As a nutritionist and scientist, these are the questions I am asked most frequently. They span from “how much…” questions all the way to night time eating and “cleanses.” So skim through the list – I bet there’s something you want to know!
WHAT FOODS SHOULD I NEVER/ALWAYS EAT?
Hands down this is asked the most often. The answer can change a lot depending on who’s answering, but these are a few things just about everyone agrees on:
ALWAYS eat vegetables and NEVER smoke cigarettes.
It’s especially hard to answer the never question because in certain situations, anything can go – I might even suggest drinking full-sugar Sprite to someone ill with vomiting and diarrhea to rehydrate and get a modicum of calories in.
Or a candy bar to a mountaineer losing their appetite at high altitude.
However, most of the time people should be avoiding the following.
Even diet sodas for reasons to follow (Personally, I’ll only drink Zevia). These are nothing but empty calories and very calorically dense at that.
“LOW-FAT” AND “SUGAR-FREE” SNACKS.
These imitation foods aren’t really any healthier. The missing fat is replaced with sugar or the sugar is replaced with fat and some combination of artificial sweeteners.
What’s worse is people feel like these foods are ok, so they’ll eat them unconsciously.
Rather, make a conscious decision to have that piece of cake. Eat it slowly, deliberately, and enjoy the shit out of it.
These are the abominations of healthful nutrition. Delicious, but unavoidably high in both fat and carbohydrate.
ALWAYS FOODS ARE MUCH EASIER.
- Always eat vegetables – we all know that already.
- Fruits are usually lumped in there, but fruits are just vegetables with added sugar. Sure, Mother Nature added it, but it still knocks them off the always list.
ALWAYS EAT GOOD SOURCES OF PROTEIN
Even red meat and eggs. Don’t go crazy with the steak and bacon, but work it in there. They’re excellent sources of key nutrients like iron and vitamins that aren’t very abundant in any other foods.
Any other meat is a great source of protein.
For those against meat, I recommend you eat meat, but if you refuse, being conscious of your protein intake is even more important.
- First, you should probably get a B12 and B6 supplement.
- Then make sure you’re eating dairy and soy in addition to combining complementary protein sources like rice and beans or peanut butter and bread.
HOW MANY CALORIES SHOULD I BE EATING?
The number of Calories that is appropriate for you is dependent on your age, current size, activity level, sex, and goals.
It is definitely not as simple as, “oh, you should eat 2,000 Calories per day.” A google search for a Calorie calculator is the best way to start.
The Cunningham equation is best, but you need to know how much muscle you have, so for most athletes, I recommend the Harris-Benedict or Mifflin St. Jeor equations.
Once you figure out your Calorie level, you can weigh-in each week to see how your weight is changing or not changing.
Then, adjust your calorie level by 100-500 Calories each week to move you towards your goal – less for weight loss or more for weight gain.
Keep in mind, you may have to move the amount back and forth. More on that in the next question! Here are a few examples.
Janet is a recreationally competitive runner training 6 days per week for 1-2 hours per day and a stockbroker spending most of the remainder of her day behind a desk.
She is currently 5’3” tall, 28 years old, and 125 lbs. She wants to maintain her current weight. She should be consuming about 2181 Calories per day.
Michael is a professional swimmer with 13 training sessions per week each lasting 1-4 hours. He is 23 years old, 6’3” tall, and 185 lbs.
He wants to gain 5-10 lbs of muscle during his 3-month off-season. He should be consuming about 5135 Calories per day.
WHAT SHOULD I EAT TO LOSE WEIGHT?
This is one of the most problematic assumptions of dieters – that certain foods should be eaten or avoided.
What matters most is the AMOUNT.
For this, see the previous question. Get a journal or use myfitnesspal.
Now, here’s a little-known fact. You cannot simply restrict Calories perpetually.
- A) It doesn’t work and
- B) long term it will not benefit your appearance or your performance.
What happens when you’re only eating two pieces of fruit per day and not losing any weight?
What do we do? We need to oscillate.
- You’ll take your maintenance calorie level from above and subtract 500 Calories for 1 week. Weigh-in. You’ve lost 1 pound.
- Great! Keep your Calorie level the same for the next week. Weigh-in. Your weight is the same as last weigh-in. Don’t panic!
- Subtract another 200 Calories for the next week. Weigh-in. Your weight is still the same. Again, don’t panic. Increase your Calories by 500. Weigh-in. You’ve lost a pound! How can it be?!
- At this point, drop your Calories again by 200.
When we eat less than we need, our bodies adapt by burning less.
We need to occasionally let our bodies know that everything will be okay, and it doesn’t need to get all crazy on us; we just want to look a little better.
HOW FREQUENTLY CAN I “CHEAT” ON MY DIET?
At least once every other week and not more than twice per week.
Some diets like IIFYM will say do it whenever you want, and that can work, but most people will find success difficult with that approach.
It works very well for those coming down from a very restrictive diet, but not so much for those adding restrictions.
Strategic cheat meals can actually be pretty useful.
For example, that pint of Ben and Jerry’s isn’t as bad when eaten the night before your longest workout as it is on your day off.
SHOULD I DO A “DETOX?” WHAT ABOUT A “CLEANSE?”
Detoxes and cleanses are a gimmick.
There is no validity to a juice cleanse or anything of that nature. These protocols are protein deficient, too low in calories for athletes, and in most cases will actually mess up your gut instead of helping it.
WHAT SHOULD I EAT BEFORE/DURING/AFTER MY WORKOUT?
These recommendations will be general.
Where appropriate, you may want to increase or decrease amounts depending on the intensity and duration of your training.
- Before. Fruit & nuts, bagel & cream cheese, or oatmeal & milk about 0.5 to 2 hours before training.
- During. If your session is going to be less than 1 hour, you don’t need to be consuming anything. If your session is going to be an hour or longer (especially if longer!), you should be trying to consume 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise depending on your intensity and skill level. Make sure you’re getting potassium, sodium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium in amounts proportional to how much you sweat. To make the difference between good and great, 3-6g of key amino acids like the BCAAs.
- After. After training your objective is to recover. This means glycogen and muscle recovery. Glycogen replenishment is actually enhanced when carbohydrates are consumed with protein, and with the muscle rebuilding properties, you can’t go wrong. Look for a 2:1, 3:1, or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to a high-quality protein source like whey protein.
WILL EATING BEFORE BED MAKE ME FAT?
Another resounding NO!
This misinformation is based on a few old studies that have since been disproven.
Eating before bed can actually help with weight loss.
The problem that people have with eating before bed is that it’s always junk food and often eaten mindlessly.
For example, you kill a bag of potato chips while watching TV at 10pm. That will make you fat.
Having a protein shake will not. Athletes probably should eat before bed.
This is the bodies best opportunity to recover and to it quite simply cannot recover without a supply of nutrients.