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You Are What You Eat: 4 Tips For Improving Fitness Performance Through Nutrition

Your performance during exercise and your diet are inextricably connected.

Food is fuel for your body and, if it isn’t receiving the right kind of foods, it won’t perform at its best during your workout. In the same vein, eating the right foods and getting the right nutrients can aid or enhance your workout too.

Here, we look at four ways you can change and improve your diet in order to get the most from your fitness regimen.

More calories aren’t necessary a bad thing

If you’re looking to bulk up or increase muscle tone, any personal trainer will tell you that the first thing you need to do is increase your calorie intake.

Online pharmacies are a good source of information when it comes to the facts behind calories and, as Dr Don Grant from The Independent Pharmacy says:

“Conventional wisdom dictates that if you want to lose weight (often equated with a vague sense of “being healthier”), you need to reduce your calorie intake.

“But this demonisation of calories is an unhelpful one. While a calorie-controlled diet can be useful for those looking to lose weight, if you want to improve your overall fitness performance, a more measured approach is needed.”

What’s important to remember is that calories give you energy. If you eat fewer calories but still engage in intensive workouts, particularly weight-lifting and strength-based HIIT, you will find yourself lacking in energy, and your performance will be negatively impacted as a result.

Instead, look for good calories that provide all your required macronutrients (or ‘macros’) of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. If you’re looking to bulk up, rather than just counting calories on their own, you should also consider how much protein, carbs, and fats those calories consist of.

When you are in a calorie deficit, you will lose weight — this much is true. But if you want to build muscle and tone up, you will need more calories with a higher protein intake. Use an app like MyFitnessPal to help track your calories and macros and follow a varied diet that helps your fitness performance, not hinders.

More protein for a more fruitful weight-lifting regimen

If your fitness regimen involves a heavy focus on weight lifting, you will naturally need to increase your diet’s protein levels.

Protein contains amino acids, essentially the ‘building blocks’ of your muscles. As well as helping you build muscle, it also repairs natural damage caused during an intensive workout.

While your body naturally produces amino acids, it’s not enough to support a concerted weight lifting programme.

Naturally, weight lifters should follow a diet containing a variety of foods rich in protein.

But those looking to lose weight would also do well to consider increasing their protein intake too. While you would still need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, increasing your diet’s protein levels can help increase your body’s metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories), as well as reducing your appetite at the same time.

Here are a few examples of the best and most common sources of protein:

  • Eggs: eggs whites contain most protein, while the yolk contains fats, cholesterol, and most of the calories.
  • Meat: lean meats, and poultry in particular, are a strong source of protein.
  • Almonds: good as a quick snack or as a nut butter or porridge topping, 100g of almonds contains over 20g of protein.
  • Oats: with around 10g of protein per 100g, oats are also easy to work into your diet too.

These are just a few examples — there are lots of natural sources of protein that you can easily work into your diet. Find those protein-rich foods that most suit your usual eating habits and you will easily increase your protein intake.

Carbohydrates play an important role in your workout

Like calories, carbohydrates have also fallen victim to the fad diet lobby.

No-carb diets are often promoted as an effective weight loss method, swapping grains, bread, pasta, and so on for foods high in protein or fat.

As with most restrictive diets like this, it can be effective for helping people lose weight. But  carbohydrates are also essential for aiding fitness performance, especially for those looking to improve overall performance.

Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose when digested, which is then converted into glycogen and stored in muscle tissue and the liver. This is the body’s foremost source of energy, and glycogen is used to fuel your body during workouts.

When carbs are restricted in your diet, your body loses glycogen, which in turn makes it harder to work out effectively. Your energy levels drop, and your body might even start breaking down your muscle tissue to make up for the shortfall.

Athletes looking to improve overall performance should adjust their carbohydrate intake for fuel and recovery according to the intensity of their exercise regimen:

  • Low intensity: 3-5g per day
  • Moderate (1 hour a day): 5-7g
  • Endurance regimen (1-3 hours a day): 6-10g
  • Extreme (4-5+ hours per day): 8-12g

The above is just a general guide, of course. You should make adjustments according to your specific types of exercise and energy requirements, but they serve as a good rule of thumb to get started with.

You are what you don’t eat

In fitness, what you don’t eat is just as important as what you do.

One of the worst ways one can lose weight is by skipping meals.

This is a mistake many beginners make when trying to lose weight. While eating smaller portions does help you lose weight, cutting out certain meals altogether is the drastic end of the spectrum.

When you skip meals, your body goes into survival mode. It realises it is not receiving the calories and macros it needs to operate, so it increases your cravings in order to recoup those losses.

As a result, skipping meals (or, indeed, eating dramatically-reduced portions) is unsustainable. It will leave you feeling tired and lethargic, and those who do skip meals often find themselves reaching for a quick, unhealthy snack in order to sate their appetite.

Beyond this, skipping meals also causes your metabolism to slow down. When your body’s food sources become scarce, it retains more weight, which in turn can make it even more difficult to lose weight.

Rather than miss certain meals, consider eating smaller portions more frequently throughout the day.

Alternatively, eat your usual three meals a day, but eat small snacks high fibre and protein in-between. These keep you feeling fuller for longer, preventing you from reaching for quick but high-calorie snacks instead.

Just as you wouldn’t put diesel in a petrol car, nor would you eat the wrong kind of food to suit your specific fitness goals. Use the tips above as a guide to help build a better, healthier diet that caters to and enhances your fitness regimen.