One of the most important discoveries about food and body composition might not be “what” you eat, but “when” you eat certain foods.
The rules are actually really simple. If you lift weights, you should eat like this:
- Eat protein, fat, and vegetables for all your basic meals and snacks.
- Eat complex carbs and protein before your workout.
- Eat complex carbs, and drink BCAAs and protein during your resistance training as needed.
- Eat simple carbs and protein after your workout.
- Avoid fats for at least 1-3 hours after your workout.
Sounds simple, right? For many, it is. For others, learning about nutrition can be a complicated journey. So for clarification purposes, it’s imperative to know the difference between proteins, fats, and carbs.
Everyone needs three macronutrients in order to survive: Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates.
Lifters understand that they need protein. Protein builds the muscles. Protein aids in muscle recovery. Protein is life, right? But protein isn’t just for building mass. Protein increases one’s Basal Metabolic Rate, regulates blood sugar, increases cardiovascular
health, aids in appetite satiety, increases energy, and decreases the weight-cycling effect.
There are three types of protein:
- Animal proteins (meat, eggs, fish)
- Plant proteins (beans, lentils)
- Supplements (protein powders)
Fat protects your vital organs, provides energy to your body, fights inflammation, promotes heart health and really helps keeps you feeling full and satiated. Most fats–the naturally occurring ones such as saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated–are actually pretty good for you.
So what is bad?
Food processing has created trans-fats. In an effort to make food last longer and feel softer in your mouth, food processors take regular unsaturated fats and hydrogenate them. This is so bad that many health organizations refer to trans-fats as a contaminant byproduct of food processing. Trans-fats are edible but they have been linked to cardiovascular disease and obesity. Trans-fats are so bad that there are laws limiting them or banning them in other countries.
Have you heard saturated fats are bad?
The dogma that fat, particularly saturated fat, is bad for you is likely the reason heart disease and obesity have both skyrocketed in the last 30-40 years. If you are wondering whether a fat is good or bad, simply ask yourself this: does this fat occur naturally? If the answer is yes, then by all means eat it. If the answer is no, then treat it like poison—it is.
Think about it this way: early humans evolved from eating fats, particularly animal fats. The hunter-gatherer diet would have consisted of large amounts of fatty tissue. We were evolved to eat this stuff.
- Cold Pressed Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
- Cold Pressed Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Nuts and seeds (Almonds, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, cashews…)
- Nut Butters (all natural peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter…)
- Naturally occurring fats in animal products such as meats, eggs, cheeses…
Simply, you can eat fat. Just avoid anything with TRANS-FATS listed on the nutrition label.
The body uses carbohydrates for fuel. They are very important and are essential for athletic performance.
You can find carbs in the following food types:
- Breads, cereals, and other grains
- Dairy, milk and sugar-sweetened milk products
- Foods containing added sugars (e.g., cakes, cookies, and beverages).
There are two main types of carbohydrates.
- Complex carbohydrates
- Simple carbohydrates
All carbs break down into simple sugars once you eat them. It’s just that simple carbs get broken down much faster and you feel hungry a lot sooner than if you ate complex carbs which contain fiber and keep you fuller, longer. And some scientists have even been studying whether or not the high consumption of simple carbohydrates in the American diet is leading to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. This is often why you hear carbs referred to as “good carbs” and “bad carbs.”
SIMPLE CARBS DIGEST QUICKLY AND COMPLEX CARBS DIGEST SLOWLY
- Vegetables. Green leafy veggies are always best when trying to eat a meal low in carbs.
- Starchy veggies like squashes and potatoes, even beans and lentils provide great carbs full of nutrients.
- If you want a grain, opt for oats, brown rice, or quinoa.
- “Whole wheat, whole grain, brown” (like whole wheat pasta or brown rice).
- Anything labeled “White” is a fast digesting carbohydrate (like white bread and white pasta and white rice)
- Pastries, cereals, most breakfast foods, most fruit yogurts, boxed dinners
- All desserts
Many athletes, women especially, still shy away from carbs in the quest to become (or stay) lean. But the body needs carbs for fuel, performance, recovery, and energy! Eat your carbs–and eat the bulk of them around (and for) your training!
