The topic of nutrition is a complex and often confusing area. If you spend ten minutes on the internet you know exactly what I mean. High fat, low fat, high carb, low carb, paleo, Mediterranean diet, DASH, and the list goes on and on. In this post, we will not get into specific diets and talk about all the ins and outs of nutrition. Instead, we will discuss some of the basics of nutrition and try to keep it simple.
When you think of nutrition, think of nutrition as a source of fuel for your body. Fuel has a variety of roles in your body, from giving you energy to move as well as nutrients to rebuild. Whenever you exercise, there is a small amount of damage to the body which you need to repair and then build before your next session. If you don’t have enough fuel or are using the wrong kind of fuel, you will limit your ability to recover from a workout.
Hydration, macronutrients, and micronutrients are all important parts of your fueling process. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein, and fats while micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. Typically if you are eating a variety of quality macronutrients, you will get all the essential micronutrients. Because of this, we will focus on hydration and macronutrients, assuming you will get your micronutrients from the high quality foods you eat.
Drinking enough water is important for recovery and overall health. The body consists of mainly water, therefore, a lack of water can be problematic. Water has numerous functions in the body including: allowing cells to communicate, moving nutrients and waste products around, and providing lubrication to joints and muscles. If you are dehydrated, it can impair the movement of nutrients and waste, which is problematic in getting nutrients to the tissues for repair and rebuilding.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 2.7 liters of water for women and 3.7 liters for men. While this recommendation was based on all fluid intake, it is better to drink plain water compared to fruit juices and soda. This eliminates the unnecessary junk that is in many nutrient-deficient drinks. If you are engaged in prolonged workout times or heat exposure, you will need to increase the amount of water you will need to drink.
Carbohydrates have taken a lot of blame in recent times for having negative health consequences. Low-carb diets are now becoming the staple in many communities. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is a misconception with what a “low-carb” diet actually means. A low-carb diet does not mean that there is no consumption of carbohydrates in the diet (this would be very unhealthy and impossible). A low carbohydrate diet should mean that there is a low consumption of processed carbohydrates such as pasta, white breads, and other baked goods. Carbohydrates are an important nutrient to the body. In fact, the brain’s primary energy source is glucose which comes from carbohydrates. The consumption of carbohydrates should include minimally processed, low to moderate glycemic index carbohydrates. Some examples include quinoa, lentils, and sweet potatoes. Fruits and vegetables also fall into this category, which provide many vitamins and minerals your body needs to function.
Protein is another nutrient some individuals go a little overboard on. Protein provides the amino acids needed to repair and build tissue. For the average athlete, intake of about 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound will be sufficient. There are several great choices for protein including: fish, beef, chicken, eggs, and beans. Remember that the quality of the protein matters as well. Organic and grass-fed options will contain more of the quality nutrients that your body needs compared to corn-fed, anti-biotic pumped options.
Fats are important for multiple reasons. Fats are needed for the makeup of cell membranes, building hormones, and the absorption of vitamins (A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble vitamins). There are some people who are leery about eating fats, but just like everything else, it depends on which fats you are eating. Processed and altered fats are not a good option. Sources of quality fats include grass-fed beef, salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseed, and hemp. Omega-3 fatty acid is an especially important fat which aids in cognition and inflammation. Foods high in omega-3 include salmon, walnuts, avocado, and hemp seed.
A quick note on alcohol and recovery. The consumption of alcohol has been shown to increase cortisol levels, which is a catabolic hormone (breaks down tissue)… not exactly the reaction you want when you need your body to repair itself. Alcohol also decreases the effectiveness of absorption of many vitamins and minerals which will decrease the amount of nutrients for your body. While many athletes (especially recreational athletes) will have a beer after practice or a game, if you are serious about recovery, alcohol does not have a place in your diet.
20 Recommended Power Foods
Overall, a nutritious diet is a diet that will be good for recovery. Eating a diet high in vegetables and quality proteins while minimizing the amount of modified and processed foods should give you all the nutrients that you need. While supplements can also be helpful, if you are eating the correct foods, there is often no need to supplement your diet. For those that do choose to supplement, make sure that you are getting a quality supplement. If you feel like you need help with meal planning or have foods allergies, seeking the help of a professional (dietitian or naturopath) can help get you on the right track.
Remember that recovery depends on all three components; active recovery, rest, and nutrition. A lack of attention to any of the areas will delay your recovery and may predispose you to injury. Try a combination of the suggested strategies to find out what works best for you and your body.