on hydration). If you’ll be exercising for more than about an hour, you might want to consider quick-digesting carbs and sports drinks such as:
- Isotonic sports drinks
- Vegan energy gels
- A banana
- Dried fruit
- A vegan cereal or sports bar
Food is an important consideration in your recovery from exercise. Protein and carbs should both be consumed post-workout, ideally within about an hour of your exercise. Carbs are important to replace your lost fuel supply and to supply the energy your body needs to repair from training. It should be possible to get enough protein simply through eating a balance vegan diet, but if you aren’t getting enough and want to use a vegan protein powder, try to opt for ones with fewer ingredients but that contain protein from a few different sources e.g. hemp, pea, brown rice etc.
It’s important to remember that our bodies are nearly 2/3 water! Hydration is often overlooked but it’s SUPER important to consume enough fluids to stay healthy and hydrated! The amount of fluid you need will depend on a few different factors, such as your activity levels, the weather and your age. As a minimum you should be looking to drink about 2 litres of water (half a gallon) per day, but that is just a rough estimate and opinions differ on the optimal amount.
For those who exercise regularly, you should consider the following:
Aim to drink 500ml of water in the two-hour window leading up to your session/event.
Aim to drink roughly 120-180ml every 15 minutes. This is equivalent to a few gulps. Remember it is possible to over hydrate.
How much fluid you should drink depends on the duration and intensity of your workout. A good guide is to aim to replace the fluid you have lost during the session, plus half again. This is to account for the thermal effect of exercise.
The above is intended as an overview – if you have specific nutrition concerns, it would be a good idea to speak to a nutritionist of a dietician.