Low carbohydrate diets are effective for greater weight loss in the short term, but long-term there’s basically no difference. James Barnum
So how do you know what you’re eating qualifies as a carb, a fat, or a protein?
The easiest way to figure out what you’re eating is to read the label.
Whatever the larger number on the label between the three macronutrients, that’s the winner. If you’re reading the label on the peanut butter jar, peanut butter is a FAT because there are about 16 grams of fat per serving and only about 7 grams of protein and roughly 4 grams of carbs.
If you have no label (you bought some asparagus at the farmer’s market) know that all veggies are a carb source—a great carb source at that. Most cheeses, nuts, and nut butters are a fat. Meats and most non-cheese dairy are protein sources. If you have no idea, you can always use Google or My Fitness Pal’s database to figure out if your food choice is a protein or a fat if it doesn’t come with a label. If you’re eating chili cheese fries somewhere, know that’s a carb and a fat, and not necessarily your best source of nutrition.
Back to this Nutritional Timing Thing. When to eat what?
- Eat protein, heart-healthy fats, and vegetables for all your basic meals and snacks. No explanation needed. We all know the body needs three macronutrients to survive and if you’re designing meals around lean meats, eggs, vegetables, and good fats–you’re optimizing the health of your total body–muscles, organs, brain–even your mood and energy is benefiting. Always aim for these three macros on your plate–no matter what.
- Eat complex carbs and protein before your workout. Eat to fuel your workout. Before your workout, eat whole grain, starchy, fibrous carbs with protein. A good rule of thumb is anywhere from 1-2 hours before your workout, have some starchy veggies or whole grains with a lean protein source. If you’re short on time, at the minimum grab a banana and a scoop of protein at least 15-30 minutes before you train
- Eat complex carbs, and drink BCAAs and protein during your resistance training as needed. During heavy lifting, sip on a protein shake with branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and another scoop of protein. If you’re training–seriously training such as lifting for 90+ minutes a day, take some carbs with you for sustained energy. Whole grain carbs are an excellent source, but all athletes should experiment with what works best for him or her. Some athletes feel replenished and energized by eating fruit during training. Others enjoy gummy bears. Experiment and find the best carb source that helps you hit that desired PR. Sipping on BCAAs also helps with energy but possibly more importantly, aids in recovery, fatigue and soreness. That’s right–fight DOMS with BCAAs.
- Eat simple carbs and protein after your workout. Have carbs and protein on a 2:1 ratio. Two grams of carbs per every one gram of protein. And this is the fun part: the only time you can actually get away with eating bad carb sources is after a workout. It’s not something you HAVE to do, but you COULD do it and get away with it–IF your workout is intense and primarily made up of heavy resistance work.
And while most people believe that protein is the most important macronutrient to consume post training, it’s not going to work as well–if at all–without the carbs. Simple carbs, especially: White bread, white rice, dessert foods–anything not a whole grain and everything sugar filled. Shocking, right? These are the foods associated with weight gain and simple sugars are frowned upon because of their fast-acting insulin-producing response in the body. Normally, this can lead to unhealthy appetites and weight gain. BUT post workout, you NEED to get the protein to your muscles QUICKLY. In resistance training, the response of insulin aids muscle rebuilding by putting glycogen back in the muscles.
Carbs are your friend! To get big and stronger, you’re going to need more carbohydrates to shuttle nutrients to those working muscles. So, have some quality carbohydrates at each meal.Alex McMahon
Is this frightening?
If simple carbs scare you then a great option is dextrose. Dextrose is a clean and natural carb which is the perfect compliment to help maximize protein absorption. By using a product like dextrose, you will maximize the muscle rebuilding effects of the protein post workout.
