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Exercising regularly is great – but we can make it even better by loading up on nutrients that help us make the most of our workouts.

Here’s what to make sure you’re getting enough of, when you start working out:

1] Protein

Why:

Exercising breaks down our skeletal muscle on a microscopic level; it’s the repair of this damage that allows our body to build new muscle. 

Protein plays a crucial role in repairing muscle, and getting enough of this macronutrient makes all the difference when it comes to building new muscle through any kind of exercise routine. Without enough protein, our muscles will heal after workouts, but their growth will be limited.

Recommended Amount:

The recommended amount of protein for a sedentary person is 0.8 g per kg body weight. However, we’d need about 1.2 g protein per kg body weight a day for muscle-building and recovery (although this requirement may increase for more intense training, such as bodybuilding and endurance sports).

Factors to Consider:

#1: The quality of the protein and its digestibility –

Protein is made up of amino acids. Some of these can be made by our body, while the rest, termed “essential”, need to be obtained from our diet. There are nine essential amino acids. 

A high quality protein would have all nine essential amino acids, including the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) that signal our bodies to produce new muscle protein. 

How easy a protein is to digest would determine how quickly the amino acids can be used by the body to build and repair muscle. 

#2: The timing of protein consumption –

If the availability of amino acids in our blood would facilitate the repair and building of muscle, it logically follows that we should time our consumption of protein to suit our exercise routine.

It’s always good to have a protein-rich meal a few hours before working out, since this would make amino acids freely available even as skeletal muscle is being broken down. It’s even better to then consume an easily-digested protein just after exercise (preferably within half an hour) and immediately replenish the levels of amino acids, aiding muscle repair and rebuilding. Slow-digesting proteins (like plant proteins and a milk protein called casein) can be useful in the late evening, because they would continue to provide our muscles with amino acids while we sleep.2

 

2] Carbohydrates

Why:

Consuming carbohydrates before a workout gives us glucose for energy. Carbohydrates also replenish our stores of glycogen, which is a form of glucose stored as an energy reserve in our muscles and liver – that’s what our muscle use for fuel when we exercise. Once this runs out (as it does during long bouts of exercise), our body gets energy from the glucose present in our blood and from fat. High-intensity exercises would be better fuelled by glucose, because it’s more efficient; breaking down fat for fuel takes time.3-5 

Since carbohydrates replenish the glycogen stores that get used up during exercise, it’s a good idea to include some carbohydrates in a post-workout meal as well.   

Recommended Amount:

It’s generally recommended that we consume about 3-5 g of carbohydrates per kg of our body weight (daily), but anyone undergoing intense training may need more.6,7

Factors to Consider:

The quantity as well as timing of consumption can depend on the type of carbohydrates. There are mainly two types: 

(a)    Simple carbohydrates: 

These are quickly broken down into simple sugars, which can be used as fuel. It’s a good idea to consume them only in limited quantities and around the time we exercise (they’re a great source of energy both before and after a workout), because they tend to cause spikes in our blood sugar.

Refined grains (white rice), starchy vegetables (potatoes) and of course, sweeteners such as sugar, honey and jaggery are all examples of simple carbohydrates.

(b)    Complex carbohydrates: 

These take longer to get broken down into glucose, causing a steady rise in blood sugar, which has a number of health benefits. Their food sources are also normally rich in dietary fibre, which is great for digestion, and loaded with micronutrients. Whole grains (brown rice, millet, oats, etc.) are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates.

Given that these foods take longer to digest, they’re best consumed a few hours before exercising, so that they can provide the body with energy by the time a workout begins. 

 

3] Healthy Fats

Why:

As long as we choose the healthy variety and don’t overdo our consumption of them, fats can actually do far more good than commonly believed. 

For starters, our body needs them in order to absorb some vitamins (vitamin A, E, D and K) that are only soluble in fat. Besides, everybody needs omega-3 fatty acids (rich sources of which include fatty fish, avocados and flax seeds) for a bunch of health reasons. These include helping our body lose fat, by converting our white adipose tissue (a kind of tissue that stores fat for a long time, making it hard to burn off) into a type of fat tissue that burns off much more easily.8 These fats, specifically an omega-3 fat called DHA, can also help post-exercise recovery by suppressing inflammation.

