What should I eat if I exercise recreationally?
Nutrition can play a major role in exercise performance and is especially important for athletes, but what about those of us who are not athletes? Those of us who exercise for simple health purposes? Would we still need to stress about the types of foods we are eating if we do recreational exercise like go to the gym or walk for 30-45 minutes per day?
There are particular types of foods and nutrients that are essential for athletic purposes, such as certain amino acids and of course, protein and carbohydrates. However, it has become mainstream, for the general population, to think that weighing out the exact amount of macronutrients before/after exercise or downing protein shakes are necessary. My advice would be not to do these things, because if you generally consume a variety of different healthy foods and meals, which provide with necessary micro- and macronutrients, you don’t really need to stress about the details. In addition, although measuring out macronutrients can help in some cases, this way of eating does not tell us what the quality of food is. For example, 1 piece of white bread and 1 piece of wholegrain bread contain the same amount of carbohydrates, but they are definitely not as healthy as each other. Furthermore, focusing on the minor details of our diet can be a cause of unhealthy eating behaviors as well as taking time and effort.
Without needing to obsess over our macronutrient intake, fueling our exercise through a relaxed diet is possible.
So how should we eat to get the suitable macronutrients for recreational exercise?
First, we shouldn’t hate on carbohydrates. This macronutrient is essential as it gets broken down by our body into a simple sugar molecule which our cells absorb and use for energy. These carbohydrates come in two forms, simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly by our body meaning we get energy quickly (that piece of white bread). On the other hand, complex carbohydrates often have more fibre or starch in them which causes slower digestion meaning we get energy from them sustainably (the wholegrain bread).
Consuming a snack before a workout at the gym or a walk outside can provide you with sustained energy. If you are undertaking endurance training like walking, jogging, bike riding swimming for an hour or more, eating a carbohydrate rich snack, without needing to calculate the exact gram of carbohydrate, can help give you with energy levels. This could be some dried fruit and nuts, plain Greek yoghurt with fruit, toast with peanut butter or something as simple as a banana.
What about fasting before my work out in the morning?
Eating or not eating before a workout will depend on the type and intensity of exercise you are planning on doing and if your body feels ok with going that little bit extra time in the morning without food. For some, not eating in the morning can lead to a drop in blood sugar levels, lightheadedness and fatigue, for others, not eating in the morning may feel perfectly fine. If your workout is lasting over an hour, eating something can help balance your energy levels and result in feeling stronger or faster.
And what about protein?
Protein is an important macronutrient because it helps repair our muscles after a workout. However, post workout protein shakes still float around way more frequently than I’d like. Short regular exercises which may range from 30-60 minutes a day does not require protein supplements, because a simple and balanced meal will absolutely suffice.
Protein shakes can be useful, however mainly in athletes where there requirements are a lot greater than the average person. Eating protein from food rather than from a powder, provides us with many more benefits like various other crucial nutrients, which actually help the natural protein get absorbed.
Balanced meals are made up of four key components: protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, and fat. To build a balanced meal, divide your dish into equal parts lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and fibrous veggies. Then, top if off with a little bit of fat — like a slice of avocado, a sprinkle of nuts or a drizzle of olive oil.
1. Protein – ¼ of your plate.
Fish, meat, poultry, beans, and nuts are all healthy, versatile protein sources—they can be mixed into salads, and pair well with vegetables on a plate. Limit too much red meat, and avoid processed meats such as bacon and sausages.
2. Carbohydrates: whole grains – ¼ of your plate.
Whole and intact grains—whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats, brown rice, and foods made with them, such as whole wheat pasta—have a milder effect on blood sugar and insulin than white bread, white rice, and other refined grains.
3. Make most of your meal vegetables and fruits – ½ of your plate.
Aim for colour and variety – all fresh, roasted, steamed or boiled vegetables are included!! Unfortunately fried stuff doesn’t count here.
4. Healthy fat – a little drizzle.
Choose a healthy source of fat like extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado to flavour your dish.
So the bottom line is if you are want a little extra boost for your workout, having a simple snack before can be beneficial without needing to weigh out the exact amount of food. After your workout, eating a balanced meal using the balanced meal method is perfectly fine, without the need for extra protein or other supplements. The key message is that, if we exercise recreationally, we shouldn’t stress over quantities of macronutrients or supplementing with anything. Eating a balanced diet is certainly good enough.
Dr Joyce Haddad, Director of A Dietitian's Mission, is a Dietitian, Nutritionist and Master Personal Trainer with a passion for health and wellbeing. ADM aims to help the public make informed and realistic nutritional choices and ensure everyone has a healthy relationship with their body and with food.