What you choose to eat when trying to get into shape, is more than important. It is essential to choose the right diet to accompany your exercise program.
Let's first have a look at some of the most popular "diets" or nutritional plans available today. I am just listing them, as explaining each one will literally take days and a thousand pages. (For a detailed explanation of each diet, follow this link.)
1. Atkins diet
2. The Zone diet
3. The Paleo Diet
4. Ketogenic diet
5. Vegetarian diet
6. Vegan diet
I will just comment by saying that these diets cannot be more diverse and contradicting each other more vigorously.
Proponents of some of these diets believe in it so strongly, that they will almost defend it to the death and refuse to even consider another point of few.
Let me first make it clear that I am NOT agreeing or disagreeing with any of the principles these diets are based on.
I do, however, disagree with certain elements of some of these diets, the reasons for which will become clear through the course of this article. I will be focusing on 3 areas where I believe a lot of confusion exists.
Before getting to those areas, I need to make one statement, which just happens to be a fact:
NO diet or nutritional plan can or will be successful without being used in conjunction with an effective exercise routine.
Let me be blunt. You can be on the the perfect diet tailored to your specific body type and metabolism. But you will not get the results you are looking for by sitting on the couch while doing it.
You may lose weight (not necessarily fat), if that is your aim. But you know that "flabby look" that are so common with people relying on just dieting? Well, you are well on your way. And if you are trying to gain weight, you definitely may reach your goal. It will just be in the form of fat, not muscle!
I know many of you may dislike what I just said, and I hate to be the bearer of "bad" news. But if you want to reach your goal, you need to get off your butt and a break a sweat. And you know what? You may actually end up enjoying it, and start experiencing all the other benefits of exercising / working out.
With that out of the way, let's get to the 3 areas I trust will help guide you in this maze of contradicting information and ideas. Remember, these are guidelines, and should be used as just that. Your own body may have its own specific requirements which may differ vastly from these guidelines.
1) Eat according to your body type
I discussed the 3 main body types you can be classified into in a previous article, so I will not go into a detailed explanation here. (You can read the article here.) You can use this classification as a rough guideline to help you determine how to adjust your diet.
Before getting to the specific body types though, there is one nutritional component I recommend for ALL body types. That component being protein. I cannot stress its importance enough, and many of you may see this as common knowledge. You will be surprised how many people are oblivious to this fact, and may knowingly or unknowingly be seriously neglecting sufficient protein intake in their diets.
Proper protein intake is not just necessary for healthy muscle and bone formation, but also essential for numerous other processes in the body to function properly. I am not going to get involved in a debate about what specific type of protein to consume. There are too many schools of thought and too many diets propagating different proteins. That is a topic for another discussion, and I would like to stick to the the subject of this article.
Just remember, whichever body type I am discussing, protein intake is an important part that can be seen as being part of each body type by default. Let's get to these body types…
a) The Ectomorph
As you are already carrying very little body fat and your goal is most probably to gain muscle, your aim should be to protect the muscle you already have. In addition to maintaining your muscle, you should also eat enough protein to fuel muscle growth when following a vigorous training program.
Due to the increase in energy demands, your body may require more nutrients to "burn" than you are consuming. (Remember, your body uses nutrients as fuel to meet its energy demands.) As a result, your body may start using muscle tissue for energy, the last thing you want to take place.
Increasing your carbohydrate intake, especially before and directly after your workouts will help to prevent this from happening. Don't be afraid to experiment a little with the amount of carbohydrate intake when starting out. Your body type allows you to get rid of excess fat relatively quickly, which may form if you consume too much carbohydrates.
(Remember, when I talk about carbohydrates, I talk about healthy complex carbohydrates. I will be discussing carbohydrates in more detail in the next part of this article.)
b) The Mesomorph
Your body type allows you to have a more balanced diet. Depending on your goal, whether you want to maintain a toned body, gain some muscle or obtain a more defined body, your nutritional requirements my vary.
As usual, I always recommend a fairly high protein intake (especially if building muscle is your goal). You may want to increase your carbohydrate intake if you follow a very intense workout regime, to help cope with your body's energy demands.
I need to caution you here though. It is very easy to overcompensate by consuming too much carbohydrates. Excess carbohydrates may be stored as fat, and due to your body type, it can be a bit more difficult to get rid of than you think. While you may be able to build muscle more quickly, the ectomorph has the upper hand when it comes to burning fat.
c) The Endomorph
With you bigger bone structure and natural tendency to carry more fat, your nutritional requirements differ quite substantially from other body types.
