Updated: Apr 19
You’re in good company, it’s the number one thing we get asked!
Metabolic make-up, genes and athletic goals are all considerations to get the ‘right’ diet, it’s a science! Dietitians and Nutritionists all agree that ‘diet is never a one size fits all.’ It’s even more of a minefield for anyone with medical conditions, so if this is you, please seek expert advice before making changes. We can all agree that high-end athletes or ‘fit people’, always fuel themselves with ‘real’ food that offer a balance of macro nutrients, (carbs, fats, protein and water required in higher amounts) and micronutrients, (vitamins and minerals). This helps with optimum organ health, energy and metabolism.
It seems hard to qualify the tidal wave of ‘healthy’ food information out there, and it’s exhausting trying to keep-up. Almost everyone is confused about carbs, and even protein has been hijacked by ‘fit foods’ companies, processing and packaging too liberally, ‘eat me to be a fitness god’ by the food industry.
Go back in time and we’d have no choice but to be lean machines! Think of how creative our tribal ancestors were with a menu of nuts, fruits, herbs, spices, seasonal spray-free veg, fermented foods preserved naturally, seafood (if lucky enough to live near the shore), and whatever they or friends could hunt effectively. Studies on the dental work of traditional New Zealand Maori by Dr Weston Price concluded they were ‘the most physically perfect race living on the face of the earth’ then (and possibly now), and mostly attributed this to diet and the absence of flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats.
In cities like Auckland, we’re particularly time-poor folk, food quality and beneficial eating patterns often sacrificed for convenience. It’s more difficult to control calories for output, nutrient value and maintain a ‘pure’ diet. But we really love food! ‘Food near me’ is the 74th highest ranking google search in 2022, ‘restaurants near me’ 80th, both surpassing big brands like Apple and Nike, although Starbucks is close in behind at 95th.
So, here’s what we think…
Carbs or no carbs? – Carbs are getting a bad reputation due to the processed food industry. But they are the most efficient way to ‘fuel-up’ and deliver important macronutrients needed primarily to provide cells with energy (including that needed for muscle repair and growth). But in terms of nutrient value and keeping blood sugars stable, low GI carbs such as carbs from vegetables for example, are far better than pasta, bread, breakfast cereals or fruit drinks. Lower carbohydrate diets are beneficial for health conditions such as types of diabetes, but no professional athlete would ever give-up carbs! If you take high-level elite training out of the equation, where does that leave you? If you want to get in shape and get fit without gaining weight, how much is enough to power-up without energy slumps or food cravings? Nutritional guidelines are between 3 – 12 grams per 1kg body weight per day, obviously the scale is relative to exercise output, eg. a marathon runner would be on a high-carb diet. There is however lots of evidence that eating high-starch, refined or high GI carbohydrates increases inflammation (pain) and has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and weight gain. So, we suggest that 45- 65% of your plate should consist carb-rich vegetables and wholegrains and a moderate fruit intake that are also high in anti-oxidants, fibre and other nutrients. If you are serious about optimizing your health and fitness goals, avoid refined carbohydrates altogether, or try for 21 days and see how it feels. Replace white bread, corn products, pizza dough, pasta, white flour, white rice, breakfast cereals, and with ‘healthier’ slow release energy providers like quinoa, oats (if not gf), brown rice, lots of veg with some low starch veg like the ones in image above (kumara, pumpkin etc). FUN FACT: did you know that Taro (authors note - l love taro chips!) and Yams contain a natural steroid, some powerful fitness carbs there!
Proteins – supplements? To build lean muscle and aid brain function, you need adequate protein, but not all proteins are equal, processed meats and sugary supplements aren’t ‘healthy proteins’ despite what the label says. If you are vegan or vegetarian, be aware that in order to get all the essential amino acids required for sufficient growth and repair, you need to consume a wide variety of proteins, whereas meat and seafood are ‘complete’ proteins. Protein bars and powders have a place in high-athletic realms, but for a non-elite fitness body trying to stay lean, we recommend obtaining protein purely from your diet. Include protein ‘wholefoods’ that simultaneously provide extra nutritional benefits, eg. nuts, yoghurt, an egg sandwich etc. If you need the convenience, do your research on protein powder ingredients, some pure pea protein powders are good to add to a breakfast smoothies with fruits, vegs, avocados etc to take in your gym bag for a post workout meal.
Eating before and after workouts – Please, refrain from eating a banana or snack as you walk into the studio, the ‘thermal effect’ or energy it takes to digest food will not help you get your goals, it’s better to train on an empty stomach! Standard exercise guidelines say eat 2 hours before exercise, but 30 mins before you can eat something easily digestible, eg. low fibre/digestible carb like a banana, cracker etc. An early morning class-goer? Yay, hold out from breakfast ‘til after (unless you wake at 4.30am!). The ‘anabolic window’ or the optimum time to eat after exercise is contended, but we recommend a protein-rich snack or meal at least 30 - 45mins after class if possible, or a healthy main meal 1- 2 hours after is fine too. One big result-killer can be people’s mindset about ‘burning-calories' it’s not healthy to think exercise ‘earns you’ more wines or beers for example, alcohol is calorie dense and nutrient poor. What you eat is important for fitness ‘gains’ and post-workout is the perfect time to get quality protein and nutrients in.
A good way to help your gut/metabolism is to reduce your eating window so nothing goes in your mouth after 7pm, or to have a ‘cheat day’ once a week, saving treats for one day a week and eating like a saint other days, fun!
Yes, you will lose-weight with a calorie deficit meal plan, and it’s good to reduce your plate size and chew your food to the extreme, but it’s the nutrient density that goes in your body that victors long-term. A whole-food diet and increased training will prevent nutrient deficiency (a leading cause of many health conditions and diseases).
To hear this info and more from NZ Sports Nutritionist – check out Mission Nutrition video with Tom Shand (Spots Nutritionalist/Dietition). Sports Nutrition - your questions answered! (missionnutrition.co.nz)