Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Ever wonder wether you should eat before or after your workouts? How about what and how much to eat? Or have you pondered the exact best time to consume these meals? As nutritionists and fitness professionals, we get asked such questions every single day. In this article, we will talk about the symbiotic relationship between food, the mind, and physical activity. We will discuss common misconceptions about macronutrient and beverage intake recommendations, settle the debate about protein powder vs dietary protein, all the while pointing out the often substantial differences between 'athletes' and 'non-athletes.' Let's learn how to optimize fitness performance and recovery with proper nutrition that matches our unique lifestyle needs!
What is the difference between an athlete and non-athlete?
At BW Health Academy, we see many clients who struggle to navigate the latest diet and exercise fads, and seek advice about their validity and effectiveness. The common confusion between athlete and non-athlete populations has led to an increase in clients in any wellness center or gym implementing specialized diets that are primarily for trained athletes with specific goals and time frames. Although there are many super active and fit individuals who complete intense workouts throughout the week, these individuals are not considered "true" athletes. I personally have had to learn how to modify my diet and training regimen from being a dancer and cheerleader to a non-athlete in college. Athletes are those who train and perform, not at recreational levels, but at highly competitive levels and earn an income based on their physical performance. Not all fitness trainers or healthcare professionals are athletes either, because athletes depend on that millisecond difference in time and a precise level of skill and form.¹
Why do athletes have higher nutritional needs compared to non-athletes?
A person's nutritional needs depend on the type, duration, and level of intensity with which physical activity is being performed. A MET (or metabolic equivalent) value is the ratio of one's working metabolic rate relative to his or her resting metabolic rate (with metabolic rate being the rate of energy expended per unit of time). Naturally, MET values are much higher in athletes than in non-athletes, because athletes operate at higher levels of physical strain, even though they also have higher levels of energy expenditure at rest due to an advanced need for muscle and tissue repair. A MET value of 5 means an athlete would be burning five times (5x) the number of calories they would at rest. Skill needed for a specific sport or activity also impacts MET values²:
Cycling at 10-11.9 mph = MET value of 6
Cycling at 14-15.9 mph = MET value of 10
Typical non-athletic METs include²:
Sedentary lifestyle = MET value of 1.2
Moderately active lifestyle = MET value of 1.3 (e.g., those who walk a lot during the day)
Active lifestyle = MET value of 1.5 (e.g., those who complete physically demanding activities like construction)
Overall, athletes have higher energy needs for their activity, a higher energy expenditure at rest due to muscle/metabolism, and specific macronutrient needs depending on the skills needed for their sport.
What are your specific caloric and macronutrient needs?
Non-athletes who participate in a general fitness program, such as exercising 30-40 minutes per day, 3 times per week, can typically meet nutritional needs following a normal diet of 15.8 kcal per pound of body weight per day (kcal/lb/day).³ A rough estimate for someone who weighs 140 lbs would be 15.8 kcal/lb/day x 140 lbs = 2,212 kcal/day (though, needs would also depend on one's age, gender, health status, etc). Non-athletes, aka "regular" men and women, can typically meet macronutrient needs by consuming a normal diet consisting of 45-65% calories from carbohydrates, 10-35% from protein and 20-35% from fat, using the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range, AMDR. In terms of optimal amount of protein per day, one can use the RDA for protein for those 19 years old and older, 0.36 g/lb body weight.² Strict formulas and numbers aside, nutrition generally improves with a balanced intake of all food groups, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and protein. Here's an example of how to convert AMDR percentages into grams of macronutrients for the aforementioned 140 lb person expending 2,212 kcal/day:
Note: There are 4 calories per gram of protein, 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, and 9 calories per gram of fat.
Athletes involved in moderately intense training (e.g. 2-3 hours per day of intense exercise performed 5-6 times per week) or high-volume training (e.g. 3-6 hours per day of intense training in 1-2 workouts for 5-6 days per week) need 22.7-36.3 kcals/lb/day. The caloric needs for heavier athletes, such as football offensive linemen averaging 300 lbs, are even greater in order to meet the needs of their playing position. Protein needs for strength-trained athletes trying to maintain their weight are 0.54-0.64 g/lb body weight, 0.73-0.77 g/lb for strength-trained athletes trying to gain lean muscle mass, 0.54-0.64 g/lb for endurance-trained athletes, 0.64-0.77 g/lb for intermittent high-intensity training, and 0.64-0.82 g/lb for weight-restricted athletes. For instance, a 140 lb endurance cross-country runner needs 140 lb x 0.77 g/lb = 108 g protein (once again, that number can vary depending on age and gender, among other characteristics of the athlete).³
What should I eat before a typical workout and does meal timing matter?
