Food and Drink for Fitness

Food and drink for fitness play a very important role in your exercise regime. Eating the right foods can make all the difference to aid your workouts. We look at what you can eat and drink to try and help you achieve the goals of your exercise.

Food and Drink for Fitness

very few of us actually know what and when we should be eating

Food and drink for fitness are the first things to address before even exercise. Any gruelling training schedule of an athlete is not without a meticulously planned diet to achieve the level of success desired. So, it is not any different for those of us who are not competing.

It is not just competitive sport where your diet is important. Whether you are trying to lose weight, build muscle or keep fit for improved health, what you eat and drink can make the difference between achieving your fitness goals or getting stuck in an exercise rut.

To make your body perform we need the right training programme and the right food and drink for fitness. With UK obesity rates rising at an alarming rate many of us are trying to keep fit but very few of us actually know what and when we should be eating to make our workout efforts productive.

The Basics

The Basics - Food and Drink for Fitness

When we work out our body is forced to use stored energy to meet the demands of the physical activity. Our bodies rely on carbohydrates such as whole grains, rice, chapatti, pasta, bread and cereals to provide energy during activity and having the right amount at the right time can really help boost your performance.

Starchy carbohydrates are rich in B vitamins which the body needs for energy release. Our body stores carbohydrate as glycogen in our muscles so when we exercise the body will use glycogen to provide the right amount of fuel for what we are doing.

Proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs, lentils, pulses, beans, nuts and tofu are needed to help our body build and repair muscles that we have used. Fluids are essential to keep the body hydrated whilst partaking in activity.

Being even slightly dehydrated will affect how you perform physically and mentally. Water is the obvious choice of drink although if you do moderate intensity exercise for over an hour isotonic drinks can be beneficial. Keeping hydrated before, during and after exercise will undoubtedly lead to a better workout. 

Balance of the Food Groups

The Basics - Food and Drink for Fitness

It is crucial to think about the balance of food groups on our plate. Follow these 10 tips below to optimise your workouts:

1. Have a carbohydrate and protein-rich snack within 30 minutes of a workout to help the body replenish vital nutrients. About 50g of carbohydrate is sufficient if you are doing light to moderate exercise. Moderate exercise is where your heart rate has gone up, you feel warm and a bit sweaty. Follow this with a balanced meal approximately 2-4 hours after exercise.

If you are trying to lose weight or have diabetes, factor in the energy content and effect on blood sugar of these foods over the course of your day so that you are burning more calories than you are consuming. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) give the following examples of 50g carbohydrate:

2 medium-large bananas
800ml isotonic sports drink
500ml fruit juice
2 carbohydrate gels
15 dried apricots

3 slices sliced bread
1 large bowl (60g) breakfast cereal
200-250g cooked pasta
1 large potato (250g)
3 (25g) cereal bars

2. Ensure you include a variety of foods in your diet to ensure you are getting an array of vitamins and minerals. It is important we are getting our 5 A Day of fruit and vegetables as these help combat damage to cells, called oxidative stress, after workouts.

3. Include healthy fats in your diet such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish. We need these fats to help our body function properly. Be aware of portion sizes, however, as 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories per gram!

4. Keep hydrated. Make sure you are drinking plenty before, during and after a workout. Keep a water bottle with you at all times and sip small amounts as you workout.

5. Make sure you include some protein foods at each meal. This could be milk in your cereal, having a chicken salad sandwich at lunchtime or dhal and brown rice in the evening. This will provide your body with sufficient protein for repair and replenishment. If you are trying to gain muscle mass or training for strength, protein requirements can go up to 1.2-1.7g per kg body weight per day.

6. Don’t substitute protein for carbohydrates. If your body doesn’t get a constant supply of carbohydrate it will start using your protein reserves to meet its energy needs! This will hamper your bodies muscle building capacity.

The Plan - The Basics - Food and Drink for Fitness

7. If you are vegetarian plan how you are going to get protein at each meal. Include low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, pulses and beans to maximise protein intake. Vegetarian protein alternatives such as tofu and Quorn are also a good option.

8. Know your carbs! Having sugary drinks and bars can help in competition but for most of us, starchy carbohydrates such as wholemeal chapatti, brown rice and pasta or wholegrain cereal are sufficient to meet our energy requirements. You only need to start thinking about adding extra carbohydrate if you are training for more than an hour a day.

9. Check the colour of your urine! Having a light, straw coloured urine is a sign of your body being adequately hydrated. If your urine is dark yellow (apart from first thing in the morning when this is normal) it could be a warning sign that you are not drinking enough.

10. Be flexible. Depending on the type of activity you do, the duration of the session and what your personal goals are i.e weight loss, building muscle mass etc your dietary requirements will change. Monitor how you progress and adapt your diet accordingly.

Food and drink for fitness can be aided by suitably qualified dietitians and nutritionists who are an invaluable resource to help personalise your dietary intake to your activity levels. Having the right diet could transform your training schedule. 

Most importantly it will also contribute to a much healthier you.

Gulshinder is a UK Senior Registered Dietitian interested in South Asian diets and weight management. Passionate about the plethora of health information available, she endorses only the most impartial and reliable. Her motto, "Time to alleviate our dietary myths."

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