By Gabrielle Hoffman of Gabby’s Gluten Free
*Disclaimer: I am NOT a nutritionist, dietician, etc. I’m just sharing my knowledge and experience.*
Carbs. Protein. Amino Acids. Monounsaturated Fats. Saturated Fats. Fasting. Macros…
Nutrition is a complicated subject and one that is frequently full of controversy. It’s also one of the topics that is MOST frequently discussed amongst female strength athletes. Most female strength athletes are pretty clear about the need to squat but ask them about what they should eat before/after/during said squatting session and you’re going to get 1,000 different answers (carbs! no carbs! protein! no protein! nothing! everything!) and even more confusion about what the “right” answer is. Nutrition is a highly individual and complex thing – it’s based largely on physiological science, your body, your activity levels, your hormones, your training, and your history. Or rather, the answer to most nutrition related question is “it depends”. With that in mind, let’s clear up some confusion.
The three biggest areas of confusion when it comes to nutrition are centered around:
- what to eat (macronutrients, food selection)
- how much to eat (caloric intake, macronutrient intake), and
- when to eat (nutrient timing)
We are going to talk about all of these things (and more!) over the course of this series, but first up, let’s get nerdy with some macros.
What to Eat: Macronutrients and Food Selection
Macronutrients or “macros” are receiving a lot of attention lately in the fitness and nutrition world so let’s talk about what macronutrients actually are. Foods are composed of three major macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Fiber is sometimes included as a “macronutrient” but for our purposes, let’s stick to the big three.
Protein is made up of amino acids which form proteins that the body needs – your muscles, skeleton, organs, enzymatic processes, and basically everything in your body depends on proteins. Suffice it to say, proteins and amino acids are pretty important things. Humans require both nonessential and essential amino acids. Nonessential amino acids can be synthesized by the body and therefore, don’t need to be consumed. Essential amino acids must be obtained through diet (source). Essential and nonessential amino acids are a big concern for vegetarian and vegan athletes as most plant sources of protein do not contain all essential amino acids. Due to this fact, vegan and vegetarian athletes may need to eat more protein and need a wider variety of protein sources since plant sources of protein tend to be low quality, or lacking all essential amino acids and less bioavailable (meaning your body can’t use as much), than animal sources of protein (source).
How much protein do you need? Well, that depends. Protein requirements vary based on lean mass and amount of cell turnover (aka damage and repair aka exercise) needed. Generally, the recommendation of 1.5g – 2.0g per kg of bodyweight ensures adequate protein intake for most strength athletes. 1g per lb of bodyweight also ensures adequate protein intake and can be helpful for athletes who want to build more muscle. While there is some debate about the 1g/lb protein rule (source), it is a good number to aim for because if you fall short, you’re still likely getting enough protein. Protein intake and utilization depends on a number of factors, so it may not be as simple as “eat more protein, get more swole” (source). High protein diets are also associated with better health indicators (source)and may be helpful for those trying to lose weight.
Several women, especially athletes, struggle to get enough protein each day so here are a few ideas to help up your protein intake:
Make friends with your slow cooker. You can make large volumes of food easily and you’ll have a good amount of leftovers.
Plan ahead. Meal planning can be super helpful when it’s done well. See more about that here.
Make protein a priority. Everytime you eat, aim to have a serving of protein – instead of just having an apple as a snack, have an apple and some sliced deli meat or leftover meat.
Use protein supplements. I like a protein shake after my workout but protein shakes can also be helpful if you’re a vegetarian or vegan athlete and have a tough time meeting your protein goals (source). Use these as a last resort or emergency snack and prioritize real food first.
Ah carbs, everyone’s favorite bullied macronutrient. The primary role of carbohydrates in the human body is as an energy source (we’ll talk more about this later). The structure and sources of carbohydrate vary from monosaccharides (meaning one single sugar molecule) like glucose and fructose to more “complex” carbohydrates like polysaccharides (meaning many sugar molecules) like starch and fiber (source). The body uses different types of carbohydrates in different ways. Glucose which is made by your liver and muscles, for example, is the primary energy substrate used in certain exercise activities and is used to make glycogen which we can think of as your body’s energy currency. Does that mean you need to pound some sugar right after your training session? Not necessarily. Our bodies are pretty smart and efficient so glycogen can be created from other carbohydrate types and from non carbohydrate dietary sources (this process is called gluconeogenesis). (source)
How many carbs do you need? Again, it depends! Carbohydrate requirements are going to vary based on training and physique goals. Carbohydrate is a macronutrient that often gets manipulated in nutrition programs based on goals – think of carb cycling, Eat to Perform, carb backloading, CarbNite, etc. Because carbohydrate intake can be so variable, it is hard to give a “recommended” amount. Generally, 50-100g of carbohydrate are needed to keep a person out of ketosis, a state in which the body has high levels of ketones in the blood and the body preferentially uses fat (not carbohydrate) as a major energy source (source). Some athletes operate very well in ketosis while others do not.
There is a lot of confusion on what “types” of carbs are “good”, “bad”, etc. and truthfully, labeling things as good or bad isn’t helpful. There are things that serve your goals and there are things that don’t – and there is room for both in a comprehensive nutrition program. People often sort carbohydrates into “high GI” and “low GI” (GI = glycemic index) based on the blood sugar and subsequent insulin response elicited when said carbohydrate is ingested (source). In general, most recommend consuming high GI carbohydrates around training sessions and low GI carbohydrates the rest of the time. We’ll talk more about this when we talk about nutrient timing.
