By: Ryan D. Andrews MS, MA, RD, CSCS
I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that you probably know what foods to eat for optimal health and body composition.
The bad news is that you probably aren’t eating those healthy foods at regular intervals.
Every time we sit down to eat, decisions are made that will impact our strength, health, energy and muscle mass. This article will help you to maximize those variables by outlining what to eat and when to eat it.
Yes, I just typed the word legumes. No, I’m not a nutrition loser.
Legumes are a great source of protein and fiber. Protein is the raw material for structural and functional components in the body. Legumes also provide B vitamins, vitamin K, iron, zinc, magnesium and other trace elements.
Heck, if legumes could spot me on pull-ups I’d take them with me to the gym.
Legumes can be purchased dried and prepared at home for minimal expense. Or, for the ultimate quick meal, buy them canned. The canned varieties can be immediately added to nearly any recipe.
Consuming legumes at most meals throughout the day is a good goal. Options include black beans, pinto beans, refried beans, kidney beans, lima beans, hummus, tempeh, tofu, peas, edamame, lentils, bean burgers, soy burgers, etc.
Soy milk is a fine option; just remember that many people consume plenty of soy from foods. If you are looking for a beverage to mix with a protein powder or pour on your morning oats, try nut “milks” (see below).
Seitan is another dense source of protein. Technically, it’s not a legume. Seitan is actually derived from grain. Seitan is better known as wheat gluten. I’m not a huge fan of recommending high amounts of seitan, as it’s not a whole food, but having it a few times per week can help to boost protein intake. Plus, when seitan is prepared well, it tastes seitan-ilicious.
Legumes are great straight out of the can, added to a salad, in a burrito, in chili, in soup, in a stir-fry, in a scramble, formed into a burger or blended as a dip. Tofu and tempeh can be grilled, baked, broiled, steamed, or crumbled and added to sauces.
Even nutritional degenerates know that vegetables are healthy. Aim for veggie and/or fruit consumption with every feeding of the day. Raw or cooked, frozen or canned, whatever you prefer.
I am continually amazed at how much nutrition power vegetables provide. Eating a wide variety of vegetables will provide every vitamin and mineral except vitamin B12 and D. Dark colored vegetables will provide you with pretty much everything but a bigger house.
Vegetables are alkaline once digested and absorbed in the body. This helps to counteract the acidity of legumes and grains. Balancing your acid/base load can preserve muscle mass and promote bone health.
If you are struggling to get enough veggies in each day, greens supplements can be helpful. Try adding greens powder to a nutrition shake as a healthy addition. I always encourage clients to keep several bags of frozen vegetables at home. They can serve as back up when the fresh supply is low.
Now, I’m going to share with you the most important vegetable tip ever released in print.
HAVE VEGETABLES ON HAND AND READY TO EAT.
Don’t leave them full of dirt, stuffed in the back of your fridge behind the six-pack of lager.
Vegetables are great plain, cooked, raw, with hummus, steamed, roasted, in large salads, in wraps, in soups, in stir-fry’s, in scrambles, added to nutrition shakes (good shake additions are pumpkin, beets, and spinach).
Like I just mentioned above, get those vegetables and/or fruits in with every feeding if possible. Just like vegetables, fruits are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and are alkaline once digested and absorbed in the body. Whole fruits are always preferable to the dried and juiced varieties. I recommend that most clients keep frozen fruits at home in case they run out of fresh.
Enjoy fruits plain, with nuts, with nut butters, added to whole grain cereals or blended in nutrition shakes.
Whole grains are about as well understood as astrophysics. And ever since Lucky Charms touted its whole-grain goodness, I can’t dispute the confusion.
Whole Grain Rule Numero Uno: Keep them real.
Whole grains should not be refined. Refined means being stripped of ANY component.
Wheat flour is refined. This is found in many crackers, chips and snack foods. Even oat bran, wheat bran, and wheat germ are refined.
Also, try to keep whole grains in their unprocessed form whenever possible. This means whole quinoa, oats, brown rice, barley, amaranth, millet, corn, sprouted wheat, etc. Most whole grain crackers, breads and snack foods contain PROCESSED whole grains. Obviously, this is much better than the REFINED variety, but still not optimal. Sprouted whole grains would be the best option for breads and tortillas.
