Nutrition Part 1: it’s not rocket science
This is part 1 of 3 posts focusing on Nutrition and how it applies to training.
Whether you’re new or familiar to the fitness game and the fitness industry one thing you will be aware of is nutrition.
Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. It is a huge buzzword when it comes to fitness, and it is often more focused on than training itself. This applies particularly to bodybuilding and strength sports where the goal is to develop muscle mass but I’ve also noticed it becoming more and more prevalent in more mainstream sports like running.
In fact if you flick through any sports magazine you’ll be guaranteed to find plenty of adverts selling nutrition products; they are increasingly a staple of the men and women lifestyle magazines as well.
How important is nutrition?
Your diet is definitely a factor in your training plan, and you need to pay attention to what you’re eating in order to get the best out of your body. It is pretty obvious that even if you have a Ferrari it won’t run very well unless you use the right amount and the right quality of fuel.
However it is not as complicated or quite as big a deal as the industry would like you to believe.
Let’s break nutrition down into the three basic necessities.
Sources: meat, fish, dairy products, nuts, lentils
Let’s start with the money maker. For some, protein consumption could practically be a religion. After all, all the magazines tell you about is how you need to have it 4-5 times a day, make sure you eat 2 grams per pound of bodyweight or you won’t grow, if you miss your ‘anabolic’ post workout 20 minute window you’ll literally feel the mass disappearing…
I used to be like that. I literally thought I needed to have some protein every 2-3 hours, just as advised.
I’d bring my post-workout shake ready to drink as soon as I had put down the last weight of the session. I’d make sure I drank milk or even took a shake right before I went to bed to keep my muscles ‘fed’ for those long 8 hours of not eating. I researched reviews of the latest new ‘all-in-one’ formulas that claimed to deliver a ‘blend of 5 different time-release proteins to keep your body anabolic 24/7!’
I remember reading articles about certain athletes or bodybuilders who set their alarms for 3am every morning with a protein shake ready to gulp down before going back to sleep.
I still see people sipping on protein shakes in between sets; you can actually get pre, during and post workout protein shakes, all of which are meant to give you a different ‘edge’ in performance.
So how important is it actually?
Protein is essential for healthy body function as it is used to repair your cells. This is why it is key to rebuilding muscle damaged through training and it goes without saying that someone who has more muscle and is breaking it down on a regular basis needs more than someone who thinks getting up to look for the TV remote is a blatant breach of the Geneva Convention.
However, remember what we know about muscular potential for natural lifters. It is not that high, nowhere near what the magazines would have you expect, with their drug-using models and photoshop. It is also a gradual process that takes applied effort over years, not weeks.
Therefore if you were already eating the basic sources of protein before you started training you might only have to just add a bit more protein to your diet by drinking a small glass of milk everyday or having slightly more meat with your dinner.
In fact if you live in the Western world you are probably already exceeding your protein requirements through your lifestyle and you might not even have to change much at all.
The point is you eating 2 grams of protein or 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is not going to determine whether you get jacked or stay skinny; if you are eating a balanced diet the factor affecting your progress is going to be your training dedication, intensity and genetics for building muscle.
Sources: pasta, rice, bread, oats, cereals, fruit
At the other end of the adoration stakes carbs have had a pretty bad press in recent times and have unfairly and ridiculously almost become a dirty word, especially for those on the dieting phase of their annual love-and-loathe-myself rollercoaster.
Let’s be clear: carbs are essential for energy and they do not make you fat. Being lazy and eating too much pretty much top the podium for that result, no matter how much better you feel by blaming inanimate biomolecules.
Because of the stigma the fitness industry doesn’t push carb supplements or really promote them because they won’t sell, not like magic protein.
However for training purposes they are important as you need to have energy to have a good and intense workout.
The industry solves this marketing conundrum by selling pre-workouts. These can be labelled with exciting colours, inspirational names and promises of giving you a ‘buzz’ like you’ve never had, which is going to get you that 140 kg bench press, finally.
Pre-workouts are just sugar and stimulants like caffeine
Back in the real world if you are capable of eating a banana and maybe drinking a small coffee half an hour before you workout it is going to do you just fine for energy, provided you have three square meals a day.
The best part is that it doesn’t get you hyped up on sugar, which can cause a crash in energy later. What’s more is that if you get used to the sugar rush from the pre-workouts it can get to the point where you can’t train without it; which is of course the whole plan.
It is true that eating excessive amounts of carbs can cause you to gain weight, but this also applies to eating too much protein or fat and is only going to be problematic if you don’t expend enough energy.
If you want to lose weight then firstly make sure what you eat is low in fat and healthy, after that just gradually reduce the portion size. (i.e. instead of cooking a whole cup of rice for dinner only use 2/3rds).
But remember training hard and consistently comes first.
Sources: Meat, butter, margarine (saturated fats); flaxseed, oils, nuts, seeds (unsaturated and essential fats)
Fats are both good and bad for you, depending on what type.
A basic rule is that too much saturated fat is not good for you. These types of fat are generally solid at room temperature and come from animal fat and stuff like butter.
Because these fats are high in calories they can cause you to gain weight as well as some studies showing a rise in cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease.
On the other hand you have unsaturated fats (monounsaturates and polyunsaturates) and healthy fatty acids like Omega-3, some of which are essential for healthy body function. These types are generally liquid at room temperature.
It is pretty much a question of keeping your solid fat intake down (less meat or remove fat from meat before cooking and dairy) while making sure you get your essential fats (from fish or nuts; alternatively you can add a teaspoon of something like flaxseed oil to your meals).
It is very simple, but not necessarily easy
Just like good training, good nutrition can be very simple but not easy to do. It requires a bit of knowledge and self-discipline. But it shouldn’t be a complicated subject.
A key thing to be aware of, as I explained in my body types post, is what your individual eccentricities are. You are probably aware of what sort of body type you have and be honest with yourself about it: if you are someone who puts on weight very easily you will have to be more careful than someone else who is more fortunate in that department.
But if you are like that, more of an endomorph (big-boned) you will probably have a strength advantage over the more ectomorphic types who never gain an ounce of fat whatever they eat.
Fitness nutrition is mainly hype
Like training ‘shortcuts’, the industry plays on peoples ignorance and encourages misinformation to seduce them into believing there is an easy way out when it comes to nutrition.
Training can’t be packaged and sold as easily as a tub of powder or a drink.
As a result fitness marketing places a huge emphasis on nutrition, making it appear as if it is the fundamental key to your success, or that normal food is not enough for someone who wants to train.
Ignore it. Nutrition is important but it is only a small part of the overall equation. The bigger parts are how well and consistently you train, and your genetics.
And out of those two your genetics are going to have the final say in how far you go.
When you were taught at school to eat your vegetables and stay away from chips they more or less summed up the rules of nutrition; I think everyone knows that having a balanced plate of vegetables, unfried carbs like pastas and rice and some protein in the form of meat or vegetarian options like lentils is what you need.
So if you are basically eating this sort of balanced diet you should put your energy into learning to train properly and putting intensity into your sessions.
That is the key to results, not a magic powder.
There’s no problem drinking protein shakes if you are so busy you don’t have time to stop and eat. I’m not saying supplements are a complete waste of time.
But you will be better off focusing on training right and giving it your all in the gym than worrying about whether you should be drinking a slow-release protein at night or whether you need the latest pre-workout.
If you train right, get enough sleep and try to eat healthy 80% of the time, results will come, gradually over time.
But as always perhaps the most important thing is to take ownership of your training; read, learn and apply, and you’ll be able to see right though the marketing fog.
Click here for Part 2/3 : ‘What supplements actually work?’