A Whole Foods Approach To Sports Nutrition: What Should I Eat Before a Workout?

Do your New Year’s Resolutions include kicking up your workout routine a notch? If they do, that is great! But equally as important as the workout is what you are eating. Proper nutrition is essential to getting the results you want in the gym or out on the playing field. With personal trainers selling supplements, CrossFitters pushing Paleo, and a new diet popping up every month, its hard to decipher what is actually healthy and what is just hype. Here are four expert tips to help you get the most out of a pre-workout meal.

  1. Don’t shun carbohydrates. I know we are constantly being told carbs make us fat. But it’s just not true. Eating more calories than we burn makes us fat. Carbs provide our body with a quick source of energy which is what we need while working out. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, which enters our muscle cells and gives us fuel to workout at maximum capacity. Good sources of carbs to eat before a workout are fruit, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, potatoes (white or sweet), and yogurt.
  2. Keep it real. Focus on whole, minimally processed foods as much as possible. For example, eat an apple rather than an apple flavored Nutri-Grain bar. Although I think bars serve their purpose, they shouldn’t be your number one go to. If you are “keeping it real” that also means tossing protein powders, “pre-workout shakes” and anything that doesn’t actually resemble food. If you can buy it at GNC, but not the farmers market, that is a good indicator that it is not a real food. Aside from shakes and powders having no nutritional advantage over eating a well balanced meal, there are risks associated with supplements such as kidney and liver failure. Although rare, it does happen and it is not worth the risk.
  3. Hydrate hydrate hydrate! It’s best to be well hydrated before beginning a workout. Try to drink 16 ounces of fluids a few hours prior to exercising and then 1 cup of water in the half hour before. If you are exercising for one hour or less plain water provides adequate hydration. If sweating heavily or exercising for prolonged periods of time a sports drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes is a better choice. Hydration needs are different for every individual and vary based on the type of workout you are doing. One of the best indicators of hydration is urine color; as my sports nutrition professor always said, your pee should be “light lemonade.” If it’s darker, you should start increasing your fluid intake before and during exercise.
  4. Timing matters. What and how much you should eat before working out varies based on how much time you have. If you are eating dinner at 5 pm and working out at 7 pm, it is likely that you don’t need any additional food. If you are working out straight after work at 5 pm and your last meal was at 12 noon, it is a good idea to have a pre-workout snack. Personally, if I’m working out after work I’m usually ravenous. So I eat an apple or granola bar on the way to the gym. I’m generally still hungry after that apple, but once I start working out I forget about my hunger and enjoy the sweat. This snack should mainly focus on carbs, but can have a bit of protein and healthy fats thrown in as well. If your workout is primarily strength based you will want to include more protein to aid with muscle recovery. If you do more cardio (like an hour long run) your snack should be mainly easy to digest carbs. Here are some good examples.

Pre-workout snack for cardio (<1 hour before workout): 1 banana or apple, 1 Tbsp nut butter, 1 cup of water

Pre-workout snack for strength training (<1 hour before workout): 1 cup Greek Yogurt, handful of berries or sliced fruit, 10 almonds

Pre-workout meal for cardio (2-3 hours before working out): 4 ounces baked chicken or fish, 1 cup brown rice, green salad with dressing, small dinner roll, 16 ounces water

Pre-workout meal for strength (2-3 hours before working out): 6 ounces baked chicken or fish, 1/2 cup brown rice, 1 cup roasted veggies in olive oil, 8 ounces water or milk

I hope this guide helps with your sports nutrition needs. Stay tuned for the next blog to learn what to eat after your workout.



Why I don’t Recommend Drinking Water for Weight Loss

drinking water doesn't help weight loss
Nearly half the people that step into my office tell me their plan is to lose weight by drinking more water. Of course, you should drink water, regardless of your health goals. It’s just the notion that more is better, that I really have an issue with. I have heard water recommendations by “trainers” and other “nutritionists” that are sky high for no apparent reason. It’s even becoming somewhat of a fitness challenge to drink as much water as possible throughout the day. I’m not sure what the prize is? You get to go the bathroom every hour, congratulations! 99% of us do NOT need to drink a gallon of water per day, maybe if you are running a marathon in 90 degree weather you do.water6

There is a paucity of evidence that drinking more water alone will cause weight loss (without other dietary interventions). Why not focus on things that we know produce real results?  Like increasing fruit and vegetable intake, consuming higher protein meals, increasing physical activity, and decreasing sugar sweetened beverage consumption.

Granted, there are times when drinking more water will benefit you. Below are a few examples of times that drinking water is very important and it may help you achieve weight loss.

