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How to Build a Solid Nutrition Foundation for a Stronger You

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Without a solid understanding of what certain nutrients do in our body, it's a bit silly to focus on anything else. This article touches on protein, carbohydrates, fat and fluids, and makes a case as to why they are all important!

Redefining the "plate method"
If you asked anyone who has worked with me what I say about the "plate method", they'd tell you that I like to use it as a teaching tool but that I always emphasize the importance of using it flexibly. Our wants and needs change on a daily basis, making the plate method a good place to start but something that can and will be adjusted meal-to-meal and day-to-day. Below is a visual to get you started:
plate method

*Please note: as a registered dietitian, I don't even have a fruit or vegetable at every single meal.... And it's OKAY! But let's break each component down and "build the nutrition basics"...


Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body's primary energy source. Glycogen (the body's storage form of energy) is stored in muscle and broken down to aid in muscle contraction and movement. Glycogen stores deplete quickly and need consistent replenishment.

When is it most important to consume carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates should be included in each meal throughout the day.

Aim for simple, easily digestible carbohydrates (applesauce, fruit snacks) 30-60 minutes prior to activity and during as needed.

More complex carbohydrates (whole wheat pasta, quinoa) can be beneficial 3-4 hours prior to activity as part of a well-balanced pre-exercise meal.

What are good sources of carbohydrates for an athlete?
All carbohydrates are “good”, but some options are more optimal from a timing and tolerance perspective. For example, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and therefore aren’t a great option right before performance.

What happens if carbohydrate intake is too low?
Energy levels, strength, stamina and decision-making may suffer. This could lead to poor performance and injury.

Carbohydrate examples:
Bread, pasta, rice, cereal, grains, fruit, dairy, beans, juice, sports drinks, cookies, crackers, granola bars, gummies.

Protein

Protein does many things! It aids in muscle growth and tissue repair. Protein also is involved in immune function, creation of enzymes and hormones, satiety of meals, and is the building block of cartilage, skin and blood, and neurotransmitters in the brain.

When is it most important to consume protein?
Depending on tolerance, protein may be limited prior to training, particularly 30-60 minutes prior.

Protein should be a part of a well-balanced meal 3-4 hours prior to exercise.

Protein should be consumed within 1-2 hours after training, in addition to carbohydrates and fluids. It was once believed that you had to consume protein immediately after exercise in order to maximize muscle protein synthesis - recent research indicates this is false! It is more important to focus on getting enough protein spread throughout the day.

What happens if protein intake is too low?
Strength, muscle mass, hormonal function, immunity and digestion can all be negatively affected, leading to poorer performance and increased injury risk.

Protein examples:
Meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, soy, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds

Fat

Fat is a major component to making food taste good! Fat aids in satiation, thermoregulation, immune function, hormone production, facilitating nerve transmission, the absorption of vitamins (A, D, E, K) and minerals, and providing energy for long-duration, low intensity aerobic activities.

When is it most important to consume fat?
Fat takes a while to digest, so typically should be limited prior to and during training.
It can be incorporated into a well-balanced pre or post exercise meal, 3-4 hours before or after training or competition.

What happens if fat intake is too low?
Low energy levels, compromised immune function, inconsistent menstrual cycles and poor nutrient absorption.

Dietary fat examples:
Nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado, oils, butter, fatty fish

Fruits/Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide quick and easy carbohydrates (but not enough to be your only source!), fiber to support GI function, aid in hydration and provide antioxidants to help muscle recovery and injury prevention.

How many servings of fruits and vegetables does an athlete need?
A good rule of thumb is to have fruits or vegetables at each meal. Having a wide variety of each can help ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs.

When is it important to consume fruits and vegetables?
Try to consume a fruit or vegetable at each meal.

Whole fruits and vegetables aren’t always the best option ~1 hour prior to training as they have a higher fiber content and are harder for the body to digest. Limit vegetables and if desiring fruit within an hour of training, stick to processed fruit sources like applesauce and fruit leather.

What happens if fruit and vegetable intake is too low?
Poorer recovery, compromised immune system, difficulty defecating.

Fruit and vegetable examples:
Strawberries, bananas, oranges, blueberries, spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus

Fluids

Water is the most biologically active molecule in our body, aiding in all physiological and biochemical processes. It acts as a solvent, solute, reactant, product, carrier, lubricant, shock absorber, coolant, catalyst ... the list goes on!

How much fluid does an athlete need?
No one fluid recommendation will suffice as fluid needs vary dependent on body size, body composition, physical activity level and environmental conditions. The current fluid requirement for minimally active persons is said to be ~3-4 liters/day.

A good rule of thumb is to look at your urine - it should be light yellow in color. Talk to a sports dietitian if you have further questions about individual needs.

When is it important to consume fluids?
All throughout the day! Amounts vary significantly so talk to a sports dietitian to develop a hydration plan that works for you.

What happens if fluid intake is too low?
Increased strain on the body such as elevated core temperature, elevated heart rate, increased rate of perceived exertion, impaired mood and alertness, poor concentration and memory

Do all athletes need electrolytes?
Not necessarily. Talk to a sports dietitian to determine when/if you should be consuming additional electrolyte solutions.

Fluid examples:
Water, sports drinks, milk, juice

References:
The accumulation of knowledge in my brain and Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6th Edition.

*If you read and think, "Huh, I read research that says otherwise", send it to me! I am committed to staying up to date with all of my nutrition knowledge!


Have questions on Building A Solid Nutrition Foundation? Let's chat!



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