Some examples of “high GI” carbohydrates include items such as white rice, potatoes, and sugar. “Low GI” carbohydrates include whole grains such as oats, starchy vegetables, and other high fiber root veggies.
Fats, or lipids, include things such as triglycerides (fats and oils) and other fatty compounds that are used by the body in a myriad of ways. Fats behavior in the body is related to the saturation of fatty acids (or fats) – fat “saturation” is dictated by the amount of hydrogen each atom contains. Saturated fats are “saturated” with hydrogen while unsaturated fats lack hydrogen atoms (source). Most people think of saturated fats as fats that are solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats as fats that are liquid at room temperature. It’s also worth noting that fats are classified as unsaturated or saturated based on what the majority of the chemical structure looks like (i.e. hydrogen presence) – most fats we consume are often a mix of saturated and unsaturated fats. The saturation level of fat also has implications for the fat’s stability, particularly for cooking purposes, but that’s a conversation for another time. There has been a lot of controversy about the link between saturated fats and heart disease, however research has not shown this to be true (source). Fats have a critical role in the body’s ability to repair and recover from damage incurred in our everyday lives, including exercise. Fats also act as a carrier for some extremely important fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, K, & omega 3/6 (source). Cholesterol, the most wrongly demonized and misunderstood fat of all (source), is also an important structural and functional component of cell membranes and is necessary, yes NECESSARY, for the production of several hormones (source).
How much fat should you eat? I’m guessing you know the answer (Hint: it reminds with mit upends). Generally, there are not a lot of benefits to a “low fat” diet for strength athletes – particularly female strength athletes. Diets that are too low in fat can give testosterone production, metabolism, and muscle development a serious hit.
Some great sources of dietary fat are things like coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, animal fats from healthy and humanely raised animals, and full fat high quality dairy products. In addition to being a nutritional powerhouse, fat is also super satiating which is great for those who are eating in a caloric deficit (we’ll talk about that later on, too).
Deciding what to eat should be a fairly simple task; but for most women, the decision of what to put on your plate has become a more convoluted and complex endeavour than nuclear physics. A great portion of media attention is put on what not to eat – there are advocates for eating no gluten, eating lots of gluten, eating all raw veggies, eating no raw veggies, eating sugar, or sugar is as bad as cocaine (p.s. it’s not) so it should be avoided at all costs….you get the idea.
Food quality and selection is going to depend on macronutrient and caloric requirements, and of course, your preferences. Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are also a critical component of health and performance so eating your veggies is a good idea. While caloric intake has a significant role in fat loss and mass gain, it doesn’t always tell the whole story. Food quality can have a significant impact on athletic performance and recovery capacity. Focusing on getting high quality protein, carbs, and veggies doesn’t mean swearing off ice cream forever (never ever gonna happen!) or eliminating entire food groups or restricting yourself to a list of “approved” foods. If you hate eating chicken breast and broccoli but restrict yourself to just eating that, you’re gonna have a bad time. But sadly, moderation isn’t nearly as sexy as ultra restrictive plans. Bottom line: choose foods that fit your goals, make you feel good, and that you enjoy.
Practical Considerations for the Real World
So now that we have all thoroughly nerded out together, how the heck does this all of this come together and work in the real world? While I wish we could all just have perfectly drawn up meal plans that we are 100% compliant to and that get us results, it’s just not possible. Not only is that totally unrealistic, but nutrition and food do not exist in a vacuum. Nutrition and food play a significant part of our lives outside of the gym and women in particular, can have other issues surrounding food. We will talk about some of those special topics later on but suffice it to say, it’s complicated. While I’m not a fan of “rules” for nutrition, I do think that a few guidelines can be helpful:
- Be a detective: Making systematic changes and evaluating said changes is extremely helpful in trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Journaling (not necessarily just tracking calories and macros) can be very helpful with this – tracking things like energy levels, sleep, and workout performance can help you gain some insight into what is working and what isn’t. Finding what works takes a LOT of experimentation and having some data (I really am the nerdiest) for yourself or someone else to look at can greatly help in the experimentation process.
- Prioritize: Eat your protein, carbs, fats, and veggies. I’m a fan of obtaining the majority of nutrition from whole foods but things like protein supplementation can be helpful, particularly post-workout. I’d rather see someone spend an $40 on quality protein sources in order to eat enough protein than someone spend $40 to have protein shakes for 3 meals a day. Specialized supplementation (carb powders, bcaas, creatine, etc.) also have their place in a strength athlete’s nutrition protocol but again, worrying about the timing of your creatine intake is a bit of moot point if you’re not eating enough protein. Make your nutrition priorities and stick with them.
- Consistency: Most athletes know that competitions are not won because of one great training session – they are won by consistent work. The same principle applies to nutrition. Being consistent is far more important than being perfect. If you are trying to white knuckle your way through a nutrition plan, it’s probably not the plan for you or it needs to be adjusted. Life happens – we prepare for it the best we can but we should also remember that consistency, not perfection, breeds result. Creating something that works for you and your lifestyle can help you be consistent – if your schedule doesn’t permit you to eat 6 times a day, or you simply just don’t like that, don’t do it. There are other options there. Rather than being “on” or “off” the wagon, focus on being consistent. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GABRIELLE HOFFMAN is a strength athlete, teacher, writer, blogger, science nerd, and lover of all things strength related in Richmond, VA. When she’s not in the gym, you can find her reading, studying for her CSCS, teaching, or cooking with her chef husband. You can check out her blog Gabby’s Gluten-Free and find her on social media (@gabbysgfree).