By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 19 June 2016)
The fitness benefits of exercise can be maximized through good nutrition. An ideal diet is high in complex carbohydrates and lean proteins, and includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes.
How Much Carbohydrate Do I Need?
Complex carbohydrates, which should make up at least half of your total daily calories, can be differentiated from simple carbohydrates in that they are high in fiber and nutrients. Sources of complex carbohydrates include fruits, certain vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, peanuts, etc.), nuts, seeds, whole wheat breads, pasta made with whole wheat flour, brown rice, and cereals such as oatmeal. Simple carbohydrates, by contrast, usually taste sweet (i.e., white sugar, honey, candy, and syrups), or are made with white flour (white pasta, bread, cake, etc.) or white rice.
A diet high in complex carbohydrates is ideal for long-term fat loss and muscle building because the body uses carbohydrates as fuel, so eating high quality carbohydrates provides the energy required to maintain good exercise habits. Complex carbohydrates also contain nutrients that help to prevent cancer, heart disease, and other health problems.
Of your total daily calories, 50%-60% should come from carbohydrates, and intense exercisers and athletes may need even more.
Although most (if not all) meals should contain some carbohydrates, carbohydrate-heavy meals are best consumed before working out to provide energy and directly after a hard workout to aid recovery.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
Most people in wealthy nations eat more protein than they need. There is a simple formula to determine your daily protein requirements:
- Kg of body weight x 0.8 grams of protein (1 kg = approximately 2.2 pounds)
If you’re extremely active (particularly if you’re engaging in regular strength training), you can raise this amount to:
- Kg of body weight x 1.5 grams of protein
Pregnant women should consume 1.1 grams of protein per kg of body weight and those who are breastfeeding should take in 1.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight each day.
Overall, protein should make up approximately 15%-20% of your daily calories (up to 35% is safe for most people, though it’s not necessary to consume this much). High-quality single-serving protein options include:
- A portion of lean meat or fish approximately the size of a deck of cards (2-3 ounces)
- A single egg
- Half a cup of cooked beans
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
The best sources of protein are fish, egg whites (there is more protein in the white than the yolk), peanuts, beans, soybeans, grains, nuts, and dairy products. Of the plant-based proteins, only soybeans are complete proteins. However, vegetarians can combine different plant-based proteins to form whole proteins.
High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets pose a variety of risks, ranging from nutritional deficiencies to low energy to increased likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and colon cancer. If you want to try a low-carbohydrate eating plan:
- Do plenty of research beforehand so that you’ll know how to develop a balanced lower-carbohydrate diet that includes plenty of fiber (low-carb diets are often deficient in key nutrients and fiber).
- Don’t attempt to cut carbohydrates out completely – just eliminate or restrict simple carbohydrates, but eat some potatoes, legumes, nuts, and/or whole grains.
- Focus on lean protein sources – keep fatty meats to a minimum.
It’s good to have protein with most meals, but particularly important to consume it after exercising due to its role in muscle building and repair.
How Much Fat Can I Eat and Still Be Healthy?
Certain fats provide health benefits when consumed in moderation, while others should be avoided altogether:
- Monounsaturated fats: Monounsaturated fats are the healthy fats found in avocados; most nuts and seeds; and canola, olive, and peanut oils.
- Polyunsaturated fats: These fats, which also fall within the healthy category, can be obtained by eating safflower, sunflower, soy, corn, and cottonseed oils, as well as seafoods and nuts. This group includes omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Abundant in seafood (and particularly high in herring and mackerel), omega-3 fatty acids can also be obtained by eating walnuts or flax seeds (or flax seed oil).
- Omega-6 fatty acids: Omega-6 fatty acids are found primarily in safflower oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, and animal products. Omega-6s are also required for optimum health, but most people eating Western diets get too much of them while failing to consume sufficient omega-3s, creating an unhealthy imbalance.
- Saturated fats: These fats are abundant in whole dairy products, palm and coconut oil, meats, and snack foods. Recent research suggests that saturated fats may be beneficial in small amounts (or at least not as harmful as health experts believed in the past). However, there is a consensus that many people in industrialized nations consume more saturated fat than they need, and regardless of whether future research exonerates saturated fats with regard to heart attack risk, eating too much of them will cause weight gain. To lower saturated fat intake, avoid or reduce consumption of foods such as steak, hamburger, lunch meats, poultry skin and fat, whole milk, cheese, and butter.
- Trans fats: Found in solid and semisolid margarines and other products in which ingredients are hydrogenated, trans fats should be avoided altogether, as they increase the risk for heart disease. When in doubt, check the label. If you see the word “hydrogenated,” avoid the product. Hydrogenated fats are abundant in many popular processed snack foods.
Overall, you should not get more than 35% of your daily calories from fats (and preferably less – the recommended range is 20%-35%). Ideally, those fats should be mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (particularly omega-3s).
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