Consuming a majority of whole grains first thing in the AM and after workout sessions is a great idea for recovery and body composition. The body will use dense carbohydrate sources very well at those times. Keep in mind that everyone is different and you should adjust your whole grain intake accordingly.
Whole Grain Ideas:
Whole grains are great when cooked plain, with water. They can also be combined with your favorite vegetables, legumes and spices. Some of the best whole grains are quinoa, oatmeal, barley, brown rice, millet, amaranth, sprouted grain breads and sprouted grain tortillas. Nuts and nut butters are an easy high protein addition to whole grains.
Don’t be afraid of the big bad nut. Adding in healthy fats during the day is very important for health and body composition. I am talking unsalted raw nuts (e.g., walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, etc.), seeds (e.g., flax, hemp, chia, sesame, pumpkin, etc.), oils (e.g., canola, walnut, flax, olive, etc.), nut butters, coconut, and so on.
Avocado is a good fat source too, but it’s technically a fruit. One of the most important factors with fat intake is balancing your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio! Between 1:2 & 1:4 is a good goal.
Give it up for nut “milks.” Almond and hemp beverages (“milks”) are nutritious drinks with tons of flavor. Plus, they don’t have a lot of useless carbs from sweeteners (only true for the unsweetened and original varieties).
Nuts and seeds can be added to just about everything. Some options include salads, whole grain cereals, sprouted grain breads, with fruits, and with legumes. Dried fruits and nuts can be a good combination as well. And don’t forget nut “milks.”
Beyond The Food Groups
Having the know-how, enlisting social support and building habits are essential for good long-term nutrition. Successful nutrition is more than just reading an article and following a meal plan. It constantly evolves and needs troubleshooting.
Since we already talked about the healthy food groups, let’s touch on a few more nutrition concepts.
- Hopefully it’s no surprise that frequent feedings and plenty of protein are important for strength, health, energy and muscle mass. Listen to your body. Eat when hungry, stop when full. This can mean anywhere from 3 to 8 times per day. Be smart.
- Yes, you are going to eat healthy. No, caloric beverages aren’t a good idea. Save recovery drinks/coconut water/juices for intense training cycles or as minor additions to nutrition shakes. The only exceptions to the caloric beverage habit are unsweetened (or lightly sweetened) non-dairy beverages and nutrition shakes.
- Never forget how important “real food” is. People usually don’t overindulge on real foods. Heck, many people don’t eat enough of it.
- Protein powders can be a tasty and nutritious addition to someone’s nutrition plan. Rice protein, hemp protein and pea protein are great options. You may want to try focusing on non-soy protein powders since we tend to get plenty of soy from other foods (as I mentioned earlier). A supplement I recommend to many people is Vega®. This stuff is loaded with protein, fiber, essential fats and is free of soy. But I caution, be on full alert for delici-gasm’s when you consume it. In other words, it tastes good.
- Remember not to skimp on the vitamin B12. Supplementing with this vitamin is an essential component of good nutrition.
- Get out in the sun a few times per week to soak in some vitamin D.
- If you are struggling to balance the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, consider an algae supplement that provides DHA & EPA.
- What you put into your body before and after your workout can greatly influence your performance and body composition. Taking advantage of this window of opportunity around workout time can be of benefit to any athlete/exerciser. Eating too much food so close to exercise can leave you feeling weighed down and bloated.
- Eat a vegetable and/or fruit with each feeding
- Eat a higher protein food (legumes, nuts, seeds, supplement) with most feedings
- Build in healthy fats during the day, focus on those higher in omega-3’s
- Focus on consuming a majority of your whole grains first thing in the AM and after exercise/workouts
- Aim for regular meal intervals – every 2-4 hours or so
- Ensure your beverages are non-caloric (exceptions are for athletes, intense training cycles, unsweetened “milks,” and protein shakes)
- Find a peri-workout nutrition strategy that maximizes recovery
Always remember to keep an open mind and use outcome based decision making with nutrition. If things aren’t working and you are down in the dumps with your current routine, then try a different approach. Even the most “perfect” nutrition template isn’t so “perfect” when you can’t adhere to it.
About Ryan Andrews
Ryan Andrews trained and worked at The Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. He is trained in Exercise Physiology, Nutrition, and Dietetics, Ryan is also the Director of Research at Precision Nutrition – a world leader in nutritional programming for athletes and recreational exercisers.
Visit Ryan Andrews at www.precisionnutrition.com.