Generally, not eating before a workout can make you feel fatigued and lightheaded, and increase your risk of injury during exercise. However, deciding to not eat beforehand can depend on how your body tolerates food. It is important to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues to find the right balance for yourself, because overeating or eating too close to your workout time can also cause gut distress.
Complex carbohydrates should be consumed 2-3 hours in advance as they are made of sugars that take longer to digest and provide a long-term source of energy. This type of carbohydrate is beneficial for longer and more intense workouts. Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, often carbohydrate-load with this type of "fuel" days in advance, which is not necessary for regular workouts.
For "regular" exercise sessions, focus on simple carbohydrates that digest fairly quickly, 30-60 minutes in advance. But don't forget quantity also matters! If your pre-workout meal includes too much simple carbs, you might experience a decline in energy before your workout is completed.⁴ This is because blood sugar levels spike when simple carbohydrates are rapidly digested, then steeply drop off as digestion advances into absorption.
Below are some quick and easy ideas for your pre-workout meals and snacks. As good nutrition benefits both body and mind, we selected options that not only boost performance, but regulate mood, depression and sleep; and we all know good sleep is crucial for stress reduction and overall mental and physical health.⁶
Should I consume caffeine or sports drinks before a workout?
Sports drinks and caffeine have been proven to aid performance in competitive athletes. A meta-analysis of 10 studies showed that caffeine ingestion improved both strength and power in athletes.⁷ Another study showed that caffeine consumed 1 hour prior to exercise can improve endurance exercise performance.⁸ The performance enhancement effect of caffeine occurs because it changes a person's perception of how much effort he or she puts forth while exercising. Sports drinks may also improve fuel stores in athletes who are running low during an exercise or those who didn’t consume enough carbohydrates beforehand. There are 3 main types of sports drinks you will see sold on the market:
Fluid replacement: for exercises less than 2 hours
Carbohydrate loading: for ultra-endurance events
Nutrient supplement drinks: fortified with vitamins and minerals to help athletes maintain balanced diet¹⁰
Sports drinks with added sodium are designed specifically for endurance athletes who are exercising or competing for more than 2 hours, those exercising in extreme heat, who have high sweat sodium rates, or who have muscle cramping known to be related to sodium imbalance. Athletes who do not match the above criteria should stick to standard sports drinks since consuming more sodium than is lost via sweat can lead to dehydration and muscle cramping.²
On the other hand, supplementing with sports drinks or caffeine is not necessary for non-athletes who generally do not need a competitive edge.⁹ Water is calorie-free and can easily replace fluid losses during a typical workout, whereas sports drinks and some caffeinated beverages contain added calories and sugars that may not be as beneficial for non-athletes. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults who choose to include caffeinated beverages pre- or post-workout, should not consume more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. It may be best to take in caffeine as black coffee or green tea as these drinks are low in calories and other unnecessary nutrients.
What should I eat after a workout and does meal timing matter?
Consuming both complex carbohydrates and complete proteins 20 to 30 minutes after a workout refuels the body's energy stores and helps rebuild muscle mass. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that if you wait just 2 hours post workout to consume a meal, your ability to refuel your muscles diminishes by 50%. Protein may also help your muscles absorb energy from carbohydrates to store as glycogen, or fuel. For athletes, a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is recommended for intense workouts, whereas a 3:1 or 2:1 ratio is more appropriate for less intense training. It is important to note that these strict time windows and ratios apply mainly to athletes who have strict diet regimens.
While certain non-athletes may benefit from eating soon after a workout, intuitive eating - listening to your body's hunger cues - seems more important in determining the best time to eat at the individual level. Furthermore, you do not need to overindulge in proteins and carbohydrates, but instead focus on having normal-sized meals with balances macronutrient profiles.¹¹
Below are some quick and easy ideas for your post-workout meals and snacks. As good nutrition benefits both body and mind, we selected options that not only boost performance, but regulate mood, depression and sleep; and we all know good sleep is crucial for stress reduction and overall mental and physical health.⁶
What about fats and exercise, especially omega-3 fatty acids?
The typical non-athlete's body does not prioritize fat as fuel during a workout and does not need to supplement with fats beyond what comes in with balanced, healthy eating. Because fats are more energy dense (i.e., they release larger amounts of energy) compared to carbs and protein, and take longer to transport and metabolize, they are mostly beneficial for endurance athletes (e.g., elite marathon runners) who perform for prolonged periods of time. Most of us, on the other hand, have substantial stores of fat in our tissues to satisfy our body's energy needs. Exercise training makes one a better fat burner because of the enhanced ability to use this fat.²
Non-athletes should limit their intake of saturated and trans fats, and opt for healthier alternatives, such as mono- and polyunsaturated fats including omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats, especially those derived from fatty fish like salmon and tuna, are known to benefit mood and mental health, lower the risk of heart disease, and ease post-workout muscle inflammation causing soreness. So while at the grocery store, look for nuts, especially walnuts, chia seeds, avocados, soy beans, olive oil and fatty fish (e.g., salmon and tuna).