I know it may be a bit of a generalisation, but if you have this body type, chances are you are carrying an excess amount of fat, and most probably one of your main goals is to tone down and lose that fat.
Obviously, whatever your diet, it should be used in conjunction with a high intensity exercise regime. As with the other body types, a sufficient amount of protein is recommended. Here however, I will recommend not going overboard, even with protein consumption. Remember, your body converts nutrition into energy. This means if your protein intake is too high, it may slow down or even stop your body's ability to dip into your fat storage and use it as energy.
For the same reason you should be extremely weary of carbohydrates. If you get sufficient nutrition through protein and other nutritional sources, you should really try and keep carbohydrates to a minimum.
This does NOT mean you must starve yourself at all. You should never find yourself feeling hungry (I am addressing this misconception in this article). Make sure you eat sufficient protein, vegetables and fiber reach foods to meet your nutritional needs. You don't need to completely avoid carbohydrates, but just limit its intake as much as possible.
I have just given a rough overview on how to use your body type as a guide to adapt and adjust your diet. Please note that this a very rough guide, and the actual interaction between body and nutrition is a lot more complex.
2) Energy Sources: Fats and Carbohydrates
As I already mentioned, your body needs to burn calories (in the form of nutrition or fat stored in your body) to be used as energy. When your nutritional intake is not sufficient to support your body’s energy demands, it will turn to fat storage in your body to use as fuel. This may be exactly what you want if you are trying to loose fat.
In a lot of instances though, you need all your energy to come from your nutritional intake. This is especially true if you want to gain muscle and already have a low fat percentage. Here you want to avoid your body using its own tissue as a source of energy at all costs.
This is where things become very divisive and controversial. Depending on which school of thought you subscribe to, things really goes from the one extreme to the other. Some diets advocate you should stick to protein and vegetable intake only, and all energy should be derived from the natural carbohydrates and nutrients already present in these foods. Other diets advocate a moderate to higher carbohydrate intake to make sure your energy demands are met. On the other side of the scale, you get your more “extreme” and controversial diets. They subscribe to the philosophy that apart from your protein intake, all your energy should be derived from the consumption of fat. In some cases, you are actually given cart blanch, where you are free to eat as much fat as you want to meet your energy and nutritional needs. (I think we all know which diet I am revering to.)
I already discussed the intake of carbohydrates, so I do not need to add to it here. I feel the issue of fat needs to be addressed however.
First though, I want to be clear about one fact that has be thoroughly proven scientifically. Fats are essential for healthy body function, especially in promoting a strong immune system. The fat found in fish oil (especially salmon) is very rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for proper brain function, as well as supporting a healthy cardiovascular system.
Other fats derived from foods such as nuts, avocados and olives (also called monounsaturated fats), have numerous health benefits. These include improving cardiovascular and blood-pressure function, and even plays a role in the control of diabetes.
Even the fat that can be found in and around meat and other animal products, may assist in fulfilling additional energy requirements, especially for low endurance exercise.
Fat becomes a problem though, when it is used for the soul purpose of providing energy to the body. Instead of carbohydrates or another form of nutritional supplementation, fat is used in large quantities to fulfil this role.
Here I need to caution you to be very careful. I honestly feel I will not be doing my duty if I don’t point out the dangers of this practice. Although I am not denying that this diet may have advantages, a lot of research still has to be done to determine how the benefits and dangers stack up against each other.
Fat consumed with the intent of being used as a substitute to provide the body with energy, is one of the easiest nutrients to be added to your body's natural fat storage. Fat stored in the body in turn, is also a lot more difficult to get rid of, as many of you already know.
The health dangers of consuming large quantities of fat are quite numerous. Its negative effect on blood pressure and cholesterol has already been well documented. In turn, this have a direct effect on cardiovascular health. Left unchecked, taking in more fat that can be used as energy, will inevitably lead to some degree of obesity. The dangers of obesity and its negative effect on heart health and diseases like diabetes are well known and documented.
I will leave the final decision over to you on whether you choose to follow such a diet plan. I just feel very uncomfortable to endorse you to go down this slippery slope.
I briefly covered ways in which you can use theses 3 body type classifications to adjust your diet for better results. I will encourage you to do your own research as well, but in a nutshell, the information you just read, should help guide you in the right direction.
We now move on to the part of nutrition that has been the source of numerous debates, disagreements and completely contrasting beliefs.
3) Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe?
I honestly feel sorry for the poor carbohydrate… It is properly the most scrutinized, criticized and researched nutrient of all. It’s either loved or despised, depending on who you talk to. Also, the type of sporting activity a person is involved in plays a huge part in the attitude towards carbohydrates.
I already made my own position regarding carbohydrates, very clear. I honestly believe carbohydrates has its place and remains an important part of any nutritional plan combined with an effective exercise regime. The amount you consume though, may vary by quite some margin, depending on a lot of factors, some of which I already discussed.
Having said that, I need to point out 2 important issues that needs clarifying:
a) Types of Carbohydrates
b) Timing and Carbohydrates
a) Types of Carbohydrates
When I refer to carbohydrates, I refer to your healthy, or complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can be divided into 2 groups. Simple and complex carbohydrates.Simple carbohydrates are mostly refined forms of carbohydrates. These include sugary drinks, sweets (chocolates, candy bars etc.) and ice-cream to mention a few. Staple food like bread and breakfast cereals also falls within this category.
The problem with simple carbohydrates is that it gets processed by the body very quickly, which results in many unwanted situations. For starters, because it get processed so quickly, it can be stored as fat before your body gets the chance to use it as energy.
It also causes a spike in insulin levels. This means if you eat a lot of simple carbohydrates throughout the day, the sudden spike and drop in insulin levels plays havoc on your energy levels. The constant tired and exhausted feeling experienced by people who are guilty of this practice, are quite common.
On a much more serious note, the abuse of these carbohydrates, combined with the resulting weight gain, and the havoc it causes with your insulin levels, have been directly linked to serious diseases like diabetes. It is also closely tied with cardiovascular disease and quite a few other serious disorders.
Complex carbohydrates, are mostly used in their original form. Rice, potatoes and sweet-potatoes fall within this category. The reason they are considered to be the healthier alternative, is that the body takes much longer to absorb this type of carbohydrate. It also provides a longer and sustained release of energy. This gives your body more time to process it and use it as energy.
So, the advantages of using complex carbohydrates in combination with an effective workout are very clear. I don’t need to even go into the health benefits, compared to simple carbohydrates. I think you get the idea.
b) Timing of Carbohydrates
To maximize the advantages of carbohydrates and minimize its disadvantages, when you take your carbohydrates is just if not more important than the amount of carbohydrates you take.
Remember, the main reason you are eating carbohydrates is not just to provide you with sufficient energy when exercising. It is also to make sure your body is not dipping into your muscle tissue “reserves” due to lack of proper nutrition.
In general, there are two time slots during the day that is best suited to focus on your carbohydrate intake. That is before and directly after your workout. Obviously working out on a full stomach is not an option, so take that meal at least 2 hours or more before your workout. You may even have to give yourself more time, depending on how fast or slow your digestive system is.
Your second carbohydrate rich meal should be immediately after your workout session. Your body is now in serious need of recovering and rebuilding your muscle tissue that has been broken down during the workout. Taking carbohydrates in combination with a fast acting protein supplement, will help your insulin levels to spike, making it more susceptible to the absorption of protein.
The exact time will depend on when your workout is, but you now have a good idea as to how to space your carbohydrate intake in relation with your workout.
One last important point about the timing of your carbohydrate intake: If possible, never eat carbohydrates immediately before going to bed. Your body goes into a resting a mode and will not be burning calories and turn it into energy. The result will be that these excess calories will most probably be stored as fat.
The exception to this rule, will be if you train first thing in the morning (as discussed earlier this article). Obviously in this case, the only realistic time to take your carbohydrates, is before going to bed. One way of assisting the process, is to make sure that you take some protein with your evening meal. That way the absorption of your nutrients get slowed down, which means you still have enough energy left in your system when you start your workout.
It’s not the ideal solution, but it does work. (I follow this procedure and it works well for me. Trust me, if I didn’t take carbohydrates the night before my workout, I can really feel it, and it really is a battle getting through that session!)
I Hope you gained some more insight into how to structure and adjust your diet for the best possible results. I know there is a lot more detail to discuss, but I think this a good overview to help you get the basics right.
In future posts, I will point you to some helpful nutritional guides and recipes that will suite your requirements and give you tasty alternatives.
(By the way, I trust you have started your workout regime by now. If not, why not? Read my article where I introduce you to a few very effective exercise programs to start with here.)
As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my mailing list to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.
Until next time, enjoy experimenting with your diet!