6 Ways to Upgrade Your Diet to Support an Active Life
While maintaining a healthy diet is important for everyone, it carries even more weight for those of you who are living a highly active lifestyle. It seems a common theme that nutrition is a big piece of the jigsaw when it comes to performance. Participation in a range of activities, including running, cycling, hiking, and weight training, requires an extra degree of dietary diligence to make sure that the nutrition is there to support the added load workouts place on the body. Luckily, even small and simple changes can make a significant difference to how good you feel and how well you perform when it counts most. Nutrition for an active life need not be complicated or require any draconian diet changes.
Whether you’re going to the gym on most days or aiming for a marathon PR, here are the nutrition fundamentals you should follow to stay healthy and perform well. Once you have these nailed down, you can then look to zero in on ways to fine-tune your nutrition for specific training and health goals and to serve your unique biology best.
1. Build a Good Foundation
While the market is saturated with all sorts of engineered sport nutrition products, when it comes to fueling your body daily, you certainly want to pivot to whole foods most often. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, unprocessed meats, legumes, and nuts will provide the biggest dose of necessary micronutrients and antioxidants to support a body in motion. Athletes of all stripes are now gaining a greater appreciation for the importance of filling their plates with nutrient-dense foods to optimize performance and recovery. A recent study in the scientific journal Nutrition1discovered that runners who had a higher diet quality, as indicated by greater intakes of unsaturated fat and the micronutrients iron, potassium, and magnesium that are found abundantly in whole foods, typically performed better during their runs and also tested for improved cardiovascular health. And researchers have found2 that eating a Mediterranean diet, a much-studied whole-foods-focused approach to eating can improve endurance exercise performance after just a few days.
For some people, keeping a detailed food diary can help them identify areas of their daily diet that is in line with a whole-foods approach and other areas where more highly processed foods are sneaking in, and improvements can be made.
Even when you’ve nailed these essential building blocks for healthier eating you’ll want to strive to optimize your diet for performance by seeking out a more personalized nutrition program based on several biological factors including your unique microbiome and blood chemistry. This is the ideal way to truly determine what foods your body responds best to in order to perform at a higher level in your active pursuits.
2. Eat Enough
One of the main things you need to focus on when highly active is your energy intake – ensuring you're eating enough calories to support training needs. Many popular diets focus on calorie restriction, but if you are very active, consuming too few calories can backfire big time. If you increase training volume without addressing your energy intake, you could find that, in addition to a reduction in your performance metrics, your overall health may suffer, too. Research3 shows that calorie deficits in active people can bring on worrisome changes in hormone levels (testosterone in men and estrogen in women) and bone health. Other science suggests4 that skimping on calories can impact iron metabolism in response to exercise, which raises the risk for iron deficiency. So as you ratchet up the intensity and frequency of your training, you should also consider doing the same for your calorie intake.
To work out how much you need to be eating, examine several factors, including volume of your training, preferred type of exercise (resistance training vs. endurance training), and body weight. A sports dietitian can help you design a diet that meets the caloric needs of your workouts.
3. Pump Up On Protein
If you are active on most days you certainly don’t want to overlook the importance of eating enough protein, This macronutrient is the main item needed for muscular repair and building stronger, bigger, and more injury-resistant muscles. The recommended guideline56 for active adults and competitive athletes is to take on 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day to support training. So a 160-pound active individual should aim to take in 87 to 145 grams of protein each day. The greater the amount of resistance training you are performing, the more you should gravitate towards the higher end of this range. But research7 has found that endurance athletes like runners also need more protein than inactive individuals.
Once you've calculated your daily target, it's worth taking a close look at the amount of protein in various foods so that you can get a sense of what – and how much – you should be eating each day to meet your daily targets. Research demonstrates8 that spreading protein throughout the day is the most effective. So you want to make sure to get adequate amounts at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and during snacks. And, yes, this protein can come from plants. The latest sciences show that as long as you are meeting your overall protein needs, positive adaptations to training, including muscle growth, can occur if you’re predominately getting protein from plant-based foods, including legumes.
