There are 6 essential nutrients the body needs to function: protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, mineral and water. We source these nutrients through the food we eat, which is why making good food choices is so important. It is our hope that having a better understanding of the nutrients your body requires, will motivate you to eat with purpose, especially before and after your workouts.
We are first going to go over the big 3. Protein, carbs and fat are energy nutrients simply because they provide energy for the body; these are referred to as macronutrients. They fuel the body and provide energy throughout the day. All three are essential for a healthy body and they all have their own benefits. They should be present in every meal throughout the day.
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for the body. They also assist in digestion by providing dietary fibre. Carbs are broken down into glucose which is used in the production of cellular energy. There are 2 categories of carbs. The first being simple carbohydrates (sugars like honey, syrup, fruit) and the second being complex (bread, cereal, potatoes, whole grains, and vegetables). Canadians get more than half of their energy from simple carbohydrates, and much of this is from processed foods instead of healthy sources like fruit. Common sources of unhealthy simple sugars are cookies, donuts, fruit juices, pop, candy, the list could go on and on as I’m sure you know.
Intake: The recommended intake for carbohydrates is about 45-60% of your daily calories with no more than 25% coming from simple sugars.
How they are used during exercise? As mentioned, carbohydrates are a very important source of energy for the body, especially during exercise. At higher intensities the reliance on carbs becomes greater. Active people need to consume sufficient carbs because it provides fuel for brain cells, red blood cells and muscles. Ideally, you want to consume a majority of complex carbs, and save the simple carbs for before and after exercise.
Healthy sources: Simple carbs should come from fruit, and healthy complex carbs are vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
Fat is the major fuel source because of its high concentration of calories. Fat provides fatty acids needed for cell membranes, production of hormones, clear skin, feeling full, taste, and transportation of fat soluble vitamins (A D E and K). Fat gets a bad rap but as you can see it is essential for a healthy body. The key is moderation.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (i.e. fatty meats, whole milk, cheese and butter) and they should be limited, whereas moderate amounts of unsaturated fat (like avocado, nuts, olive oil and canola oil) are recommended. Omega 3 (fish, leafy green veggies, flaxseed and its oil, fish oil and canola oil) and omega 6 (safflower oil, peanut oil, corn oil) are essential fatty acids because the body cannot make them. Omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and blood clotting. It important to increase omega 3’s in your diet because there seems to be an over-consumption of omega 6’s in modern diets.
Intake: Recommended intake is about 20-35% of daily calories.
How is fat used during exercise? Ok, hold on to your hats. The lower intensity of exercise, the greater proportion of fat is burned. As intensity increases, fat burned is decreased, and carbs burned increases. Because of this, a lot of people believe that performing lower intensity exercise will increase the amount of fat burned during the workout. However the proportion of fat burned should not be confused with the total amount of fat burned during the workout. As the exercise intensity increases, the number of calories burned increases. Although you will be burning a lower proportion of fat to let the carbs take over as the main energy source, the total energy requirements increases thus the total volume of fat is burned. Still with me?
Healthy sources: Some healthy sources of fat are nuts, avocado, fatty fish (salmon), extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and chia seeds.
The main role of protein is to build and repair things like muscle, tendons and ligaments. This becomes very important in physically active people due to the constant breakdown and building of new tissue. Protein is also used to transport fluids, create hormones and enzymes, and helps with immune responses. Protein is not a primary source of energy, unless the body does not get enough carbs or fat (the body’s main sources of energy).
Protein is made up of chemical structures called amino acids. There a 20 amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential. Animal protein (meat, eggs, milk) contain all 9 essential acids making them a complete protein. Protein from other sources like beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains are incomplete as they do not contain all 9 essential acids. If you don’t eat meat you must combine the incomplete proteins for proper use in the body.
Intake: Protein intake is recommended at about 10-35% of your daily caloric intake. As a rule of thumb, you need about 0.7 - 1 gr. of protein per pound of body weight.
How is it used during exercise? Protein shouldn’t be used as fuel during exercise. It is best used for other functions in the body, like repair work after you exercise. Due to its long gastric-emptying time, it is not recommended to consume right before or during exercise, however consuming protein after resistance training has been shown to improve muscle protein balance.
Healthy sources: Very Lean cuts of meat (boneless, skinless chicken and turkey), fish and seafood, eggs and yogurt.
Now that we have the big 3 out of the way let’s move on to vitamins, minerals, and water. They do not provide energy but play a very important role in health. These are called micronutrients because they are needed in small amounts to support health and body functions.
Vitamins are necessary for good health. The body isn’t capable of making vitamins so you must get them through your diet. Vitamins do not provide energy but they are necessary in the metabolizing of carbohydrates and fat.
There are two different categories of vitamins, fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E and k) and water soluble (vitamin B complex and vitamin C). Fat soluble vitamins are absorbed along with fat in the small intestines and excess is stored in the body. Water soluble vitamins are easily dissolved in water and are passed through urine. All vitamins have a wide range of benefits from energy metabolism, to skin and eye health, to bone strengthening, and blood clot development. Each vitamin has its own benefits and none should be neglected.
The best way to maximize your vitamin intake through diet, is eating a variety of fresh, colourful fruits and veggies,especially ones that are in season. Don’t overcook vegetables, keep them a bit crunchy. If you are not getting enough vitamins through diet you can take a multivitamin, although contact your doctor or a dietitian/nutritionist before doing so.
Minerals are simple but important nutrients that have a variety of functions in the body. As an example, sodium and potassium assist in body fluid levels, calcium and phosphorus are essential for bone health, iron is important for the transportation of oxygen, and iodine helps to regulate metabolism. There are around 20-30 important minerals and they are only required in small amounts. With a balanced diet these minerals are easily accessible and rarely need supplementation.
Water is essential for survival. The body is composed of about 60% water, and it’s used in a variety of functions such as, digestion, metabolism, assisting with chemical reactions, carrying oxygen through the blood, regulating body temperature, lubricating joints, waste removal and assisting with respiration.
Recommended intake of water is about 3.7L of water daily for men, and about 2.7Ls of water for women.
Thirst is the first sign of dehydration. Dark yellow urine is an indication that you need more water, ideally urine should be a pale yellow or clear. Stay hydrated for good health and always consume water before, during and after a workout.
How to Keep Track of it All
It can all be a little overwhelming, but if you actively think about what you’re putting in your body throughout the day, you’re already on your way to a healthy lifestyle. Here are some helpful tips.
Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and lean meats.
Only drink water. Maybe green tea or caffeine in moderation.
Eat 4-6 meals per day, decreasing the amount of carbs as day goes on.
Try to eat every meal WITHOUT packaged or processed foods.
Limit fatty (especially Trans and Saturated) and sugary foods.
If you’re still reading this, you’ve made it through our roller coaster ride of nutrition. Hopefully you’ve learned something that will help you consider and evaluate your food choices!