You are what you eat, so it pays to eat right.
Our brains and our bodies are shaped by the foods we feed them. Our energy, strength, motivation, health, and intelligence, are all defined by the stuff that flows through us.
It pays not to take this for granted, while our body has an amazing ability to break down and process many of the things we throw at it, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be choosing the food that helps us perform at our peak.
In terms of performance, what you want to eat will depend somewhat on the activity you want to perform. For intense physical activity we need fuels that keep our energy levels up throughout, and that won’t cause us to crash or feel sluggish. For mental acuity we need foods that promote blood flow to the brain, that stimulate memory and mental growth.
Whatever your lifestyle, there are three main ingredients you need no matter what:
Carbs are our primary fuel for working out and physical activity, and they’re stored in the muscles as glycogen. If we deplete all of our glycogen resources we’ll start to feel weak and lose focus, worse still, your muscles will start to be broken down for energy.
Complex carbs take longer to digest than simple sugars, which makes them better at maintaining blood sugar levels. They also contain more nutrition through fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Simple carbs have little value, they hit the blood stream quickly and spike insulin levels, driving sugars into muscle tissue and the liver, with the leftover going into fat cells. The best sources for complex carbs are whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Fat gets a bad rap, for many it’s the face of evil and a mere mention of it’s name sends a shiver down the spine. But, the right fats provide us with many important benefits, it’s the wrong fats that have tarnished the name.
Healthy fats provide us with important nutrients, and help reduce inflammation, they also improve vascular health and blood flow, and as such are important for brain function.
The bad guys are saturated fats from meat, butter, cream, and lard; and trans fats from fried foods, snack foods, and margarines. These fats increase your risk for heart disease. Unsaturated fat — the good guy — comes in extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, and avocados.
Twenty percent of our body is made up of protein, which helps our muscles repair and grow stronger. It also works to maintain a healthy immune system, can help us recover from brain injuries such as concussions, or maximizes an otherwise healthy brain to perform at it’s peak.
Protein is broken down by our bodies into amino acids, some of which are essential, and others our body can make itself. The protein that comes from animal sources contains all of the essential amino acids, while plants differ in what they contain. Most of us reach our daily requirements easily through a balanced diet that includes lean meats, eggs, fish, cheese, nuts, and legumes.
Your Order Of Intake
What you should be eating depends on when and what you’re planning on doing. Different schedules mean you’ll need to do a bit of shifting and compromising, but with a little research and effort you can find the healthiest way to get what your body needs. In general, this is what you want to aim for:
Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. Breakfast, as many will tell you, is the most important meal of the day, and should be had within an hour of waking. Studies have shown that even with the same amount of calorie intake during the day, those with the majority coming in the morning lost significantly more weight than those who ate larger dinners.
Eat every 3-4 hours thereafter, but keep the size down, they should more of a snack size compared to a full meal. Most people eat 3 big meals throughout the day, but when we do this we often go long times without eating, which can cause our blood sugar to drop, and then spike when we finally eat again. Eating smaller meals with smaller intervals helps to keep our sugar levels consistent.
Your pre-workout food is essential, as it prevents low blood sugar, fatigue, and dizziness. This is where you want those carbohydrates to fuel your energy needs — only the complex carbs though, simple sugars might give you a quick boost but you’ll likely crash mid-workout. You also want to stay away from fatty foods, which leave your stomach much slower, and can leave you feeling sluggish.
The post-workout meal requires fast-digesting proteins for the best muscle-building results. Your muscles are depleted of glycogen through muscular contractions, and after an intense workout they become like sponges, ready to absorb all the carbs, proteins and nutrients they can. Eat within one hour of training to take advantage of your anabolic state, and fill up on carbs and proteins such as bananas, wheat, and protein shakes.
Dinner should be small. If your day is a pyramid, the large base is your breakfast of champions, and the pointed tip is dinner. Sleep is one of the more common disruptions from a large late night feast, as your metabolism will fire up and keep you awake, not to mention the uncomfortable feeling of lying down with food in your stomach.
Dehydration is a killer. Without adequate liquids in your body your speed, power, and mental focus all tank. You’re brain tissue also shrinks during periods of dehydration, and other studies have shown that cognitive function is impaired, limiting your focus, memory, and decision making ability.
You’ll know you’re dehydrated if you simply feel thirsty, although another common indicator is dark yellow urine — you should be aiming for clear to pale yellow. Water is the liquid, you can have all the protein shakes you want, but nothing should ever replace water intake. You should be consuming it before, during, and after workouts. Eight cups a day is the general recommendation, but if you’re performing intense workouts you could up that to around 13, but pay attention to your body for the signals, everybody is different, the best way to tell what you need is to recognize your own signals.
The big benefit with protein shakes is that they can be ready for the moment you finish the workout, and absorbed by the body faster than anything. They can get your muscles what they need the instant it’s needed. The most common is whey protein, which is a fast digesting protein, while the other is casein, a slow digesting protein. Notably, the most effective for intense exercise seems to be both in combination.
If you’re not into the shake scene, there are other ways to get your protein. Both whey and casein are derived from milk, so putting back a glass of whole milk provides a great dose of protein. Couple that with foods such as egg whites, tuna, chicken breast, and fish for post-workout perfection.
Caffeine can do wonders for your health. It helps mobilize fat cells into the bloodstream to boost metabolism, can increase muscle strength and intensity when it’s taken pre-workout, and can reduce post-workout soreness. Just don’t take it after 5pm as it can disrupt your sleep.
The Final Say
In the end, it’ll be your schedule and level of exercise that determines what you should be eating. Taking note of what you’re asking your body to do will give you an idea of the types of fuel you should be getting, whether it’s resistance training or hitting the books for a study session.
That being said, one thing remains relatively consistent throughout lifestyles: whole foods beat out processed foods in almost every way.
Whatever it is you do, try to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, and unsaturated fats. Turn to some specific super-foods such as blueberries, salmon, bananas, tomatoes, oats, spinach, and broccoli, all of which pack big nutritional punches.
To perform at your peak all day, you need the right fuel, so choose carefully next time you are out shopping.
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