Trying to balance the demands of work, family, school, travel, and leisure can make consistently eating the foods that will help you perform optimally inside and outside the gym a difficult task.
Plus, a lot of the nutrition information out there is just plain confusing and overwhelming. Making it difficult decide on what might be the best approach for you as an athlete or weekend warrior like me.
- Should you be eating Paleo
- Low carb
- High carb
- What should I eat before workouts?
- What should I eat after workouts?
- What about on rest days? Should my nutrition change?
- How much protein, fat, carbs?
Shit! Make it stop!
Well brother (or sister) that’s the plan today. I’m about to lay down some basic nutrition habits that you can start practicing that will help you get into better condition for training sessions, sports, and everyday life.
TWO STEPS TO CONSISTENTLY PRACTICING HEALTHY NUTRITION HABITS
A lot of athletes and weekend warriors that I’ve worked with at L365 are use to following a very detailed, specific, and strict meal plan. Unfortunately, most of the athletes I’ve worked with are also use to not following those meal plans for longer than a week or 2.
Why is that?
Because meal plans don’t take into account life. Shit happens on a regular basis that makes eating specific meals, using certain foods, and eating at regulated times extremely difficult.
As mentioned earlier in this article athletes and even wannabe athletes have serious time demands and trying to juggle various responsibilities leaves little time to prepare complicated recipes or to strictly adhere to a meal plan. I’ve also found that many of my athletes are part of a family and this makes preparing dinners difficult. Either you’re making multiple dinners or someone is having to do this for you.
Instead of giving you some strict plan that you and I both know you’re not going to follow – we’ll layout the ground work for an easy to implement nutrition plan that isn’t asking you to eat chicken, broccoli, and oatmeal day after day. Instead, you’ll still being able to enjoy a slice of pizza and a beer (if you’re of age of course) with the boys or girls every once in a while.
STEP 1: A BASIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE 3 MACRONUTRIENTS
I want to warn you, this section may get into the weeds a little bit. The sciency weeds. Just hang tight ok.
Is made up of essential and nonessential amino acids. The essential amino acids are the ones that your body can’t manufacture on its own and the nonessential ones your body usually can. These amino’s are needed in order to produce very important molecules that help with optimal bodily function – like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies.
Protein and amino acids help with immune function, metabolism, satiety, weight management, performance and recovery.
Protein has roughly 4 calories per gram so if you eat 100 grams of protein a day that equals to 400 calories.
Protein is used primarily by the body for structure and function. It can also be used as an energy source but your body prefers to use carbohydrates and fat for this. It will only go to protein if the other two sources of calories (carbohydrates and fat) in your diet are being neglected.
I’m sure a lot of you have heard that you’re supposed to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. The truth is there is no real good supporting science around that. What it really comes down to is you, your needs, your goals, and what you’re doing daily.
If you are not very active then you can get away with less protein in your diet because there is less repair, structure, and bodily function that need to be accounted for.
On the flip side, if you’re killing yourself in the gym, have a fairly active life, or maybe are under a lot of personal, professional or lifestyle stress then it may be beneficial for you to take in a little more. Generally speaking most untrained people will need around .8 grams per kilo gram of bodyweight or .36 grams per pound to prevent a deficit. Hard training people may need closer to 1.4 to 2 grams per kilogram or .64 to .9 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Some examples of good protein sources include:
- Ground Beef (grass fed if possible)
- Eggs (whole or whites, but emphasize whole eggs)
- Fish/Seafood (salmon, shrimp, etc.)
- Wild Game (buffalo, venison, rabbit, etc.)
- For more options refer to your Real Food Chart
If you’re a vegetarian—and my Dad is, so Dad, if you’re reading this—emphasize these protein sources at each meal in this order with eggs being your best option . . . but you can only eat so many eggs :).
- (Best) Eggs
- (Better) Organic Tempeh, Natto, Edamame, organic extra-firm tofu
- (Good) Protein Powders (Hemp or Pea)
- (OK) Raw and Grass-fed Cheese, Milk, Kefir
When I first think of fats I think avocado and I think delicious! Then I think of them as my favorite energy source. Fat also acts as a protective cushioning for organs, as well as main components of our cell membranes and hormones. For you number junkies each gram of fat is equal to 9 calories.