Fats even fuel longer workouts (when glycogen runs out) like long distance running or cycling. While the various fats we get in foods play their own unique roles in the body, workouts would specifically benefit from the consumption of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), since these fats are absorbed more easily than others; their calories are more efficiently turned into energy and used by the body, being less likely to get stored as body fat. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil are good sources of MCFAs, with small amounts also found in dairy products.

Recommended Amount:

About 20 to 35% of our daily calories should come from the good kind of fats. Since fat contains 9 calories per gram, this would translate to getting 44 to 78 grams of fat in a 2000 calories-per-day diet.

 

 4] Vitamins and Minerals

Getting a sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals is always important, but even more so when we exercise.

To be more specific –

i) B-vitamins, vitamin D and vitamin K:

B-vitamins and vitamin D help our cells use energy, which naturally makes their demand higher when we exercise. In fact, supplementing with vitamin D has even been shown to help increase the amount of strength people can exert during a workout.9

Our bones also tend to thicken when we workout, which creates a higher demand for vitamin D, vitamin K and calcium, since they’re all bone-building nutrients.

A good mix of B-vitamins and vitamin K can be obtained from vegetables (especially leafy green ones). Vitamin B12 is generally found in eggs, fish and meats. Although vitamin D is found in small quantities in many foods (salmon, tuna, egg yolks, cheese, etc.), sunlight and supplements are its best sources.10

ii) Zinc, magnesium and iron:

Iron, being required for oxygen delivery, is quite understandably needed in added amounts during exercise. In fact, all three of these nutrients play roles in hundreds of reactions in the body, many of which involve using energy and adapting to the changes that occur during a workout, making them helpful for exercise performance and recovery.11,12

What makes it even more important to increase our intake of these minerals is the fact that they can get lost (through sweat) during exercise, at a rate of 10% to 20% more than during rest.11

There’s also the worry of many foods in the modern diet (like wheat) having fewer minerals than they did decades ago.13 Increasing our consumption of foods that are known to be rich in these minerals (like whole grains, nuts and seeds) is one way to make sure we’re getting enough of these nutrients, while supplementation is another option.

iii) Electrolytes:

These are minerals (like potassium, calcium, and sodium) that regulate the amount of water in our body and can therefore affect the way our muscles work when we exercise.14

When we perspire more than normal, we end up losing electrolytes through our sweat. We can also dilute them too much when we drink a lot of water, making it important to balance our water-intake with our electrolyte-intake.

Although sports drinks have electrolytes, they also come with a lot of calories. Natural electrolyte-rich drinks like coconut water or fresh lemonade are far better options, being lower in calories and richer in nutrients.

iv) Antioxidants:

Many are aware that antioxidants neutralise free radicals, because of which they offer profound health benefits. When it comes to exercising, however, there is some debate as to whether the free-radical-fighting-effects of antioxidants can be helpful or harmful, because free radicals are involved in processes that allow us to adapt to exercise-induced changes in the body. We’ve looked at a detailed account of this, and have found that antioxidant-rich plant foods do aid exercise recovery, by keeping free radicals within relatively harmless levels.

Regardless of how much we exercise, getting the right nutrition is intrinsic to following a healthy lifestyle. It’s just that the demand of these nutrients increases with the amount of activity – which makes it important to pay a little more attention to the food we eat, and do justice to the effort put into working out!

References:
1. Martens EA, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care 2014, 17(1): 75-79.
4. Reidy PT, et al. J Appl Physiol (1985) 2014, 116(11): 1353-1364.
5. McArdle WD, et al. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010.
6. Whitney E, Rolfes SR. Understanding Nutrition. Cengage Learning, 2015.
7. Abdel-Hamid TK. 2003.
8. Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Food, Nutrition and Sports Performance III. Taylor & Francis, 2013.
9. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2016, 48(3): 543-568.
10. Kim M, et al. Sci Rep 2015, 5: 18013.
11.  Tomlinson PB, et al. J Sci Med Sport 2015, 18(5): 575-580.
12. McCarty DE, et al. J Clin Sleep Med 2012, 8(6): 693-697.
13. Nielsen FH, Lukaski HC. Magnes Res 2006, 19(3): 180-189.
14. Chen HY, et al. PLoS One 2014, 9(1): e85486.
15. Fan MS, et al. J Trace Elem Med Biol 2008, 22(4): 315-324.
16. Rosner MH, Kirven J. Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 2007, 2(1): 151-161.

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