Most people exercise either to be fit or to lose weight. While there are other motivations, the real essence boils down to one of these two goals. Proper food strategy is extremely important to support your efforts and help you reach your goals as efficiently as possible. The human body has complex and intelligent systems designed to protect vital body processes. While exercise is beneficial, the body experiences it as stress and sets in motion biochemical interplay to either foster adaptation or inspire preservation. Simply, this means that you will get the best fitness results if you are calculated in your habits before and after workouts. One decision can make or break your exercise efforts.
I know you’ve heard the analogy before, but I hope to shine new light on it. Think of your body as a world-class sports car. In order to respond quickly, maneuver efficiently and perform at very fast speeds, a sports car must be finely tuned, regularly serviced and operating on high quality fuel. And that is your body in a nutshell. What you put into your body and when dictates how well it runs during your workouts and how quickly it adapts after your workouts. If your goal is to burn body fat and lose weight through exercise, your pre and post nutrition will make or break your ride.
You will often hear experts suggest a 2-pound weight loss per week for long term weight loss goals. That doesn’t sound like much weight each week, huh? But I offer you this:
In order to lose 1 pound of pure body fat, your body must have a calorie deficit of 3500 calories. If that 1 pound of fat loss occurs in one week, that means you need to have a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories every day that week. There are only two ways to create a calorie deficit and get skinny: cut back on calories or burn them off. The best strategy is to do both.
Therefore, how to burn off the calories? Exercise, obviously. One big mistake I see regularly, and one I am guilty of in the past, is to let the motivation of calorie burning cause you to walk into your workout empty, without food. If your goal is to burn off extra body fat by burning calories, doesn’t it make sense to be empty when you exercise? Many people erroneously think that this will cause your body to tap into body fat stores for fuel. But let’s return to the sports car analogy: do you think it will run well if it is without fuel?
At any given moment, your body has a limited amount of circulating fuel. Your body is smart, and is designed to make sure fuel is available to preserve your brain function. Your body will always keep a small amount of fuel so that the master computer—your brain—is protected and up to the task of directing your body functions. When you exercise, your muscles are responsible for driving movement. Your muscles also require fuel. If there is limited fuel in your system, the brain will always win out. This is problematic for many reasons. First, while your brain is demanding fuel, your muscles—also needing fuel to drive movement—will be forced to tap into their own fuel and catabolize its own muscle tissue. One goal of exercise is to inspire muscle growth and development; therefore, a breaking down of tissue will limit your progress. The second, and potentially worse problem is that the catabolism of muscle tissue often causes an increase in appetite that is particularly fond of sugar. If you have cravings after your workouts, take a look at your fueling!
Most importantly, proper fueling before and after workouts will allow you the energy needed to have excellent workouts. If you regularly feel fatigued and lacking enthusiasm around your workouts, take a look at your nutrition around your exercise. If you are properly fueled with the right foods, you will have more energy during your workout, and therefore be able to workout harder. Just like the sports car, you’ll be able to respond quickly, maneuver efficiently and perform at very fast speeds. And this will help you to become fit faster, and burn off calories more effectively.
If you’ve had a complete meal 2-3 hours immediately prior to your workout, you only need to eat a snack after your workout. Choose a snack that emphasizes protein unless your workout is long and intense. See below for snack suggestions.
If your last meal was longer than 3 hours before the start of your workout, you must eat a small snack before your workout. You’ll want to choose something with fast digesting protein and moderate carbohydrates. String cheese and an apple works great for many of my clients. I like cottage cheese with fruit or gluten-free whole grain bread.
You don’t need to eat immediately after if your workout is 60 minutes or less and of a moderate intensity. However, you should plan to eat a meal within 60 minutes.
You should plan for a light snack immediately after your workout and a meal within 60 minutes of the snack if your workout is 60 minutes and intense. A snack that emphasizes protein is best. Look for dairy based proteins like milk, low fat string cheese, cottage cheese or whey protein powder.
If your workout is longer than 60 minutes and of any intensity, you’ll want to eat a substantial snack that includes both protein and a fast carb like sugar or fruit. This is where sports drinks or protein shakes are useful. My favorite is a whey protein shake blended with quick digesting fruit like pineapple, mango or banana.
If your goal is to be fit and healthy, regardless of weight loss, your workouts will be optimized if you follow this fueling strategy. If your goal is fat loss or weight loss, give this strategy a try for two weeks. You’ll be amazed how fast, efficient and energized your sports car is!