Workout nutrition is an on-going debate with tons of anecdotes, forum discussions and message boards to prove it. From carbing-up to fasted cardio, protein shakes and pre-workout snacks, the opinions claiming the best solution enhancing performance, fitness and body composition are endless. What should you eat when you work out? It all depends on your goals, your workout, and your current health!
Being physically active and following a Paleo diet can present a conundrum. The fast-digesting carbohydrates, energy bars and sports drinks that are often recommended as key pre-workout foods that provide energy are full of sugar and refined grains. This does not mean that one cannot find many convenient and effective options for pre-workout nutrition that are Paleo friendly.
There is no one size fits all approach to nutrition—or workout nutrition for that matter. When it comes to getting the MOST out of your fitness routine, there is no question that food matters. It has been estimated that 80-90% of your fitness, performance, and body composition results are related to what goes into your mouth (or doesn’t go into your mouth).
Are you eating enough? A common roadblock many fitness enthusiasts run into is under-eating
It is easy to feel satiated on proteins, veggies, and some healthy fat, but in the same breath fall into the trap of accidental dieting. This results in slowed progress, plateaus, decreased metabolism, impaired appetite, and spinning your wheels in the gym!
Food is fuel! If you are serious about reaching your fitness goals, it can be good to conduct a baseline assessment of yourself to see if you are eating enough.
Whether your goal is to build strength, boost performance, lose weight or lean out, if you are under-eating, you will struggle to reach your goals. Keep in mind: calories are energy and nutrients, the higher the quality of foods you consume, the better your body can maximize your fuel. Everybody is different, and depending on your health history, current health status and body type (ectomorph or hard gainer versus endomorph or easy gainer), individual needs will vary.
Eating enough is important, but eating ENOUGH quality, real foods matters more. Your macronutrient ratios are a piece of the equation (proteins, carbs and fats), but not all chicken breasts, broccoli spears or sweet potatoes are created equal. Quality and source matter!
Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts often tend to focus more on calories and macros, neglecting food variety and the micro-nutrients (the vitamins and minerals) that give your body what it needs to use your energy sources best.
Here are some of my favorite quality foods for fitness:
Meat and Poultry. Beef and lamb, but also pork, chicken, turkey, duck and wild game like venison, ostrich, etc. Organic, pastured, grass-fed and/or free-range is always preferable. Natural means nothing.
Pastured Egg Yolks. The albumin in egg whites is closely associated with autoimmunity and allergies.
Organ Meats (especially liver). The most nutrient-dense food on the planet. If you don’t like the taste of liver, one good trick is to put one chicken liver in each cube of an ice cube tray and freeze them. Then, when you’re making any meat dish, dice up one chicken liver and add it to the meat.
Bone Broth. Balance your intake of muscle meats and organ meats with bone broths. Bone broths are rich in glycine, an amino acid found in collagen, which is a protein important in maintaining a healthy gut lining. No need to spend hours making your own, get ours here.
Wild-Caught Fish. Especially fatty fish like salmon, halibut, sardines, mackerel, and herring. Wild is preferable. Aim for 1 pound per week in lieu of fish oil supplements or reach for a fermented cod liver oil.
Starchy Tubers. Yams, sweet potatoes, yucca/manioc, winter squash, beets, carrots plantain, parsnips, etc.
Non-starchy Vegetables. Cooked and raw. Especially dark leafy greens.
Fermented Vegetables and Fruits. Sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, coconut kefir, etc. These are excellent for gut health.
Fresh Fruit. (1-2 servings/day). Especially berries and green tipped bananas.
Traditional Fats. Coconut oil, palm oil, lard, duck fat, beef tallow and olive oil.
Olives, Avocados, and Coconut (including coconut milk-no additives, coconut butter, unsweet coconut flakes).
Ghee & Grass-fed Butter
Sea Salt, Herbs & Spices.
What about protein powders?
Protein powders are not essential, but they can help some fitness enthusiasts meet their baseline protein requirements. Bear in mind you need to choose a digestible, anti-inflammatory powder, preferably naturally sourced and minimally processed.
Hydration is essential for fitness performance. As little as a 3% fluid reduction in the body can cause a 10% – 20% decrease in performance.
Adequate fluid intake can be easy to overlook. Thirst alone is not the first indicator of dehydration, and mindfulness around drinking water throughout the day is encouraged.
If you often find yourself hungry, especially between meals, or feeling fatigued or run down, it could be a sign your body needs more water. The same organ that triggers hunger (your hypothalamus) also triggers thirst.
Straight up water, or water infused with citrus or cucumber and mint, is best. (No, your coffee does not count as hydration – coffee dehydrates you!!). In addition, add a pinch of sea salt to your water and season your food liberally for electrolyte boosting power (sodium, potassium, and magnesium).
Sports drinks are not essential unless you are training for intense athletic activity, sweating a lot or working out in a hot climate, to replace extra lost electrolytes and maintain proper fluid balance in the body. Coconut water or a simple drink made with lemon juice, water and some sea salt will support replenishing lost micronutrients.
When to eat
A common question around fueling a work out is whether nutrient timing matters. For most fitness enthusiasts nutrient timing does not matter as much as you think, especially when compared to what you eat consistently overall in a given 24-hour period.
Studies have confirmed that the “post-workout” window or “perfect time” for eating a post-workout meal really only matters if you have not been fueling consistently or eating adequately.
Whether you eat 30-minutes after a workout or 2 to 3 hours after a workout is seen pretty much the same way to the body if you are meeting your daily energy needs.
The food you eat today actually impacts tomorrow’s workouts and performance more than today’s, based on digestion and maximum power output since glycogen stores (energy for your muscles) are usually replenished within a 24-hour period (provided that daily energy needs are met).
Generally, if you are eating regular, balanced meals and maybe one to two snacks each day to support energy needs, timing these accordingly to allow for proper digestion before moving and maneuvering in your work out is what you need to consider.
Digestion is an often-overlooked component of any fitness nutrition protocol. You could be eating the highest quality, well-balanced Paleo meals, but if you are not digesting your food appropriately, then you are not going to maximize the nutrients you have so diligently chosen to consume.
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts are at higher risk for impaired digestion, primarily because exercise is a stressor to the body.
While it is a positive stressor, all stress causes a rise in cortisol and a decrease in stomach acid (HCl) production.
Since optimal digestion happens in a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state, elevated cortisol can impair or stall digestion, especially directly after your workout as well as creating a higher risk for developing hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid).
Supporting digestion using a soil based pro-biotic, consuming lots of vegetables, adding in fermented foods and supplementing with natural apple cider vinegar and digestive enzymes can be helpful.
It is also important to focus on how you eat. Instead of inhaling your food or gulping your smoothie.
Breathe. Pause for 1-2 minutes before meals to simply breathe and stimulate rest and digest mode.
Chew your food—really well (you don’t want to recognize that chunk of chicken as a chunk of chicken when you swallow it)
Prep your own food as much as possible or use a trusted, high quality source for ready-made meals. Food is more than organic or non-GMO. The number of hands that have touched your food, or the length of time in storage in your fridge matter too. Pete’s Paleo uses only the highest quality, best sourced ingredients, carefully prepared and packaged for maximum nutrient retention – check out the selections.
Complicated schemes of nutrient timing might make the difference between an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver, but they just are not necessary for most recreational athletes. Eat enough food; eat enough protein, fat, and carbohydrates without obsessing over any one of them, and spend your time thinking about more important things. Make sure you are hydrated and take steps to maximize your digestion.
Most important of all, focus on how much fun you are having moving your body around, celebrate your performance (no matter your skill level) and enjoy seeing what a well-fueled body is able to do