Wait, doesn’t fat make me fat? Not so fast my friend…
Our knowledge of nutrition has changed a lot in the past decade.
Remember the old days when doctors were advising everyone to stop eating eggs because of the fat and cholesterol in them? Now we know that eggs are a good source of protein and fat and the cholesterol in them isn’t much of a concern.
But still, knowing what, how much, and why to eat healthy fats can be confusing and trying to keep up with the research is difficult – as it’s easy to get lost in the maze of nutrition information. That’s why learning all about the latest info on fats is important.
A common mistake people make when they start to eat healthier is not taking in enough healthy fats, which are important for satiety and getting through workouts.
Typically what comes to mind when we think of “healthy fats” are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, fish, and flax oil.
Consuming those healthy fats above can be difficult as many of the fats consumed today are highly processed fats which are designed to be nonperishable. This allows them to have longer shelf lives, which is great for food manufacturers but not so great for us. These fats are trans-fats and hydrogenated fats (hydrogen is added to liquid fat to make it solid) like margarine, Crisco, Earth Balance, Smart Balance, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
So which fats should you be eating more of and cooking with?
I apologize for the science lessons here but don’t worry, this won’t take long.
In chemistry, what makes a fat is its –COOH group at the end of the molecule. A fat can have as few as 2 carbons or more than 20 carbons. Fats are called short-chain fatty acids, medium-chain fatty acids, or long-chain fatty acids.
- Short-chain fats are less than 6 carbons in length and found in food and made in the body when a longer fat is broken apart by enzymes.
- Medium-chain fats are between 6 and 12 carbons long and they are the fats found in coconut oil. In fact, there was a baby formula scandal several years ago where baby formulas were missing these fats and the babies did not do well until these fats were added back into their diet.
- Long-chain fats are those that are required for us to survive, such as omega-3 fats. They are 13 carbons in length or longer. But this type of fat also includes the omega-6 and omega-9 fats. The omega signifies where the double bond is located. For example, omega-3 means the double bond is at the third carbon position.
The omega-6 fats sometimes get a bad rap because they can contribute to inflammation in the body. Whereas Omega-3 fats can stop the inflammation in the body.
Omega-3 fats can be further broken down into ALA, EPA, and DHA.
In a nutshell, ALA is alpha linoleic acid, which can convert to DHA. EPA is from fish sources and linked with keeping the blood flowing freely in your body. DHA is the omega-3 fat that keeps you smart.
More on saturated fats
If a fat does not have any double bonds, it is saturated with hydrogen atoms. This makes it very stable, non-reactive to light and cooking. This type of fat is called saturated.
They are used in the body to strengthen the cell wall so that your cells can fight against bacteria, fungi and viruses. Saturated fats also contain fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, E and K. Saturated fats contain cholesterol, which your body uses for hormone production.
Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. These fats are considered to be very stable which means there is less chance of them going toxic or becoming rancid in some way. A fat can become rancid when it is exposed to heat, light, or air for a prolonged period.
When a fat becomes rancid it tastes and smells “off” and can actually do more harm than good to your body on a cellular level. Most oils bought from grocery stores have become oxidized or would be considered rancid because of the way they have been processed.
Saturated fats usually do well under heat and are great for cooking:
- Animal fats
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- Grass-fed butter
- Beef tallow
There are some saturated fats that truly are bad and those would be the ones made in the laboratory. Margarine is at the top of the list. Hydrogenated fats and oils, also called trans fats, would be another one.
When your body cells see these coming, they cry out to you for help. That’s because these fats are thought to plant themselves on the receptor sites where the essential fats are supposed to go. When the essential fats mosey on by, looking for their homes, an all-out civil war is started and the trans fats won’t move out. It’s as if the food manufacturers created their own little Homestead Act for these fats. And again, it’s best to see these in a list so here goes.
Shitty saturated fats:
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated man-made trans fats found in buttery spreads like Earth Balance, Benecol, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter
Shitty unsaturated fats:
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Rice bran oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Vegetable oil
Awesome Saturated Fats (you can heat these)
- Butter (grass-fed) and ghee
- Lard and tallow
- Chicken and duck fat
- Lamb fat
- Full-fat dairy
- Eggs, meats, and seafood
More on unsaturated fats
These are typically liquid at room temperature. Most of these fats do well as dressings or food toppers. Unsaturated fats can de divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated: Are also considered to be fairly stable but under lower heats.
