So, you’ve cleaned up your diet and you’re eating “healthily” and training regularly. But how do you tailor your diet to fit your needs so that you’re not wasting some of the work you’re putting into your workouts? It’s worth taking the time to consider your aims and goals: To get lean? To gain muscle? Prepare for an endurance competition?
How to Optimize Your Nutrition for Results
Firstly, the key to optimizing your nutrition is to ensure you track every detail of your diet. The more information you have, the easier it is to see what’s working for you and what isn’t. Food tracking apps are commonly available on the app store, and by inputting your food details you can gain great insight into your total calories, macronutrient and micronutrient breakdown. Use apps like MyFitnessPal or Yazio.
An additional benefit is these apps can be used to identify whether you have food intolerances. For example, if you find yourself waking up with an unexpected headache some mornings and there’s no obvious cause, it’s much easier to work out what’s going on if you’re tracking everything that goes into your body.
Add More Carbohydrates
A common mistake of those looking for rapid weight loss is to cut out carbohydrates almost entirely. Although this will indeed encourage weight loss, if you’re exercising don’t be afraid to add in some more clean carbohydrates to your diet, particularly if you’re struggling with energy levels during exercise.
If you’re doing longer cardio sessions — for example, 10-mile runs or 80-mile cycles — and you haven’t had adequate carbohydrates, you will almost certainly eat away at your lean muscle mass for fuel (1). This can have important consequences as loss of muscle mass can adversely affect your metabolism and lead to weight gain (2). In such cases consider eating a sweet potato, some oats or a small portion of rice to provide enough carbohydrates to prevent you from using your muscles for energy.
If your aim is weight loss and you’re following a paleo diet (lean protein, moderate fat and no refined carbohydrates), you may find your weight loss has reached a plateau after a period of rapid weight loss.
The reason for this is in the first few days of a relatively low carbohydrate diet, you lose a lot of glycogen from your muscles and liver. Glycogen is an energy storage molecule but importantly it causes water retention. In fact, for every one gram of glycogen in your body, there is approximately an additional three grams of water, which explains the rapid initial weight loss while restricting carbohydrate intake (3).
One answer to this plateau effect may be to change your diet for a brief period to kick-start further weight loss. A ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate protein and low-carbohydrate diet which encourages the utilization of fat stores for energy. By eating a high-fat diet, instead of utilizing glucose for energy your body becomes a fat-burning machine precisely because it’s fat that is being used for fuel (4).
Achieving ketosis is complex and requires constant monitoring of blood glucose and ketone levels to ensure you’re at the right state of balance.
Though you could technically achieve ketosis using any kind of poor quality fat, it’s important for your long-term health to eat healthy, natural fats — think avocados, coconut oil and animal fat.
Interestingly, some high-level athletes are “keto-adapted” meaning they use a ketogenic diet long-term even while doing exercise. Indeed it’s been discovered that elite endurance athletes who eat very few carbohydrates burn more than twice as much fat as high-carb athletes during periods of maximum exertion and prolonged exercise (5).
Eating Too Much Protein
Over the past 10 years there has been a huge boom in “high-protein” diets, which encourage massive protein intake because of the common belief that you can’t eat too much protein. This isn’t true. In fact, excessive protein can actually be quite detrimental to your health. For example, it can result in weight gain and excess body fat.
Additionally, it may even put unnecessary stress on your kidneys, though experiments show up to 2.8 grams per kilogram of body weight is relatively safe (6). To be clear, your body needs protein to thrive. After all, amino acids found in protein are the primary building blocks for your muscles, bones and hormones.
However, there is an upper limit to how much protein your body can actually use. The key point to remember is that excess protein is converted into sugar and then stored as fat. Interestingly, the resulting raised blood glucose level can provide fuel for pathogenic bacteria and yeast causing overgrowth of organisms such as Candida albicans (7).
Eat More Calories
It’s estimated that around two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are obese so while many people need to eat fewer calories, if you are exercising regularly — particularly performing high-intensity exercise or endurance events — it may, in fact, be good for you to increase your total calorie intake (8). This is a somewhat similar reason why increasing your carbohydrate intake is often useful if you are finding it hard to recover from exercise, falling ill frequently or picking up regular injuries. Chances are if you’re not getting enough calories through your diet, it’s very likely that you’re not getting enough micronutrients either. So, consider upping your total calorie intake with quality nutrient-dense foods so that you can get the most out of your training.
- “Liver glycogen in man. Effect of different diets and muscular exercise.” Hultman, E., and L. H. Nilsson. 1971.
- “Sarcopenia: origins and clinical relevance.”Rosenberg, Irwin H. 1997.
- “The storage of the major liver components; emphasizing the relationship of glycogen to water in the liver and the hydration of glycogen.” McBride, J. J., M. Mason Guest, and E. L. Scott. 1941.
- “Molecular physiology of the regulation of hepatic gluconeogenesis and glycolysis.” Pilkis, Simon J., and D. K. Granner. 1992.
- “Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners.” Volek, Jeff S., et al. 2016.
- “Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes?” Poortmans, Jacques R., and Olivier Dellalieux. 2000.
- “Ethanol production by Candida albicans in postmortem human blood samples: effects of blood glucose level and dilution.” Yajima, Daisuke, et al. 2006.