It’s easy to get confused about nutrition when there are so many conflicting messages about what makes proper nutrition, what to do to build muscle mass or burn fat, and what kinds of foods are “good” or “bad” for you.
The problem is that people want to hear quick soundbites and want the entire field of nutrition science condensed into easily-understood bullet points. While it’s more complicated than what is “good” or “bad,” the good news is that there are some basic rules to remember when planning your meals and taking your supplements. More advanced athletes will have more advanced needs, but these are good rules for most fitness enthusiasts.
Number one among the messages you must ignore from popular health advice regards calorie intake. Cutting calories to the bare minimum will not help you reach your fitness goals, particularly if your goals include building muscle and mass. If you eat fewer calories than you consume, your body will stop building new structures, including muscle, in order to preserve the structures that it has.
Plan to consume about twenty calories per pound of your body weight. This means about 3,600 calories for a person weighing 180 pounds. 20-30% of these calories should come from fats (including 5-10% from saturated fat), 20-30% from protein and 40-60% from carbohydrates.
#1 FAT IS NOT YOUR ENEMY!
Fat is one of the macro nutrients we get many conflicting messages about. It’s counter intuitive to suggest that some diets are too low in fat, particularly saturated fat, but athletes should consume about 20-30% of their calories from fats, including 5-10% from saturated fat. Much of what we hear about fat is aimed toward people who are sedentary and do not benefit from fats the way active people do.
Fat provides energy and assists in immune function and forms protective sheaths around organs and other tissues. It also maintains testosterone levels, which helps you build and maintain muscle mass and strength. Saturated fats are generally animal fats; beef is a good source of saturated fat. Unsaturated fats, including essential fatty acids, are found in plant oils, nuts and fish.
#2 CONSUMING THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF CARBS
Similar to fats, we receive a lot of misinformation about carbohydrates. Again, much of this information is intended for people who are sedentary and do not benefit from a diet high in carbohydrates. However, during workouts, the bulk of the body’s immediately accessible energy comes in the form of glycogen, a substance produced by the body from glucose. Depending on your needs, you should consume different amounts and types of carbohydrates. People trying to burn fat should consume between .5-1 gram of carbohydrates per pound of body weight; those trying to maintain their weight should consume from 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per pound; and people trying to build mass should consume between 2-3 grams per pound.
For most meals, slow-burning carbohydrates are appropriate, since they help you burn fat during workouts and keep you from feeling hungry. Slow-burning carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fast-burning carbohydrates like sports drinks, white bread and potatoes should be eaten after your workout to restore glycogen to your muscles. At other times, they should be eaten sparingly.
#3 PROTEIN CONSUMPTION
The first thing most athletes think about when they think about nutrition is their protein and how to get it. It’s hard to overstate how important protein is, as evidenced by the time and energy spent consuming it every day. Most athletes, especially people trying to bulk up or build their strength, need about twice as much protein as average people do. Protein is the body’s source for amino acids, which are used in building and repairing muscles, and eating enough protein can mean you spend less time healing after intense workouts. Protein also provides energy when your body has run out of stored glycogen, which often happens during workouts.
At least one gram of protein per pound of body weight is an appropriate amount for most athletes; for a person weighing 180 pounds, 180 grams of protein is the minimum. A person starting a new training program may even want to start out eating 1.5 grams of protein per pound – 270 grams per day for a person weighing 180 pounds. Animal proteins are the best for athletes, since the amino acids in meats, dairy, eggs and poultry usually contain essential amino acids, which your body can’t produce on its own. Protein shakes are also an acceptable and more convenient way to increase your protein intake.
Protein shakes can actually be a good way to make sure that your body is building and maintaining your muscles efficiently. Thirty minutes before your workout, drink a protein shake along with a slow-burning carbohydrate (more on this later) like fruit or whole grains. This will provide your body with a long-lasting source of energy for your workout (the carbs) while introducing proteins that can be used to immediately start repairing your muscle tissue.
Getting enough carbs before your workout will stop your body from running out and turning to its next source of energy: the protein in your muscles. Your pre-workout shake should be 20 grams of whey or a whey/casein blend with 40 grams of slow-burning carbs either eaten with the shake or added to it. Within thirty minutes of finishing your workout, drink another protein shake, 20-40 grams, and have between 60 and 100 grams of a fast-burning carbohydrate like a sports drink to replenish your body’s stored glycogen.
Adding branched-chain amino acids to your pre- and post-workout protein shakes can also help you get more out of your workouts. These amino acids – leucine, isoleucine and valine – are among the essential amino acids that your body can’t produce. They are useful during and after your workout in several ways. These amino acids are the ones that your body uses as an energy source, so for more intense workouts where you run out of available carbohydrates, branched-chain amino acids will provide you with more energy. They’ll also postpone fatigue, allowing you to prolong your workout. After your workout, branched-chain amino acids will shorten recovery time and add more muscle mass. Adding five to ten grams to both your pre-workout and post-workout shakes will boost your energy and healing.
#4 EATING AT 2-3 HOUR INTERVALS
When you eat can be as important as what you eat. People who eat smaller meals throughout the day, ideally every two or three hours, reap greater rewards from their workouts. For a 180-pound person, eating six to eight 500-600 calorie meals helps keep a continuous supply of available amino acids and carbohydrates in your body, but not so much that your body begins to store fat.
#5 EATING BEFORE BED TIME
Eating before bed is also important for athletes. If you are getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep every night, then your body is essentially undergoing an eight-hour fasting period. During sleep, your body needs to repair itself. Your brain is also experiencing high levels of activity, requiring a lot of energy. During this fasting period, your body may start breaking down its own amino acids – the ones in your muscles – to fuel these activities, which is counterproductive if you are trying to add muscle mass. Complex fats and proteins slow digestion and provide amino acids and energy, so one cup of low-fat cottage cheese and two ounces of peanut butter or nuts will continually fuel your body during sleep.