- Olive oil
- Avocado and avocado oil
- Macadamia oil
- Many nuts and seeds
When shopping for oils it is best to look for:
- Cold pressed
Polyunsaturated: Usually less stable than saturated and mono saturated fats, which means they can become rancid and toxic quickly. The more PUFAs you consume, the more you will reduce your levels of EPA and DHA, both of which are essential for brain and other bodily functions. PUFAs also create more free radicals in the body and are associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other inflammatory diseases.
The polyunsaturated fats you should be weary of are the industrial seed oils like:
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
Awesome Unsaturated Fats (cook with low heat or use as dressings)
- Olive oil
- Sesame Oil
- Nut oils (pecan, walnut, macadamia)
- Flaxseed oil (limit to 1 tablespoon per day)
- Nuts and seeds (1-2 ounces maximum per day for fat loss)
Here’s the science…
Carbohydrates are among the most abundant compounds on earth. They are normally broken down into three major classifications from 3 main sources: Sugar, Fiber, Starch
- Monosaccharides: One sugar molecule. Examples include glucose and fructose (fruit).
- Disaccharides: Two sugar molecules. Examples include sucrose (table sugar) and maltose (beer)
- Polysaccharides: Many sugar molecules. Examples are many but starchy carbs like sweet potato, fiber in veggies, and various pastas.
Like protein, carbohydrates also contain 4 calories per gram. All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars and most often glucose. The chief use of these simple sugars or glucose is energy, just like our friend the healthy fat. Carbohydrates are either used immediately for energy or are stored for use later. Our brain and nerve cells prefer carbohydrate (glucose) as its primary fuel source. This is why you may feel a little lethargic or foggy brained if you reduce them. With that said, our brain and nerve cells can also use ketones for fuel as well and once accustomed to using them for fuel we can run very efficiently.
Our muscles can typically store around 300-600 grams of carbohydrate and our liver about 80-100 grams. This may seem like a lot but with a few days of inactivity coupled with a few sugar, bread, or junk-food benders (you know what I’m talking about) and those stores can be overloaded.
If too many carbohydrates are consumed and must be stored they will be stored in our muscle and liver cells. Once these cells become too full the glucose is now converted into fatty acids and stored in fat cells.
*Note: if too many calories in general are consumed they will be stored as fat.
I don’t want it to seem like carbohydrates are the enemy but I just want to point out that our bodies can run extremely efficiently without them. For athletes and wannabe athletes you will need a certain amount of them to help with recovery and performance.
The amount of carbohydrates needed for each of us is dependent on a few factors.
Current body composition:
- Ectomorph: A faster metabolism, thyroid dominant, and high nervous system allow for a higher carbohydrate tolerance
- Mesomorph: Naturally athletic build, high testosterone/growth hormone, moderate nervous system allow for moderate carbohydrate tolerance
- Endomorph: Insulin dominant, slower metabolism, low nervous system make for a lower carbohydrate tolerance
- Sedentary: Little to no exercise activity
- Lightly active: 1-3 days of light physical activity or sport/play
- Moderately active: 3-5 days of moderate intensity physical activity or sport/play
- Very active: 6-7 days a week of hard exercise or sport/play
- Extremely active/elite athlete: Very hard exercise and physically demanding work
Carbs For Fat loss: Lower carbohydrate consumption. Mostly focusing on vegetables. Green leafy and high fiber is best.
- Cauliflower (aka, white broccoli)
- Brussel sprouts
If fat loss is a goal you will want to stick with vegetables like those above throughout the day. 1-2 pieces of fruit per day max or one (1) starchy carbohydrate (mostly from sweet potato) is ok but should be used post exercise only.
After which you will want to get back into the sweet spot of 50-100 grams per day. Again, this depends on you, body type, and activity levels.
Nutrition is a funny science as not everyone responds well to the same stimulus. You’ve really got to get to know your body and become aware of how you react to certain foods.
Carbs For Muscle Gain or Maintenance: If you are looking to add muscle mass I would suggest a range of closer to 100-150 grams per day, possibly getting close to 200 grams if you naturally have a slender build or faster metabolism and are pretty active.
Still concentrate on getting the bulk of these carbohydrates in the form of vegetables but fruit intake can be increased to 1-3 pieces a day or starchy carbs mostly from sweet potatoes.
