We all know that exercise is important, particularly if you’re trying to lose weight or to manage a health condition. I’m still managing to get out for some runs (or slow staggers really) and am trying to include some resistance training into my weekly routine. But until recently, I found it hard to know what to eat and when.
In the past, I would head out for an early morning run on an empty stomach for two reasons. One was I thought it would help me burn more fat and therefore lose weight (I’m sure I read that in a magazine somewhere) and the other was I would get a terrible stitch or feel sick if I ate before heading out – unless I woke up and ate at least two hours before heading out. Which would have been about 4.30 in the morning. Not ideal!
Having been severely scolded by my athlete daughter who quoted loads of recent research at me, I’ve had to make changes Because food and exercise is important; quality and quantity are key.
Apparently one of the most prevalent in-jokes among bodybuilders is that “abs are made in the kitchen.” This witticism holds truth to it – no matter how hard you work out, how much effort you put in, a nutritious and healthy diet will always be more important than working out, even if working out is an essential part of reaching your fitness goals. Other principles still count, like seeing a physiotherapist if you’re having mobility issues, but it’s essential to focus on these baseline priorities as well.
It’s very easy to think that people who enjoy working out limit themselves to harsh diets lacking in nourishment, but the opposite should, and is, true. If you hope to be fit, you have to eat well. And what counts as eating well? It seems hearty ingredients, limited sugars, complex carbohydrates, healthy sources of protein and many leafy green vegetables are a good place to start. After all, more and more professional athletes have discovered the power of a whole-food plant-based diet to fuel their peak fitness (look at Novak Djokovic who’s won the most tennis titles ever – he’s been plant-based for years!).
Not that I’m considering myself as a peak performance athlete! But if it works for those who are, then I fancy it’s the same for humble mortals like me 😉
There’s plenty of healthy recipes to inspire you here on the blog. But there are a few extra things you might want to think about if you’ve started on your fitness journey.
Raise The Protein
Raising the protein level of your diet with healthy sources can be fantastic. There is still a myth that you can’t consume enough protein on a plant-based diet, and the quality is poor as they are not ‘complete’. Whilst it’s true that some plant foods like grains may be low in one or two essential amino acids, as long as a range of foods are eaten through the day, it’s really not a problem. The body will find what it needs!
Protein helps you stay full longer as well, which is good news. Good sources of plant-based protein include soya products like tofu, tempeh and edamame beans. Lentils, beans and gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet are also great sources. Nuts, seeds and even green leafy veg have reasonable amounts too.
Making sure that each meal has at least one rich protein source will be ideal. Protein will help the recovery and repair of your muscles no matter how you’ve been exercising. It’s not just the domain of bodybuilders. Examples could be:
Breakfast – overnight oats with chia seeds and soya milk
Lunch – Buddha bowl with a quinoa base, smoking tofu and broccoli, peas and tahini sauce
Dinner – Lentil ragu with wholegrain pasta and toasted walnuts
These are all big meals though – ok if you’re not heading to the gym for a least two hours, but what to eat when you’re heading out in the next 30 minutes or so?
I tend to have soya yoghurt with some fresh berries and a sprinkle of ground flaxseed. Easy to digest and contains some simple sugars in the fruit along with protein in the yoghurt and flaxseed or toasted granola. Alternatively, I go for a wholegrain rice cake or two topped with nut butter and a little banana. Again light, but with whole sugars to give my legs a boost.
Limit Heavy Carbs Before Working Out
Refined carbohydrates are not recommended in a healthy diet; some athletes will eat them prior to a big event (‘carb loading’) but as a general rule, complex carbs are always the go-to source of energy. This means switching white for brown, such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice and pasta and whole oats. This will help you feel more satiated for longer, and they can be delicious alternatives to cook with. When you eat a wholegrain or whole food, the sugars contained inside take longer to break down in the gut, and therefore are absorbed more slowly into the blood stream, avoiding those pesky sugar/insulin spikes which are swiftly followed by sugar lows and a dive into the biscuit tin!
However, due to the higher fibre content, they can take a while to digest and are likely to give you a painful stitch if you’re doing aerobic activity like running or swimming. Popping some oats and ground flaxseed in a green smoothie is a better option prior to exercising unless you’ve had that two hour gap after eating.
Include Omega 3 fatty acids
Healthy fats are also key to getting the best out of exercise. Omega-3 is a fantastic nutrient to enjoy when exercising, because it protects heart, brain and joint health. Traditionally, fish is recommended as the best source of this essential nutrient. But in today’s world, fish is just not sustainable and the polluted seas mean they contain toxic chemicals like mercury as well as micro-plastics.
However, you can get good amounts of Omega 3 in plant foods – you just need to know what to include. Nuts and seeds are a particularly good source, like flaxseed, chia, hemp and walnuts. Just a tablespoon or small handful is all that’s needed in one go. Interestingly, other plant foods which are good for protein also contain Omega 3 fatty acids including soya products – tofu, tempeh, edamame beans. Leafy greens, broccoli and Brussel sprouts are also surprise contenders.
And so you see the benefits of eating whole plant foods in one simple example – you get a full range of nutrients that support your body before, during and after exercise. And any other time of the day too!
If you feel you need a bit of an Omega 3 boost, algae oil supplements might be for you. Quite expensive still, they are a fantastic, clean source of this essential fatty acid – it’s where the fish get it from after all! Alternatively, if you are following a health programme like Overcoming MS, you’ll be getting plenty of Omega 3 in ground flaxseed oil – which is definitely an acquired taste 😉
I’m still progressing on my return to fitness journey. I’m happy to have lost the weight I wanted to. Now I’m focusing on improving my core strength and fitness – and keeping my weight stable. All of the things I mentioned above – good sources of protein, complex carbs and getting enough Omega 3 – seem to be making a difference. I hope this helps you too. And if you have any top suggests for quick pre-gym/exercise plant-based snacks that won’t leave you doubled in two, please do let me know in the comments below.