By Ayelet Gur Arieh, Dietician, Department of Neurological Rehabilitation and Geriatric Rehabilitation at Sheba Medical Center
Did you recently ramp up your exercise routine? Did you add aerobics, start walking more, take on yoga or Pilates? No matter what moderate physical activity you’re doing, kudos to you on taking this step towards better health! Now, it’s also time to change what you eat to match an active lifestyle. Say goodbye to processed foods, and reach for nutritious whole foods instead. Your body needs nutrients for energy and to help build muscle. Choose vegetables, fruits and whole grains that offer complex carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
It’s important to note that if you’re doing more than moderate exercise and are engaged in high-intensity sports, such as long runs (over an hour), marathons and Iron Man competitions, you’ll need a customized meal plan from a dietician.
Consuming more carbs contributes to your body’s reserve supply of energy, which is vital for training – especially for intense training! These energy reserves are stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver. When you exercise, they are broken down into glucose, which is converted into metabolic energy.
However, glycogen stores are limited. As the intensity of your physical activity increases, this saved energy supply is depleted. That’s one of the main reasons why you may feel fatigued during a marathon or competition. How can you overcome these feelings of tiredness and keep going? By eating carbohydrates before you start exercising, especially carbs with a high glycemic index, you can increase your blood sugar levels rapidly to infuse your body with quick energy. Some good foods to choose include dates or a slice of white bread with jam.
Protein is directly linked to physical performance. If you do high-intensity activities, you’ll need to eat 20-40 grams of high quality protein, such as chicken or fish, about every 3 to 4 hours during a day of exercise. Why? Because protein helps to increase your storage supply of glycogen, contributes to building muscles, and aids in post-exercise recovery. Remember, your muscles are developed by protein and training. Resistance activities, such as lifting weights, doing pushups and sit-ups, or using tension bands all work to increase muscle mass.
Many people mistakenly believe that they can speed up the muscle building process by eating protein additives, powders, and power snacks. But this method isn’t worthwhile; it’s ineffective at best, and harmful at worst because of preservatives, sweeteners and flavorings that are often featured in the ingredient list.
When engaged in regular moderate physical activity, take care to eat nutritious foods from all of the main groups – proteins, carbohydrates, fats. A sample day could include the following –
- Breakfast: Select a light breakfast that will provide energy to get through the morning. A good combo is two slices of whole wheat bread or a whole grain roll, peanut butter or an egg, or a low fat yogurt with a small bowl of fruit.
- Mid-morning snack: Fruit and a handful of almonds
- Lunch: If you regularly grab a sandwich for lunch, choose whole grain bread with lean proteins, such as chicken, turkey or fish. A salad with a protein mixed in and a light dressing drizzled over it is another good suggestion.
- Dinner: When cooking at home, the sky’s the limit on what healthy foods you can eat for dinner! Base your meal around fish or meat, and add at least two vegetables and some complex carbohydrates. For example, salmon with brown rice, broccoli and zucchini, or a grilled chicken breast with a baked potato and a salad on the side. Avoid sides that are filled with fat-laden calories, such as French fries and full-fat dressings.
- Bedtime snack: Before you go to bed each night, it is helpful to consume casein protein, derived from dairy products like cheese. Casein protein can significantly boost muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscles from breaking down. It is also digested slowly, so it’s released into your bloodstream gradually as you sleep.
Cooking can be a time-consuming process. But if you want to eat healthy, preparing your own meals is the best way to watch what you eat. To cut down on the amount of time it takes to make your food, prepare several dishes in advance. Dedicate a day or afternoon to cooking enough food for a few days or even for a few weeks. Prepare large quantities in advance and store them in the freezer – you’ll be less tempted to eat junk if you know you have tasty, nourishing dishes ready and waiting for you at home.