Exercise and food: what should you eat and when should you eat it?
Most people don’t need to engage in any complicated strategy
Food for thought: the best way to make sure that you are well fuelled for your session is to eat well throughout the day
It can be very difficult to cut through the pseudo-science and the marketing surrounding workout nutrition.
Should you eat high-carb or high-fat before training? How far out from your session should you eat? Or should you even eat at all – surely exercising on an empty stomach burns more fat?
Sifting through the plethora of conflicting advice from self-proclaimed fitness gurus and celebrity trainers would be enough for most of us, but the sports drink and sports supplement industry has also convinced many people that they cannot survive without their product – and those companies have significant advertising budgets.
The scientific approach
Kortney Karnok is an American nutrition coach with a background in food science who has spent the last three years in Ireland.
She advocates that fitness enthusiasts should take a common-sense approach to their pre-workout nutrition – one that is backed up by scientific research.
“The majority of people don’t need to engage in any complicated strategy – it’s sufficient to eat a meal that has a source of carbohydrates along with a little protein one to two hours before you exercise and again one or two hours afterwards. If it has to be a little bit further out, then you can make the meal you eat a little larger,” she says.
The advice may seem straight-forward and common sense, but it is also backed by volumes of scientific research and it is an approach that can also be adapted to your circumstances.
“If you’re training in the morning, or for some reason you don’t have a lot of time to eat before you train, then have a banana to give you some carbohydrates and some high protein Greek yoghurt. You can blend these ingredients into a homemade shake or smoothie for convenience, but beware store-bought options which often have lots of added sugar,” she says.
Quality carbohydrate sources
For the vast majority of trainers, carbohydrates are the preferred energy source and Karnok recommends “wholemeal or whole grain sources of carbohydrate, along with sweet potatoes or regular potatoes that are simply baked or roasted, lightly skillet fried, boiled or even microwaved, along with any fruit and vegetables”.
It is also important to include some protein as part of your pre-workout meal to ensure muscles have the means to repair themselves after training. Ideally the source of protein will be from whole foods, but if time or convenience is an issue it is okay to supplement with a good-quality protein powder such as whey.
“It’s not necessary for most people to supplement with protein powders, but it is very convenient and a very effective form of getting protein in your pre-and post-workout meals if you don’t feel like eating whole foods straight away,” she says.
Foods to avoid pre-training There are some food types that are best avoided around training, particularly any food that you know might cause an upset stomach. For that reason it is not a good idea to consume meals high in fat in the two to three-hour period before training.
“You should stay away from foods that are really high fat or heavy meals because it takes your body much longer to digest and can make you feel sluggish or have indigestion. You want the blood to be moving to the areas you are training, not building up around your stomach,” she says.
The sports drink conundrum
While many still believe that sports drinks are necessary, most sports nutritionists agree that for the majority of trainers they are overkill. “For the average gym-goer who is training for an hour or less, supplementing with a sports drink is unnecessary – just drinking water to prevent thirst is perfectly sufficient. If it’s a really hot sunny day, you might want to consider saltier foods around training to make sure that you are replenishing your electrolytes,” she says.
Karnok says that while it is important to get a good meal soon after you train to replenish glycogen stores and start rebuilding damaged muscles, the window in which food should be consumed is often overstated. “For elite-level athletes nutrient timing is important, but for the average fitness enthusiast it’s not going to make or break your results if you don’t get home to eat immediately – just get a good meal within a few hours of training to replenish your body,” Karnok says.
The best way to make sure that you are well fuelled for your session is to eat well throughout the day. Karnok advocates considering how your plate is split up as a good guide to making sure you are getting a diet that will fuel your training.
“Regardless of anything else, get lots of plant foods – particularly vegetables and fruits, and have them at every meal. If half of your plate at every meal is vegetables, salad or fruit, then you are on the right track.
“After that, add in a form of lean protein such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs or dairy products; and then a little bit of healthy fats from olives, olive oil, avocado, nuts, or oily fish. It’s always better to find a good, simple diet that you can stick to rather than searching for the ‘perfect diet’ full of rules and restrictions that you can’t maintain.”
Strategies to consider
1. Consider your own needs What is appropriate for a professional rugby player is not necessary for a recreational gym-goer.
Are you training to improve your general health and fitness or are you training intensely for your sport of choice? Is your training goal to reduce body fat or to increase performance?
2. Ditch the sports drinks Consuming a high carbohydrate sports drink while training is overkill for most fitness enthusiasts. Water is best. Children should not be given sports drinks – the amount of sugar in them can vastly outweigh the benefits of the sport.
3. Eat in time It is important to ensure you have fuel for your workout; if your last meal was at lunchtime and you are going to the gym after work, your body won’t have enough fuel to get you through what you need to do.
Try to eat a small meal rich in quality carbohydrates and protein within one to two hours before you train, and something similar in size 1-2 hours after you train to help your body recover.
4. Prioritise whole foods There is a time and place for sports supplements such as protein powders, but for most people the emphasis in pre- and post-workout nutrition should be on whole foods.
Wholefood is more likely to have fibre, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients missing in supplements.
If you are in a rush, or you find it difficult to fit wholefood in after a workout, a home-made smoothie with a little protein powder, some berries, along with spinach and some water is a good compromise.