4. Don’t Skimp on Carbs
While many popular diets beat up on carbohydrates if you are active most days of the week, you definitely should not wedge this macronutrient out of your diet. Carbohydrates are the primary and most preferred fuel source for working muscles - from the sugar in your bloodstream and glycogen storage in your muscles and liver. So if they are available in insufficient amounts, you should not expect to be able to workout intensity, especially during endurance-style9 activities like running and cycling. Research10 even shows that a low-carb, high-fat diet can hinder exercise performance in activities that are high-intensity and predominantly anaerobic, like interval training and sprinting. Also, recent science shows11 that endurance athletes who continue to consume adequate amounts of carbs have a greater gut microbiome diversity of beneficial microorganisms that could translate into improved health and performance measures. And an investigation in the journal Medicine12 and Science in Sports and Exercise found that even short-term adherence to a low-carb diet can result in unfavorable iron, immune, and stress responses to exercise.
Guidelines state13 that, if training for less than one hour daily, you should be aiming for approximately 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. But if ramping up your training for anything longer and the volume exceeds an hour on most days, you should be looking to up that to 6 to 10 grams of carbs per kilo of body weight. Again, a qualified sports dietitian can help guide you towards the number of carbs that are best suited to your fitness pursuits. While it’s acceptable to consume sugary sports drinks and gels during long bouts of physical activity to help keep up the pace, it’s important to zero in on higher-quality carbs to meet most of your needs. Carb-rich foods like whole grains and fruits also supply the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you need to continue to perform like a champ.
5. Drink Up
An important question to ask yourself when you are frequently working up a sweat is: Am I drinking enough water? When staying active, hydration is critical. Staying hydrated each day improves performance, helps maintain mental agility, regulates body temperature, and so much more.
Before you wind up in the deep end of dehydration, know the signs you may need to drink more: you’re thirsty, you’re not peeing as often, you have brain fog, and you’re unexpectedly tired. But that old-school eight-glasses-a-day rule isn’t so simple and can be inadequate if you are regularly working out. Exact hydration needs can vary based on factors including frequency of training, the climate where exercise takes place, and body weight, all of which can play a part in how much liquid is right for you. Your daily fluid needs can range from as little as 6 cups up to 24 cups per day. Ideally, you will start your day with about 16 to 20 ounces of water in the morning after waking up to rehydrate after a night of sleep, and then continue to drink all day to prevent dehydration. If you are sweating a lot during your workouts, it’s advised that some of this fluid comes from an electrolyte drink.
You should consider your pee color as a good way to gauge how hydrated you are. Your urine should look more straw or lemonade in color as opposed to something approaching iced tea. Dark urine often reflects dehydration. Research shows14 urinating more than 7 times a day is also a good sign that you are staying well hydrated.Another way to assess hydration status is to check your skin. If you pinch your skin on the arm or leg and it snaps back quickly, it is a sign of better hydration.
While hydration usually brings water or sports drinks to mind, food can also help keep your fluid levels topped up. Mainly, water-rich fruits and vegetables, including watermelon, tomatoes, oranges and cucumber, should be considered a contributor to daily fluid needs. As a bonus, these have a range of nutrients and antioxidants that can support physical and gut health.
6. Eat More (Slightly) Rotten Foods
These days we hear a lot about how a healthy microbiome, the billions of microorganisms that reside in our digestive system, plays a role in many aspects of our physical and mental health. What is less celebrated is that emerging evidence15 is finding that the state of our microbiome may also be involved in athletic performance, recovery, and maintaining good immune16 health. This makes sense when you consider how many bodily processes the bacteria, yeast, fungi, and viruses in our system influence.
How best to nurture the best microbiome to support your activities? Sneak more fermented foods and drinks into your training diet. In a watershed study, researchers from Stanford University discovered17 that a 10-week diet high in fermented foods and beverages boosts microbiome diversity of beneficial microorganisms and improves immune responses.
That makes items like kefir, yogurt, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha gold medal items to consume frequently.