Most of these should be consumed after an intense workout session and start tapering back as the day winds down. Our body is primed after HARD—keyword HARD—exercise to consume carbohydrates. This is the optimal time for us to get them in. What we eat today actually provides us with our resources for tomorrow.
Although Michael Scott chose to load up on his carbs right before his office Fun Run, downing an oversized plate of fettuccine Alfredo a few minutes before tying his shoes, the former boss on “The Office” should have waited.
Generally, post-workout nutrition has three specific purposes: (adapted from precision nutrition)
- Replenish glycogen
- Decrease protein breakdown
- Increase protein synthesis
Athletes & Exerciser’s will want to:
- Replenish their energy stores
- Increase muscle size and/or muscle quality
- Repair any damage caused by the workout
It’s during this time right after exercise (and by exercise I mean intense activity, not moving from the couch to the mailbox and back again) that you may want to include a few more “Paleo-friendly” carbohydrates like sweet potato, plantain, or even some of the higher sugar fruits like a banana.
Q: So what exactly should I eat after I workout?
A: Follow the same principles found on your real food chart
- One palm to hand sized serving of protein
- One to two fists size servings of veggies
- 1-4 thumb sized (tablespoons) of a healthy fat
- Add one fist sized serving of a higher carbohydrate food like sweet potato (see the real food chart)
Now some of you may or may not be super hungry after a workout. I know I’m not and you might be wondering if you have to eat right away. Well nope, you don’t. You’ve probably heard that there is some sort of 30 minute magical window when it’s best to consume your post workout meal but the truth is the best time to consume your workout is anytime after you workout but try for at least within 2 hours after your training session.
The Real Food Chart below will help you familiarize yourself with some great protein, fat, and carbohydrate choices.
STEP 2: CONSISTENT, PERSISTENT, PRACTICE
Ah shit! More practice?
Yeah, sorry about that. Nutrition takes practice too. Expecting to nail this healthy eating thing over night is a tall task to tackle – say that 3 times fast.
But below we’ve broken it up into a super simple meal template that you can use to make all of this a lot easier.
THE ATHLETE MEAL TEMPLATE
If you expect to find the number of grams for protein you’re suppose to eat, how many carbs, and what percentage of your diet should be made of healthy fat you’re about to be extremely disappointed.
For the most part numbers are meaningless. They don’t take into account how food reacts in the body or allow much for personal variation.
Plus, will you honestly weigh, measure, and record every meal that you eat for the rest of your life, for the next year, or for the next month even?
Use the following as a checklist every time you create a meal or sit down to eat. Simply ask yourself if it has the following? Use the real food chart above as a reference if you need too.
EVERY MEAL INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING
Zero Calorie Beverages: For the most part you’ll want to drink zero calorie beverages most of the time. Water, unsweetened tea, and black coffee are good to go. You’ll want to do your best to eliminate juices, alcohol, additives to drinks (like sugar, honey, creamer), soda, milk, and any other calorie containing drink.
Now with that said there are some exceptions. Athletes typically have higher energy demands than regular folks so protein shakes can come in handy. I like to emphasize eating whole foods whenever possible but sometimes you’ll need one of these shakes to supplement a meal.
For shakes we generally recommend the following:
- 1-2 scoops of your favorite protein powder
- 1 fist of low sugar berries (or fruit of your choice)
- 1 fist of vegetables or 1 scoop of a greens supplement
- 1-2 thumbs of a healthy fat like coconut oil, nuts & seeds, or avocado.
- If after a workout or hard skate include 1 fist of slow digesting carbohydrate like oats
- A topper such as dark chocolate, cinnamon, or flax seeds
- 4 to 6 ice cubes
- 8 to 16 ounces of water or unsweetened almond or coconut milk
- Blend and enjoy!
1-2 Palms of Protein: This will increase with activity levels and the physical damage you’ve places on your body from games, training, or injuries. But generally this is a great place to start.
Some personal favorites include grass-fed beef, salmon, and chicken thighs. For those of you that don’t eat meat, eggs, tempeh, and edamame are also great choices.
1-2 Fists of Fruit and/or Vegetables: I highly recommend including at least 1 fast sized serving of vegetables with every meal. You can double this up or also include a fist sized serving of fruit along with your vegetables.
