5 Things You Need in Your Diet to Enhance Your Fitness Goals
Megan Meyer, PhD, IFIC
You may be surprised to hear that our brains can remember 5-7 things at a time. I know when I read this number, I was shocked! It seems like such a small amount! But then the more I thought about it, I realized that that number is pretty spot on and makes a ton of sense as to why I can only remember my 5-digit zip code, a 7-digit phone number or my common 6-character pin.
Learning from this, I’ve created a list of the top 5 things you need to include in your diet that will be especially helpful in your fitness routine. While this list of 5 falls within the manageable number of things our brains can remember, each section also goes a bit deeper to explain some key health benefits and details some foods to look for, in case you want more information!
Since our bodies are made up of nearly 2/3 water, starting with H2O is a great place to begin. Even though we have passed the true heat of summer in my neck of the woods, water is still a key component in my diet, especially when I have a big workout or long run on the calendar. Whether you enjoy a casual workout or prefer to go all out at the gym, proper hydration is critical for your body to function properly.
In addition to making up the majority of our body’s organs and tissues, water keeps nutrients moving through our cells to allow for absorption and processing. This is especially important before, during and after exercise, as these nutrients are constantly being depleted and refilled. Water is also key for joint protection by keeping the cartilage (connective tissue between bones) hydrated. Not sure how much you need? The Institute of Medicine recommends that women consume 91 ounces and men consume 125 ounces of water each day.
To help you hit your hydration goals, there are a variety of choices for hydration, including water, tea, sparkling water, or fruit-infused water.
Moving on to the next group: grains. Grains give us steady energy that is a critical part of fitness. There are two types of grains to focus on: whole grains (unprocessed grains which include all parts of the plant) and enriched refined grains (processed and nutrient-enhanced grain products in which the bran and germ have been removed). What’s important is that both types of grains provide us with important carbohydrates. Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy and are converted to glucose and stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for future use. Since glycogen serves as the main energy source during exercise, it is important to refuel with grains after exercise to ensure your glycogen stores are replenished.
Whole grains typically contain more fiber and have been linked to cardiovascular and digestive health. Enriched refined grains are fortified with additional iron and B vitamins, including thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, which are key for energy metabolism. Grains come in many different forms including rice, cereal, pasta, bread and crackers. To get the recommended amount of whole grains, aim to make half of your grains whole.
Now that we have covered the main source of energy for your body, let’s turn to the main macronutrient for muscle health: protein. Beyond building biceps and growing your glutes, protein is important for the maintenance and production of our body’s chemicals such as hormones and enzymes. These compounds play an important role in muscular growth and development, appetite regulation and energy production.
Protein has also been shown to be a key player in weight management by regulating hunger and bone health.
To pump up your protein intake, turn to beans, soy, dairy products like yogurt, seafood and lean cuts of beef and poultry.
#4 Unsaturated fats
The last macronutrient to focus on is unsaturated fats. You may have heard them referenced as the “healthy fats” and it’s important to remember that unsaturated fats are a broader term that includes mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Even though it has been shown that exercise supports heart health, swapping out saturated fat for unsaturated fat can also improve your overall cardiovascular health.
Foods rich in unsaturated fats include vegetable oils like olive and canola oils, avocados, fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, nuts and seeds.
#5 Functional Foods
Rounding out the list are functional foods. Functional foods are a broad class of foods that provide additional health benefits beyond simply the value of their individual nutrients.
Yogurt and other fermented dairy products act as probiotics by introducing “good” bacteria into our digestive systems, aka the microbiome, which may play a role in recovery after exercise. Other functional foods include soy foods. While soy foods promote cardiovascular health, soy foods can also support bone health, which is key for fitness enthusiasts. The last group of functional foods that I want to highlight include antioxidants, specifically flavonoids, which have been shown to have some small benefits on endurance exercise capacity and performance. Foods rich in this class of flavonoids include apples, peppers, berries and cocoa.
So there you have it, the top 5 things you need in your diet for fitness. Not only will they support your overall health, they will also help you achieve your fitness and exercise goals. It’s also important to note that even though each of these nutrients or food categories is significant on its own, so try to pair a few (or all!) in your meals and snacks for optimal health benefits.
Megan Meyer, PhD is the Program Manager of Health and Wellness Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC). At IFIC, she is committed to communicating science-based information to media, health professionals, outside organizations, and consumers on topics related to nutrition and health.