How much, if any, water should I consume before, during, and after my workouts?
Note that these recommended amounts will change based on the type of exercise, duration and intensity, as well as the environmental conditions during exercise. See how much water intake works with your body and don’t wait until you 'feel' thirsty. Perceived thirst can be an unreliable sign of dehydration, which causes nausea, headache, dizziness and shortness of breath.¹²
Is it more beneficial to consume protein from real food or protein powders?
You can put that container of protein powder back on the shelf because most individuals can get the recommended amount of protein through food alone, without the use of supplementation. Protein powders and supplements are great for convenience, but are not necessary, even for elite athletic performance.¹³ The FDA does not test and approve protein supplements like it does conventional medications, so you cannot always be sure of their effectiveness or contents.¹⁴ Moreover, not all powder varieties sold out there are complete proteins - containing an adequate proportion of each of the 9 essential amino acids necessary for optimal human health. As a quick review, dietary proteins fall into two general categories:
Dietary Animal Proteins
Have a proper blend of all 9 essential amino acids, which means this protein is complete
Contain generally a higher concentration of protein
Dietary Plant Proteins
Most are incomplete proteins, which means 1 or more essential amino acids are missing
You can include 2 different plant proteins in a meal to create protein complementation and reach all 9 essential amino acids, such as grains and legumes
Contains generally a lower concentration of protein
Thus, it is important to spend time researching your options before deciding to supplement with powders. Consuming a diverse diet from both animal and plant food sources is often the best way to meet your body's protein needs when exercising (and in general).
What are the different types of protein powders?
The 2 most popular sources of protein powders for athletes are whey and casein, but there does not appear to be a difference in the performance-enhancing properties of either of these options. Nevertheless, the fast-acting whey is superior in muscle protein synthesis, while the slow-acting casein inhibits and slows protein breakdown. In other words, since whey is quickly absorbed, it is best consumed after workouts, while casein tends to be better at night, before bed, especially for athletes who train regularly. Albumen, or egg white protein, is another animal-based source of protein that is frequently incorporated into protein powders, energy bars or drinks. Below are a few examples of animal-sourced protein powders:
Whey protein isolates: 90% protein, which means it is the most purified form
Whey protein concentrate: 29-89% protein depending on manufacturer; also contains lactose and fat
Micellar casein: widely used as it is the purest form of casein
Hydrolyzed casein: partially broken down, dissolves better, but has a reduced ability to prevent breakdown of muscle protein
Soy is the most widely used vegetable protein source for those with allergies. Milk-based powders have been proven to lead to a greater lean body mass, but soy versions can still be effective.
Soy protein isolate: 90% protein, fast acting, increases muscle mass
Soy protein concentrate: 70% protein, 23% fiber (possible GI upset)
Branched-chain amino acids, BCAAs, are 3 specific essential amino acids, namely, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are available in powder form, help with muscle growth, and enhance exercise performance. BCAA supplements are unnecessary for most athletes if their protein powder already contain these amino acids or if they consume enough of BCAAs in their diet coming from meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts and seeds, and soy products.²
Non-athletes need less macronutrients and calories than athletes
Remember to drink fluids before, during, and after exercise, depending on body tolerance
Focus on complex carbohydrates 2-3 hours before longer, endurance-based routines or simple carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before shorter, strength training sessions
Post-training, focus on complex carbohydrates to refuel and complete proteins to rebuild muscle mass
Aim for foods rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties to boost brain health
Caffeine and sports drinks (prior to workouts) are not necessary for non-athletes
Protein powders are not necessary for either non-athletes or athletes, since it is easier to obtain protein needs from real, whole foods
Non-athletes should focus on switching from saturated and trans fats to unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids instead of focusing on using fat for fuel
About The Author
Ariana DiFilippo is currently a senior undergraduate nutrition and dietetics student at the University of Delaware. She will be pursuing a Master of Science in nutrition and completing the supervised practice hours needed to become a registered dietitian nutritionist at the University of Pittsburgh starting this fall. Ariana has always been interested in the correlation between fitness and nutrition, from being a dancer for 13 years, varsity cheerleading captain and coach, to working with collegiate and professional athletes as a sports nutrition intern.
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