With sometimes conflicting research and even more conflicting opinions, sports nutrition can leave you scratching your head. If you’re trying to figure out what to eat to help you maximize the work you put in at the gym, refer to this beginner’s guide to sports nutrition, starting with the macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
WHAT THEY DO: Recently, there has been a rise in the popularity of low-carb diets, but you can’t eliminate carbs from your food intake, especially if you regularly work out. Carbs are the fuel that give you energy, but not all carbs are created equal. It’s important to get the right kind of carbs in the right amounts at the right time.
When you eat carbs, your body turns them into glucose, and stores them as glycogen, or energy reserves in your muscle, ready to be fired up when you need them. If they don’t get used, your body eventually stores them as fat.
WHERE YOU GET THEM FROM: Your best source of carbs would be whole (unprocessed or unrefined) foods. Whole-wheat bread and starchy vegetables are considered the good kind of carbs. Meanwhile, processed or refined carbs like white bread, white rice, pastries, and other sweet treats are generally considered bad carbs. These refined carbs have a high GI (glycemic index), which means they cause your blood sugar to spike. Despite being considered “bad” carbs, they do have a place in your diet.
WHEN YOU SHOULD HAVE THEM: While you can incorporate fruits and vegetables into your meals throughout the day, you’ll want to eat the bulk of your carbs around your workout. Eat sweet potatoes or quinoa with some protein a few hours before exercising. You can down a high-GI snack with about 30g to 60g of carbs about an hour before you exercise to give you that energy boost, fast. There’s no need to be obsessive down to the last minute about the timing. If you only have time for a quick bite on your way to the gym, have something light, like half a banana with some peanut butter.
Also have some carbs after exercising, but round it out with some protein. These work hand in hand to help your body recover, with the insulin from carbs nudging amino acids from protein along to repair your muscles. The kind of carbs that work best varies from person to person, so pay attention to how your body reacts to certain foods and adjust your intake accordingly.
WHAT IT DOES: Your body is constantly breaking down and regenerating muscles, and protein, being the building blocks of muscle, is crucial to tissue growth and repair.
WHERE YOU GET IT FROM: As there are good and bad carbs, there are also some sources of protein that are better than others. Avoid those that are processed (like hotdogs and sausages) or high in fat (pork or deep-fried fish). Fish, poultry (skin off to reduce saturated fat), beans, and nuts are all good sources of protein. Aim for 20g to 40g of protein per meal.
You can also get it from a protein supplement like whey. Research has shown that whey protein can help increase muscle mass and, coupled with a slow-digesting protein like casein, is the optimum combination for building muscle.
WHEN YOU SHOULD HAVE IT: The body doesn’t store protein the same way it stores carbohydrates, so you should have protein throughout the day with every meal and snack. Balancing it out with carbs post-workout can help with muscle repair and recovery.
WHAT IT DOES: Fat isn’t the villain it’s painted out to be; it has a good side to it. While there are unhealthy, artery-clogging trans fats and saturated fat (intake should be very limited), there are also good fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are further divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The good fats have a number of functions, including helping protein do its job, storing energy and nutrients, and protecting vital organs.
WHERE YOU GET IT FROM: You can get monounsaturated fats from olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, avocados, and most nuts. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as flaxseed and walnuts.
WHEN YOU SHOULD HAVE IT: Try not to have too much of it before or after a workout. While fat is a source of energy, it takes a while for your body to digest it, so it’s not an instant source you can tap into like carbs. Fat may also inhibit the work of its macronutrient brothers, carbs and proteins, by slowing digestion. A bit of peanut butter or some avocado added to your carbs and protein should be enough both before and after a workout.
There is so much focus on getting the macros right that sometimes hydration is neglected. Staying hydrated is an important part of nutrition; dehydration can greatly affect performance. Don’t drink only when you’re thirsty, as thirst is already a sign of dehydration. Drink water throughout the day, aiming for a total of two to three liters outside of the water you drink when you exercise.
If a balanced diet of whole foods still isn’t helping you reach your fitness goals, you may want to consider some supplements:
Whey protein. Made of leftover liquid after milk is curdled, whey protein has been demonstrated to increase strength and muscle mass.
BCAAs. Branched chain amino acids have been shown to help reduce muscle soreness, aiding in recovery after resistance training.
Creatine monohydrate. Creatine appears to improve strength and performance when it comes to resistance training.
Keep in mind that no amount of supplements, no matter how many studies back them up, can give you the effects that you desire if you don’t start with proper nutrition. If you’re confused about how to choose your sports nutrition supplements, start with determining your needs, then do your research and talk to a nutritionist.
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