How to Come Out Swinging with the Help of Food
Exercise! We all do it (or at least try to 🙈) in some way, shape, or form. With the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines stating that adults under age 65 need to have at least 150 minutes of moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise per week, it’s no wonder that physical activity is becoming a hot topic amongst not only our clientele but also our family and friends. Our bodies were simply made to move and even adapt with each workout – it’s no wonder, then, that being active comes with so many other benefits as well, such as reducing the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers . Everyone seems to know this, but there is still one area relating to physical activity that is a bit of a mystery to most people, and that’s what to eat to support your work out.
A balanced diet is not just complimentary to exercise – it’s a necessity!
With so much information available online (think: almost everyone on YouTube or Instagram nowadays) it’s easy to get confused and try to figure out what applies to you and your exercise routine. The good news is that the vast majority of people who exercise don’t need to tweak their eating habits too much. The new Canada’s Food Guide is super helpful in this regard and helps to ensure that you’ll get enough of the nutrients (in particular protein, carbohydrates, and fats) that you need to improve your health and support your active living.
Let’s take a look at the new Food Guide so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about:
Getting enough protein is important for everyone, but it proves to be crucial for physical activity. Because protein is the building block of your muscles, you need to be able to get a bit more of it in your diet if you’re working out intensely to help your muscles grow and recover from any exercise you might do. This is why you’ve probably heard that you need 0.8g of protein per kg of your body weight normally but that number goes up depending on how long and vigorous your sessions might be  . As a result, try to have at least a quarter of your plate be a source of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In addition to having protein during your main meals, talk to a Registered Dietitian about how much more protein you might need to also incorporate into your day through snacks and pre-/post-workout bites.
One thing that seems to be universal for most people that exercise is the benefit of having protein during or directly after your workout. Research has shown that having about 20g of protein at these times can help build muscle faster . It might be easier to save the protein for after rather than during, though, as it could be a bit heavy on your stomach when moving around so much.
So what kind of protein should I be having?
You should try to reach for lean protein foods. These are good quality protein sources that are lower in fat but still have the nutrients you need. Think of skinless chicken, turkey, tuna, shellfish, and pulses like beans, chickpeas, and lentils.
Carbs are the #1 source of energy in our bodies, so it’s no wonder they play a large role in exercise nutrition . In fact, whenever you eat, carbs are broken down into glucose and are used by cells in the body that need it. After these cells have been fed, extra glucose is stored in your body as “glycogen”. During intense workouts, this glycogen can be used up, causing you to feel tired and need to stop.
To avoid this, make sure you’re having enough carbohydrates in your diet. This depends on your level of exercise intensity and how much you work out, but ensuring you have a quarter of your plate be sources of carbs (such as whole grains) during breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a good start. A Registered Dietitian will be able to guide you on how much more you might need during snacks or around workouts as well.
If you happen to be doing intense, over 1 hour workouts (or if you’re playing intense sports for that amount of time) having carbs before and perhaps even during your exercise could help refuel your body and keep fatigue at bay .
So what kind of carbs should I be having?
Aim to have whole grains such as whole grain pasta, brown rice, oats, and quinoa during meal times. These will provide you with fibre and lots of B vitamins to promote bowel health and give you energy .
Incorporate fruits and low-fat dairy/dairy alternatives into your diet too. While these are not in the “whole grains” section of the Food Guide, fruits and dairy/dairy alternatives are sources of carbohydrates and are good sources of energy. Fruits, in particular, are also a good source of antioxidants like Vitamin C that protect your body’s cells from damage and stress associated with exercise  . Dairy and dairy alternatives like fortified soy, cashew, and almond milk all provide calcium and vitamin D to help keep your bones strong and resistant to injury.
Remember all the anti-fat propaganda from the 90s/00s? They were wrong! Fat is actually an important part of a balanced diet. In fact, fat provides us with energy and even helps our bodies absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K . Fat even helps with your brain health too – without it, we wouldn’t be able to function and work out, so it’s a good thing you only need about 2-3 tbsp of healthier cooking oils or a 1/4 cup of certain nuts and seeds daily  . Because fat is in so many foods, this is the only amount you’ll need to think about adding into your meals in order for you to get 20-35% of your total energy coming from this great macronutrient .
More good news! Because the amount of added fat needed is so little, timings aren’t really an issue. You could easily get this amount before dinnertime even rolls around through the cooking oil and margarine you might have in your meals.
So what kind of fats should I be having?
Limit sources of saturated and trans fats, like pastries and fast food. These have been linked to heart disease and wouldn’t be conducive to an active lifestyle .
Reach for sources of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats instead, like olive oil, avocados, flaxseeds, and walnuts. These will help improve your heart health and work together with exercise to build a stronger you.
While there are a lot of fancy calculations out there to help you figure out exactly how much water you need, you can simply drink water throughout the day. This will stop you from getting dehydrated and help you achieve your best exercise performance .
Before, during, and after exercise are all good times to stay hydrated. In particular, drinking water while you are active and keeping it closeby at all times is a great way to replenish any fluids your body is losing through sweat. Listen to your body: if you don’t remember having had water in a while or if you feel thirsty, don’t be afraid to take a time out and grab some H2O. Your body will thank you!
So what kind of fluids should I be having?
Water should be your drink of choice when being active. In the event that you are working out at a high intensity for over 45 minutes, consider sports drinks that contain electrolytes as well. This is because your body doesn’t just lose water when sweating – electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and chlorine escape as well . These losses (particularly of sodium) can even cause cramping, so in intense cases where this can happen sports drinks should be considered .
As simplistic as it may seem, combining all of these ideas into one meal plan actually creates what many of us already do or are striving towards: having three meals a day (with the odd snack in between meals) as well as fluids like water and dairy beverages throughout. I hope the tweaks to this old-age formula are not too daunting and you find yourself able to adopt a diet that can support you on your exercise journey 😌.
It is important to remember, though, that these are all very general guidelines on exercise nutrition. Every active person is different: macronutrient and caloric needs are dependent not only on age, height, weight, and sex/gender but also the type of physical activity you partake in, the amount of time you spend training/competing daily, and the intensity at which you perform. Seeing a Registered Dietitian is therefore very important and can help you create an individualized meal plan that works best for you and can contribute to optimal performance. If you feel like that’s something you’d benefit from, contact us and we can work together to build a stronger you!
Until next time 😉,
Huda Amareh, MAHN, RD
 Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and Participaction (2018). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. Can be accessed from: https://csepguidelines.ca/adults-18-64/
 Unlock Food (2019). Introduction To Protein And High Protein Foods. Can be accessed from: https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Protein/Introduction-To-Protein-And-High-Protein-Foods.aspx
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 Baker, L. B., De Chavez, P. J. D., Ungaro, C. T., Sopeña, B. C., Nuccio, R. P., Reimel, A. J., & Barnes, K. A. (2019). Exercise intensity effects on total sweat electrolyte losses and regional vs. whole-body sweat [Na+],[Cl−], and [K+]. European journal of applied physiology, 119(2), 361-375.