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If you’re looking to get fit and healthy, sorting out a training plan that’s both challenging and achievable is important. But just as important is taking a long, hard look at your diet. If you want to train effectively, your body needs fuel, and like any engine, your body will function optimally with the right fuel.

To lift the lid on nutrition and address some of the questions that I’m asked regularly regarding diet, exercise and fat loss, FitTechnica asked Fiona Hunter for some expert advice to help you make the right nutritional choices.

(FT) For someone working towards an endurance event – marathon, sportive, triathlon etc. – how should they fuel themselves on the run-up and during the event?

(FH) It’s important to eat well ahead and following endurance training. You may be familiar with the term “carb-loading” – this involves eating carbohydrate heavy meals for three to four days in the run up to your big event to increase your glycogen levels. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose and glycogen and during exercise this is used to fuel our muscles. You can’t fill your muscles with glycogen with just one meal so that’s why it’s crucial to spread it over a few days. Hydration is also crucial in these run up days so ensure you’re drinking plenty of water to ensure you are topped up for the big day.

Try to have a light, but nourishing meal the night before. Too many carbohydrates can leave you deficient in other nutrients that are equally important when running or training long distances. I would always recommend playing it safe as this is not the time to experiment – try a chicken stir fry or simple fish dish, as any drastic change in your usual habits can throw your body out of balance, impacting your performance the next day. Three hours before the start, eat an easy to digest meal such as a bagel with banana and peanut butter. Avoid high fibre foods, such as bran flakes as the combination of adrenaline, nerves and exercise could make for a messy combination. If you have an early morning race, set an alarm, get up, eat and try to get some more rest.

(FT) What do you think about the explosion of health and fitness technology? Do you think that devices like fitness trackers and food logging apps have had an impact on people adopting a healthier lifestyle?

(FH) Health and lifestyle gadgets and apps can be a convenient and effective way to keep track of your calorie intake and exercise levels. If credible, they can provide a wealth of information from nutritional data for food and restaurant meals, vital sign readings, ways to exercise, yoga poses and GPS tracking to name a few. They certainly help if you struggle with motivation, and help you to take responsibility for your own personal health. I always highlight to my clients however that, particularly with the food logging apps, it’s important to be honest regarding your portion size as people often underestimate this.

(FT) What should you eat before an early morning training run or cycle ride?

(FH) It really does depend on how early you’re going (and therefore how much time you’ll have between eating and when you hit the road) and how far you’re running or cycling. Although it is important to get the right fuel before you go for an early morning training session, it’s also important not to eat too much as you may feel nauseous. If you’re able to plan ahead cook a relatively carb-heavy dinner the night before, such as chicken wholemeal pasta bake for example. It’s unlikely you’ll have more than an hour before your early morning session, so keep it light. A banana drizzled with a half a teaspoon of honey will give you enough energy without loading you down.

(FT) I need to reduce body fat, increase muscle and improve endurance – what should I be eating?

(FH) If you’re both wanting to lose body fat but also training for long periods of time, this is not the time to be cutting back on calories, but it is the time to be conscious of the nutritional value of your foods. For example, introduce quinoa to your meals – despite looking and tasting similar to a grain, it’s actually a protein-rich, easy-to-digest seed. Quinoa makes a great alternative to rice for example as it serves as a source of all nine amino acids in addition to being rich in carbohydrates and minerals. In terms of snacks, a handful of raw almonds (about 25g) or some Greek yoghurt, such as Fruyo, are both high in protein but low in fat, crucial to help you to increase and look after your muscles, whilst helping you to reduce your body fat.

(FT) How should one’s diet differ on training days and rest days?

(FH) Your diet will vary depending on the type and level of activity you are doing but it’s vital when training to increase your levels of carbohydrates and protein to help you to both have sufficient fuel to train effectively, whilst helping your muscles to repair.  It may seem obvious, but it is important to increase your calorie intake on training days to make up for the deficit.

(FT) The phrase “balanced diet” is as old as the hills, but what do you consider to be a balanced diet?

