Updated: Feb 21, 2019
I am asked regularly by clients about what is the ideal diet for exercise and for a healthy lifestyle.
Obviously there are a lot of variables in choosing the right diet to complement a workout regime and to lay the foundations for an active and productive life. Is the objective to gain muscle, lose fat or increase energy levels?
The permutations are many.
In broad principle, however, there are some fundamental principles which, if applied sensibly to any lifestyle, can play a positive role in building fitness.
Principle 1: Always eat before a workout, unless you want to lose weight.
Try to eat two or four hours before your workout. Eating one hour before as workout is acceptable, but this has to be a light snack (otherwise it may not be digested comfortably).
Yogurt and a piece of fruit (or a handful of dried fruits and nuts) can be a snack in itself.
You can also workout on an empty stomach, but only if losing weight is your goal.
Otherwise exhaustion will be your reward!
Principle 2: A post-workout regime matters.
Again, it is important to differentiate between the goals of performance building and weight loss.
In my opinion fat loss can also be assimilated into the regime of people who are looking to improve their general fitness or who are looking to maintain an acceptable level of fitness. There is not a golden rule, for example, that says that on one side of the equation are athletes and on the other side are overweight non-athletes who are trying solely to lose weight.
If you want to optimise your post-workout muscle recovery then you should eat 20 minutes to two hours after a workout (with a ratio of 3 x protein to 1 x carbohydrates).
If you want to maintain a level of fitness or lose weight, it is not such a big deal to eat right after the workout. Instead, stick to your regular mealtime routine (typically breakfast, lunch and dinner) and you will be fine.
Principle 3: Respect the power of carbohydrates.
I would say that if you train hard and at an intense level then there is no point of cutting your carbohydrate intake. If you do you will end up feeling very tired very quickly!
If you do not train to this level, however, then you should not worry too much about your carbohydrate intake.
At the end of the day it is a question of balance where carbohydrates are concerned, between the intensity of the regular workout and the level of carbs’ in your diet.
Principle 4: Protein shakes and sports drinks have different uses.
When choosing either a protein shake or a sports drink as a compliment to your exercise plan, again ask yourself, do you really train that hard to justify the use of either?
Or to put it another way, do you believe that your body needs such a supplement to achieve the goals you have set yourself?
For example, if you watch a Grand Slam tennis match, you will see that the players will eat some a banana at some points during the match (and not even in one go) and they may sip a sport drinks as well, but nothing more.
I found a very good answer to this particular question in a book called Food Rules, written by the respected author Michael Pollan. As Pollan puts it in his book, "Be the kind of person who takes supplements - then skip the supplements."
Pollen’s proposition is that supplement takers are healthy for reasons that have nothing to do with the pills, potions or drinks that they consume - they are typically more health conscious anyway.
Principle 5: Understand what you are doing with your workout.
When I started playing rugby, I discovered that there are a range of different approaches to preparing for a competition. I also learned a lot more about the science of the game than I anticipated when I started.
As a result, today when I train clients I I always aim to develop within my clients a particular holistic mindset that balance setting exercise gaols with following an appropriate and healthy diet and you will achieve this balance if you can understand the whole fitness process and how it impacts in different ways on different people.
As Hippocrates once said, "food is your first medicine".
But not the only one.