A fitness journey is a personal part of someone’s life, with a variety of different goals and mindsets. Most fitness goals, however, fall within a few categories: to lose weight, to train stamina, or to build muscle. While information regarding fitness regimens to achieve these goals is abundant, the role of nutrition in fitness is often disregarded.
Exercise Without Diet
Have you ever finished a hard workout and immediately thought, “Oh, I think I will reward myself with that donut I was thinking about earlier.” This is not only a common thought process, but it has been exacerbated by the general public in an effort to encourage fitness. Most of the leading research shows that lower calorie intake directly correlates to weight loss, so workout regimens are tailored to customers based on how many calories a workout can burn. Rather than focusing on the quality of food, people are able to count their calories and workout the appropriate amount. This inevitably leads to trying to “work off” that donut or running an extra mile to eat that slice of pizza.
A 2014 study included a commentary about this trend, with the authors showing great concern over the long-term effects of this type of thinking. These authors concluded the research simply did not support the idea that fitness programs without appropriate diets had any significant effect on obesity and the resulting health problems. However, combining a healthy diet and exercise did show positive results.
Low Carb vs. Low Fat
So if a healthy diet is an integral part of a fitness program, what defines a healthy diet? As stated, a diet lower in overall calories has been consistently linked in studies to lower weight and better overall health. But how to achieve a lower calorie diet, and choosing those calories, is a complex issue that researchers and scientists are still working out. Some scientists swear by low fat diets to improve heart health and lose weight. On the other side of the spectrum are low carb diets that have recently gained popularity, such as ketogenic diets.
The basis of these diets is to limit carbs so that the body begins to break down fats for energy. However, according to many researchers, these types of diets can be problematic long-term for several reasons. First, the replacements for fat or carbs often leads to heavily processed and unhealthy calories. Also, limiting carbs or fats in totality needlessly limits an entire healthy food group from your diet. Complex carbohydrates are necessary in the body for energy, and healthy fats like Omega-3 fatty acids are important for cell growth. Limiting these nutrients is not only depriving your body of necessary building blocks, but it is often not sustainable. The body will begin craving what it needs, and cravings typically lead to processed food.
Remember: The body needs complex carbohydrates and healthy fats to provide energy for any type of fitness regimen or sport.
Robert Haas writes in his book, Eat to Win, about a way to include the right fats and carbs in your diet without overeating. Foods that are high in complex carbs, fiber, and satiety led to a diet much lower in overall calories. One of the keys, here, is the satiety index, which was created in a study at the University of Sydney in 1995. Choosing the right complex carbohydrates, like oatmeal, brown rice, and potatoes, creates a feeling of fullness much faster than foods like cereal, white bread, or crackers. The body is naturally satisfied with much fewer calories required, and you are not needlessly excluding certain food groups from your diet. The active body needs the nutrients that are present in whole food groups. So choosing a long-term sustainable diet should include these valuable nutrients.
What Are Your Goals?
Choosing a diet plan will not only involve researching what nutrients a body needs, but what nutrients you need for different fitness routines. If your fitness routine is aimed at keeping a generally active lifestyle of walking, yoga, or other low-intensity workouts, then focusing on the core food groups and limiting calorie intake as discussed above will serve your health well. However, if your fitness routine is centered around stamina building or strength training, your body will require additional energy. That energy can come mainly from carbohydrates and fats, with carbohydrates being the most efficient source of that energy.
A study from 2017 found that despite the advances in technology that discovered different ways to metabolize nutrients and create energy, carbohydrates remain the most efficient form of energy for high performing athletes, allowing the body to utilize healthy fats in their intended way. So as your workouts increase in intensity, carbohydrates may be the right nutrient to look for that extra energy.
As you research new fitness goals or continue your current ones, don’t forget the fuel! Nutrition is the foundational fuel that will help your body function, recover, and keep moving. This foundation is invaluable whether you are working on losing weight, training for an endurance sport, or building muscle. Your individual journey can look many different ways, but making sure that your nutrition and fitness goals are intertwined will ensure that you get the most out of your efforts.