Are the foods you’re eating really complementing your exercise efforts? Nutritionist Claire Turnbull looks at the mistakes we can make, and what foods do help us get the most out of all the hard work.
I’ve been for a run, therefore I can eat a chocolate bar. I’ve lifted weights for the last half an hour, so I really need a sports drink to refuel!
These are just a couple of the many common mistakes we can all make when it comes to food and exercise – and that’s regardless of whether you’ve just started a new fitness regime, or even if you’ve been training for years. It can be easy to think that because you’re working out you need to eat just before a workout, or top up with protein shakes, for example. So, what’s really best practice when it comes to exercise and your eating habits?
Mistake 1: ‘Treating yourself’ after exercise\
After you’ve finished your game of netball, a gym class or a run it’s tempting to reward yourself with an extra glass of wine or a chocolate treat. The problem is, you can end up using exercise to compensate for unhealthy eating habits. You may eat far more extra kilojoules in ‘treats’ or ‘rewards’ than you’ve burnt off during the exercise session, leading to weight gain.
Instead, avoid using food or alcohol as a treat or a reward for doing exercise. Think of exercise as just another part of your day and not something ‘special’ that you should be rewarded for. Think long-term and instead of treating yourself after each session, keep track of your exercise efforts for a month. At the end of the month, if you’ve achieved your exercise goals, treat yourself to a non-food-related reward. You could book yourself a massage, get your nails done or buy something special you’ve had your eye on.
Mistake 2: Eating just before exercise
If it’s your routine to eat a snack before you head out for a run, walk or sports game, it’s best to eat at least 30 minutes before you go. This allows time for the food to be digested, making you feel more comfortable, and allowing the nutrients your muscles require for exercise (mainly glucose, which is found in carbohydrate foods) to be put into your bloodstream. If you eat just before you go, the food will still be sitting in your stomach. If you have a full meal, rather than a snack, it’s best to wait 2–3 hours before exercising if possible, as there is more food to be digested. The exact timing will depend on the type of food and how much you ate.
Mistake 3: Drinking sports drinks
Sports drinks are very easy to find and increasingly popular, but many of us are drinking them when we don’t really need to. Sports drinks can have up to 14 teaspoons of sugar per bottle and as many kilojoules as a chocolate bar. They’re not a great choice unless you’re doing lots of training at high intensity (i.e athletes) or doing intense training (such as running quickly or playing rugby) for longer than 60–90 minutes per session. If you’re only doing a few, shorter workouts a week, then water is all you need.
Mistake 4: Eating before morning exercise
If you do up to an hour of moderate intensity exercise first thing in the morning you don’t have to eat beforehand, particularly if your goal is weight loss. You’ll have enough stored carbohydrate (as glycogen) to fuel your body for a workout of this length from the meals you ate during the previous day. If you do exercise in the morning, however, it is important to have a meal or snack with some carbohydrate, ideally within 30 minutes of finishing, to help refuel your energy stores. If it is going to be a really hard training session, or if you feel like you can push yourself harder, then a small, quickly-digested snack may be the way to go for you. Try a banana or a piece of toast with honey at least 30 minutes before you exercise. If you’re watching your weight, this snack will need to be considered as part of your total kilojoule allowance for the day, so you could try reducing the size of your breakfast or your mid-morning snack to compensate, for example.
Mistake 5: Having only protein after exercise
Protein is important to help your muscles repair and recover after exercise. But having protein on its own, although it may seem the ‘in’ thing to do, isn’t ideal. If you’ve been doing a cardio workout (such as boxing, running or hockey) or a mixture of resistance (such as weights) and cardio exercises, your body ideally needs both protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing if you can. This helps your body to recover and repair effectively. Great recovery snacks that fit the bill (containing both carbohydrate and protein) include a Milo made with skim milk, a tub of reduced-fat yoghurt or a piece of toast with peanut butter. For something more substantial, try a sandwich, wrap or pita bread with tuna, chicken or egg and salad.
If you are doing a large volume of high-intensity training, you are best to speak to a sports dietitian. They can give you individual advice on nutrition, as it will vary depending on the type and amount of training you do. Visit www.sportsdietitians.com.au to find your nearest sports dietitian.