  1. If you are chronically dehydrated. Dehydration is most often seen in athletes, but if you are just a regular gym goer it is possible that you are dehydrated as well. The best and simplest way to determine hydration status is by looking at your urine. If you are peeing the golden arches (dark yellow, low volume) you are dehydrated and should drink more water (or fluids of any type: Gatorade, soup, smoothie, tea, etc.) Your pee does not have to be clear though, that would actually indicate over hydration. As my sports nutrition professor used to say, you want to pee “light lemonade” color. If you really want a quantitative fluid recommendation the Institute of Medicine recommends 2.2 liters per day for women, and 3 liters per day for men. However, individual needs vary based on body composition, exercise, the weather, etc. Just look at your pee! It’s a much better indicator.
  2. If you are guzzling soda or juice. This is where water really does the trick. If you swap two sodas a day for water instead you will be consuming 300 less calories per day (assuming the rest of your diet stays constant). This alone could result in a 30 pound weight loss in a year. However, if you were to switch that soda for plain coffee or tea you would also get the same result.
  3. Drinking two cups of water before meals? There is one published study that had promising results when participants were asked to drink 16 ounces of water before meals. The study claims that the water helped the participants feel more full and satiated before eating, and therefore ate less when it came to meal time. However, other studies have found that water has no affect on satiety.

Can you drink too much water? It’s possible, but you have to try really really hard for it actually to be harmful. At Chico state University a fraternity was banned from binge drinking alcohol due to too many deaths. So what did they do instead? They binged on water, and guess what? More college students died. Drinking extremely large amounts of water can cause hyponatremia (low blood sodium) and death. Although, this is very rare and would not happen under normal circumstances. But, if you are drinking a lot of water just to be cool or to try to “out drink” someone I would not recommend it.

Water is good for you, but MORE water is not necessarily better (and likely won’t help you lose weight). If you are a water hater, try jazzing up your water with one of these simple tricks. In the mean time, why don’t you get to work on some of those other healthy habits mentioned above!



Protein Powder: Love It or Leave It?

Protein Powder: Love It or Leave It?

The minute you walk into the gym, what do you see? Before the treadmills, the weights, and the men admiring their bulging muscles in the mirror, you probably have to pass the array of protein powders and supplements for sale. From the very start of your workout you are conditioned to believe that you need extra protein to make the most of your workout. As you walk to the drinking fountain you spy Mr. Muscles downing his protein shake, you overhear the personal trainer talking about protein, and you begin to question whether that water is really enough. Should you be drinking a protein shake too? Is protein powder the secret ingredient that will finally give you the perfect body you have always dreamed of? Let’s find out!

First things first, what is protein powder? It is a dietary supplement which usually has about 20-30 grams of protein per serving (although some types of powder have much larger amounts). It is generally marketed to athletes to enhance muscle gain and recovery after a workout. Interestingly, it is also marketed to people wanting to lose weight, vegetarians/vegans, and anyone that works out at all. It does not contain steroids, but it is not regulated by the FDA so it may not contain what it claims. Two of the most popular protein powders, whey and casein, are made from cow’s milk. When milk is processed into cheese, liquid whey is drained off and then spray dried to form whey protein powder. There are also some vegan powders which are made from peas, soy and hemp.

protein powder
Protein powder is not just for men! An example of marketing to women.

Second, how much protein do you actually need? The recommendation from the Institute of Medicine is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.  A 150 pound person would need 55 grams of protein per day. Some research suggests that higher amounts may be beneficial for athletes or those looking to build muscle. Sports dietitians recommend increasing your intake to 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Using this recommendation, a 150 pound person would need 75 grams of protein per day for optimal recovery and muscle building. Bodybuilders and personal trainers often times recommend amounts much higher than this. It is important to remember that just because something is good for you, it doesn’t mean that more is better. Eating 100 grams of protein per day will not equate to larger muscles than 75 grams per day, it will either be excreted through your urine or stored as fat. Very high protein intakes have been associated with gout, kidney stones, osteoporosis, some types of cancer, and can cause dehydration.

Finally, is there any benefit in consuming protein powder over protein foods? No. There is absolutely no nutritional advantage of consuming the powder versus the food. Thirty grams of protein from a four ounce chicken breast may even benefit you more than a protein shake because chicken also offers you iron, potassium, B-vitamins, and most importantly, it tastes good. I know what you are saying, “but Nutty, I cannot quickly scarf a chicken breast the way I can down my shake after a workout.”  If you like your shake because it is quick and portable, some high protein foods which are also quick and portable are Greek yogurt, nuts and nut butters, hard boiled eggs, string cheese, beef jerky, and chocolate milk. If you are specifically looking for vegetarian protein foods here is a great list.

One last question I’m sometimes asked. Is protein powder Paleo? No! I don’t care how it’s advertised, Paleolithic people did not walk around with protein powder in their back pocket. Not to mention, if your protein powder tastes sweet, it either contains sugar or a sugar substitute like sucralose (Splenda). Which would definitely NOT be paleo.

The final verdict on protein powder: Leave It! Don’t waste your money, just eat real food!