By Stephen Hammond
Exercise and nutrition go together like a man and a woman, a horse and cart, the Pope and praying, or teenagers and acne. They are not exclusive, and you are only deceiving yourself if you believe one is important but not the other. It is important to look at both on the same page and let one hand wash the other. Managing your calories while also exercising well will lead to a healthy body, a good physique, and a longer life.
Dieting, or eating healthily, is high on the list of priorities for many people, regardless of how well they stick to it, and it’s always a much-discussed topic, especially on the Internet where you’ll find many "gurus" advising you how to lose weight. But it’s a fallacy to think that dieting equals fasting, which is what most diets amount to by advising you to simply consume fewer calories.
Our bodies need calories for hundreds of bodily functions like breathing and moving and so on, and the calorie intake we need just to stay alive (called the resting metabolic rate) is far greater than what we burn off when running on a treadmill for half an hour. In fact, it’s estimated that 85 percent of our calorie intake is used by our bodies just to function.
Reducing our calorie intake does not actually reduce our activity levels in any way, since our body still performs all the same functions it usually does in order to stay alive; it just makes our body more effective and efficient. What happens is that our body slows its metabolic rate down in order to function more economically. But this also means that if you then revert to eating like before, you pile on the weight quicker.
“Eat to live, don't live to eat” is an old saying which has significant meaning in this context. Even though humans have elevated eating to an art form way beyond what is needed for survival, food is essentially just fuel to enable our bodies to function at an optimum level, and this is how we should treat it.
The first thing we need to think about is achieving balance in our eating. You should eat around three to five meals a day (and be mindful not to skip any meals), since this keeps your metabolism running at full speed, prevents dips in your energy levels, and also prevents you from over-eating and gaining weight.
Breakfast is often said to be the most important meal of the day since it replenishes your blood sugar level after sleep and keeps you from becoming lightheaded and lethargic. You should pack some protein, preferably lean, into all your meals and snacks since it is essential for building and repairing muscles, and eat the right carbohydrates, since carbs are your main source of energy. You should also drink lots of water, since hydration allows your body to function properly and helps you avoid over-eating.
Ideally avoid processed foods since the processing may reduce nutrient levels and use undesirable chemicals like preservatives as well as anything with too much saturated fat, which increases the amount of cholesterol in your blood. Also avoid sugar, which increases the risk of obesity and tooth decay, and salt, which raises your blood pressure.
You should eat a balanced diet based on meals with high-fibre starchy foods, like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta, and try to go for the wholegrain or wholemeal varieties (like brown rice or brown bread), vegetables (preferably grilled), good protein in the form of dairy products, eggs, chicken, fish or beans, and unsaturated oils and spreads. And make sure you eat your five portions of fruit or veg a day.
At the risk of taking all the fun out of eating, the way to take it to the next level and really get the most out of what you eat is by thinking about food in a scientific way. Think of it specifically as fuel, and what you need to eat before, during and after particular activities. It’s not just about eating healthy foods; it’s about choosing the right foods at the right time.
Before doing any exercise, it is important to top up your fuel supply to avoid getting lightheaded and dizzy, or even nauseous, and then injuring yourself. Timing is also important. If you are going to eat a full meal, you should do so two or three hours before exercising. Ideally, you will also eat something light around 45 minutes before exercising, so digestion is well under way when you start, and it should be a snack based on carbs with a bit of protein. An energy bar right before exercising is okay as a means of giving you a mild sugar rush to get you going.
Carbs are a good source of energy because they break down into glucose and enter the muscle cells, which then store it in the form of glycogen. Simple carbs, such as brown rice, fruit, yoghurt, crackers, a rice cake, toast or granola bars, are best since they are easy to digest.
Also, some protein, such as fish, boiled eggs, milk or chicken, is needed to help muscles repair themselves during rest periods (especially if you are doing weight training). Nuts provide heart-healthy fats and nutrients, and fruits provide vitamins, minerals and natural sugar. As always, make sure you are hydrated since water helps you avoid muscle cramps or spasms.
It is not really necessary to eat during a workout. However, if that workout is more than one hour long, you should try to eat something light - no more than 100 calories - every 30 minutes or so. Ideal snacks are things like a banana, yoghurt, or raisins, and of course water.
After the workout is a very important time as far as nutrition is concerned, and you should aim to eat within an hour of finishing. This is the time when you need to replace the calories and nutrients that you have used up, especially the glycogen in your muscles which have been torn and need to be rebuilt. And food quite simply helps you restore your energy.
You need complex carbohydrates and healthy protein to rebuild your muscles and prevent the loss of lean mass. Also, food contains electrolytes in the form of minerals which fire up your neurons and which have been lost through sweat. Foods like brown rice, sweet potatoes, grain, fruits, nuts and whole wheat bread provide the right carbs, while things like beans, fish, chicken, cottage cheese, yoghurt, and tofu are ideal protein-laden foods.
Furthermore, when carbs and protein are consumed at the same time, insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis (rebuilding your muscles), is enhanced. Try a ratio of 3-1, such as 90 grams of carbohydrates to 30 grams of protein. The amount you need will vary depending on the type of exercise you are doing. For example, if you participate in endurance sports, you will need more than if you participate in weight-training.
All of the above needs to be taken with a pinch of salt (not literally). While it is not essential to make a whole science out of what you eat (other people have done that so you don't have to), and you do not really need to start weighing up foods to determine the exact grams of each source, it is definitely worth thinking about it in order to best combine exercise with diet. This way you get the best from both.
Of course, it is still important to actually enjoy your food, so make it tasty. But food is fuel after all, so it’s also important to pay attention to the quality of the fuel you put inside your body. Eat well, exercise better.