(FH) A balanced diet is one that is suitably proportioned in protein, carbohydrates, fats and fibre. If you’re unsure about how to balance this, the Mediterranean diet can be a good one to follow. Much of the Mediterranean diet is based on a mix of healthy fats, such as olive oil, high fibre foods such as lots of vegetables and grains, high levels of protein, such as grilled meats and Greek yoghurt, and carbohydrates from pasta and brown rice.

(FT) At this time of year many people think about embarking on a healthier lifestyle. What advice would you give them to help them make that dietary change, but more importantly, stick with it?

(FH) I always recommend people don’t try and change too much about their eating habits but instead think about small, practical steps they can take as these are easier to stick to.

  • Make small changes, like choosing reduced fat dairy products, can make a big difference. Try Fruyo, the fat-free, but high in protein Greek yoghurt.
  • Avoid crash or fad diets – they aren’t balanced or healthy and most people end up regaining not just the weight they lost on the diet but often more.
  • Spring clean your kitchen and get rid of unhealthy snacks and treats that may be left over from the end of 2013. Fill your cupboards with essentials that will allow you to prepare healthy meals and snacks without the guilt.
  • Plan your meals and snacks – ideally you should try to eat something every two to three hours so it’s important that these are healthy solutions to keep you satisfied. A few oat cakes with hummus, or protein-rich Greek yoghurt are good options to keep you tied over until your next meal. Eat plenty of vegetables as they are lower in calories than fruit, and fat-free!.

(FT) Low fat, low carb, low calorie etc. What metric should we focus on when it comes to a healthy diet? Is it dependant on your goal and activity level?

(FH) With mixed information out there, the healthy diet can seem confusing. It is depending on your goal and activity level, but the best way to live a healthy lifestyle is one of balance. Not only will this ensure all aspects of your daily routine are catered for, but will also allow you to enjoy yourself once in a while too!  For me the main focus should be balancing your energy (calorie) intake with your expenditure, keeping your fat intake at around 35% of your total energy, and most importantly that you are eating at least five fruit and veg a day

(FT) What’s the best diet structure for losing body fat without losing too much muscle?

(FH) To lose body fat, you’ll need to reduce your calorie intake however this can also have a knock on effect on your muscle too.

  • Eat lots of lean protein such as fish, lean meat, low fat dairy products, nuts and seeds, as this is very important to maintain your muscle
  • Maintain your strength training throughout
  • Eat more calories on training days and fewer calories on your rest days. It sounds simple but it will help you to stay in line with your goals but keep you fuelled.
  • Don’t overdo the cardio. A combination of weight training, light cardio and healthy eating is the best combination to ensure you lose the fat, without losing the muscle.

(FT) The 5:2 diet is very popular at the moment. What are your thoughts on intermittent fasting?

(FH) I know a lot of people find it useful, particularly in terms of the flexibility it offers. One of the reasons many diets fail is because they are too rigid and restrictive – the beauty of the 5:2 diet is that it so flexible. Also there is a growing body of scientific research to suggest that it offers genuine health benefits

(FT) Conventional wisdom says that cutting back on carbs and increasing protein is an effective way to lose body fat. Is this true, and what should one look out for when embarking on a low-carb weight loss programme?

(FH) Many popular diets focus on cutting out carbs which I think is a big mistake – cutting back – and being mindful of portion size is a good thing but more important, is to think about the type of carbs you choose. Low GI, fibre rich and wholegrain carbs are the best choice.

(FT) There’s no end of discussion when it comes to diets for losing weight, but what nutritional advice can you give someone who simply wants to stabilise while fuelling regular exercise sessions?

(FH) Eat regularly which means three small meals plus a couple of healthy snacks between meals. Skipping meals increases the likelihood of overeating at the subsequent meal or making poor food choices, plan ahead so you’ve always got healthy choices, particularly snacks at hand. Make sure you are properly hydrated, it’s very easy to confuse thirst and hunger so you may think you are feeling hungry but what you actually need is fluid, staying well hydrated is particularly important when you are exercising.

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Fiona Hunter is an independent nutritionist and food writer. Fiona is an advocate for Fruyo, the new fat-free yoghurt with real fruit pieces, from the makers of TOTAL Greek yoghurt. Follow Fiona on Twitter @fiona_nutrition and check out fionahunter-nutrition.co.uk for more tips and advice.