Some favorite veggies include: Broccoli, carrot, brussels sprouts, and red cabbage. For fruits how about all the berries, apples, and oranges.
You’ll notice that on your real food chart fruits are separated into low sugar and high sugar fruits. You’ll want to save the higher sugar fruits for after intense games and grueling workout sessions.
1-2 Thumbs of Healthy Fat: Healthy fats are important to help with recovery and repair. When your diet includes less than 20-25% dietary fat your hormones and energy levels can be effected. Not a good thing for athletes or wannabe athletes.
1 Fist of Slow Digesting Carbs: This is the one that will need to be adjusted based on your activity levels, gender, body size, and goals (fat loss vs. performance and strength, etc…)
A great place to start is by including a fist sized serving of slow digesting carbohydrates with each meal. Some examples are oatmeal, beans and legumes, quinoa, and if you’re more of a Paleo fan and don’t eat those things – sweet potato, plantain, and butternut squash.
For athletes that are interested in losing body weight or fat limit these slow digesting carbohydrates to post exercise only.
YOU DON’T NEED TO BE PERFECT
A lot of athletes are perfectionists. If this is you – you may beat yourself up for not being able to practice the meal template all of the time.
L365 preaches the 90/10 rule. If you’re eating healthy meals as outlined above 90% of the time and 10% of the time you’re not – you’ll do pretty damn well.
For example, lets say that you’re an athlete that eats 4 meals per day, 7 days a week. That’s a total of 28 meals every week. For the sake of math and making this as easy to understand as possible lets just round that up to 30. 10% of that is 3, which means that if 3 of your meals do not follow the template outlined above you’ll do pretty well for yourself.
3 meals means three normal sized meals, not super sized, and not entire days. If you have a couple of slices with the boys one day per week, eat a slice of cheesecake with your girl or guy another night, and have a small plate of spaghetti and a breadstick with your family on another night you’re good to go.
I recommend that you schedule these meals or at least take a look at your schedule in advance to see when these meals may come up so that you’re aware of them. Look for birthdays, family dinner nights, date nights, out with the boys, or rough road trips.
These meals should be enjoyed. Eat them slowly and never beat yourself up for them.
SELF MONITOR AND ADJUST FOR YOUR NEEDS
The recommendations above are just that – recommendations and a starting point. You’ll most likely need to adjust them slightly to meet the needs of your sport, outside activities, and lifestyle.
Before any athletes or persons for that matter makes changes to their exercise or nutritional plan I recommend doing the following.
- Take before and after photos, girth measurements, and jump on the scale to see where your weight is at.
- For the first week to 2 food log to see how consistently you’re practicing the habits and to create awareness about the foods that you’re consistently taking in.
- Record your workouts and include sets, reps, and weight used. You can also record run times or other aerobic based work numbers. These will be a good measure of whether nutrition is affecting performance.
- For more advanced measurements you can also think about doing a VO2 test, 1 rep max’s, or body fat testing.
If you’re not assessing what you’re doing then you’re just guessing at whether or not it’s working. Make adjustments to your nutrition based on the feedback that you get from some of these assessments.
Simple adjustments like decrease the portions sizes or increasing portions sizes of certain foods may be all you need to do to help your performance or get you closer to your goals.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
You’re the average of the 5 people who you spend the most time with. Surround yourself with other athletes and people in general that have similar goals, aspirations, and work ethic. You’ll be able to motivate, hold each other accountable, and support each other.
Make practicing these habits easier on yourself by setting your environment up for success. Keep the foods you need on hand at all times and do a kitchen makeover and get rid of the foods that will not help you with your goals and performance.
For parents and coaches reading this article help your athletes out by encouraging them to eat well, making meals for them as outlined above, and helping them change their environment by using strategies like the kitchen makeover. Nothing makes me cringe more than when I see athletes being served pizza, cupcakes, or other foods that are not helping them to excel in their sport.
Did we cover it all in this article? Of course not, but we hope that this gives you a starting place.
If you have any questions about today’s article please feel free to comment below. I’ll definitely get back to you in a timely fashion.
Take Action Exercise:
Using the template mentioned in this article take 10 to 15 minutes to plan out a weeks worth of meals. You don’t need fancy recipes or a ton of variety. See if you can stick to the meal plan you create 90% of the time this week.
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