Post training, you can get away with the foods you didn’t think you could get away with before (Though each athlete should be cautious to not go overboard with the allowance of “fun” carbs):
- Protein + white (unrefined) bread/rice/pasta/potatoes
- Protein + cereal (your favorite kid-kind, not a healthy/whole grain kind)
- Protein + candy (ones made with dextrose are best: gummy bears, sweet tarts, jelly beans)
- Protein + dessert (ones that are low in fat)
- Protein + waffles and pancakes
You have full permission in the post-training “Window of Gainz” to eat a giant carbohydrate rich meal. Whatever you want, minus the fat at this particular meal. People pass up on this opportunity all the time, which is incredibly silly. Especially if you’re looking to gain strength and size.Chris
If these options sound scary to you, opt for the healthier carbs:
- Protein + fruit
- Protein + sweet potatoes
- Protein + dextrose (powdered form)
- MAKE A FUN SMOOTHIE! Protein powder plus bananas and berries are awesome post training.
Avoid fats for at least 1-3 hours after your workout.
Don’t eat “fat” up to two hours after training. Fat slows down the absorption of protein into your muscles. The carbs are the protein transporters while fat slows down the cargo. Who would want to stall the gainz process?! Eating peanut butter, nuts, avocado, after a workout is practically halting the recovery process. These do nothing for muscle repair; fats only slow down the insulin response. This is one reason why fats in the morning are a great idea (if you’re not training in the morning). Insulin tells our cells to store energy in one of two ways, either as glycogen or fat. And if there is no muscle repairing necessary, insulin stores energy as extra fat cells. So when you wake up in the morning after a long fast, don’t spike your insulin with carbs. Eat fat and protein. Only after a heavy lifting session should you cash in on the good side of the insulin hormone.
- If fat loss is a goal, eat protein and good fats together, with vegetables, at every meal. Only eat your non-vegetable carbs around your workout window (before, during, and after).
- most recent research points that post workout nutrition isn’t *as* important after a cardio workout as it is a lifting workout. However, if your WOD is an intense interval training workout, it can still produce some of the same effects as lifting does when performed correctly. So even though it’s not supremely necessary to have a recovery shake (protein and simple carbs) after this workout, it’s not going to hurt either. Judge how you feel. If you walk away feeling the burn in your muscles and you feel like a shake, have one! If you just want to foam roll, drink some water, eat your healthy lunch and move on, then do that.
- Supplementation is important. Add these to your cabinet: fish oils (actually put your fish oil in the fridge), glucosamine, vitamin D3, B-vitamins, multi-vitamin, vitamin E, Calcium, Magnesium. This is why. Plus, a GOOD protein powder isn’t a supplement. It’s a necessity and part of good nutrition.
THE TAKE HOME
- Eat complex carbs with protein for energy 1-2 hours before a workout — especially the heavy lifters out there
- DON’T eat whole grains or fats within 1-3 hours post training.
- DO eat protein and simple carbs as soon as possible after training.
- Try to get two grams of carbs per every one gram of protein post training.
- You can eat your favorite dessert or cereal after training, with a scoop of protein, and you’ll get better results than trying to eat peanut butter on whole wheat toast.
- If you want to lose fat, make healthier food choices throughout the day and SAVE YOUR CARBS for around your workout so you body uses them instead of converts them to fat cells!
Learning about nutrition is complicated; it seems as if everyone has an opinion and the science is changing every day. But once you start to fully understand what your body needs and when it needs it, the rest becomes pretty easy. The limiting factor here is that you have to know your body, and if you don’t, you may need to take some time to experiment to see what works best for you. Some people respond much better to a banana or sweet potato after a workout than they do a bowl of cereal or their favorite pastry. But a lot of people will make huge gains both in the gym and with fat loss from that same pastry. So take some time to experiment and get to know yourself. By keeping these basic principles in mind with the knowledge you have about nutrition timing, you can’t help but win.
March is the founder and owner of The Barbell Beauties which she started in 2015. She is from the Philippines and currently lives in beautiful Thailand with her American husband and daughter. She is an avid Crossfitter and has just started her journey into Muay Thai (kickboxing).
4 thoughts on “The 5 Rules of Proper Workout Nutrition”
This nutrition information is excellent. I’m 58 and have been doing CrossFit for a almost 2 years . This info will help me on my journey to be the best I can be . Thanks
Amazing. You’re welcome and keep us posted!
If you train in the morning (5am) what should you eat before you train? I am confused if that should include both carbs and protein? If carbs, What kid of carbs woulD you suggest
This is an excellent article so simple to understand