Good food choices for sport and exercise

The main thing is to ensure that you have a well balanced diet with an emphasis on carbohydrates. Protein is important but to a lesser extent. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy during exercise and help to ‘fuel’ for your workouts.

There are two types of carbohydrates:

  • Starches
  • Sugars

Starches or ‘complex carbohydrates’ should form the major part of your diet. They contain fibre and essential nutrients and are very good at satisfying hunger. Starches take a long time to break down in your body as compared to the instant energy ‘hit’ experienced from simple (sugary) carbohydrates.

Starches can be found in the following foods:

  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Oats
  • Lentils
  • Potatoes
  • Cereals
  • Pulses
  • Beans
  • Noodles

If you opt for the wholemeal/wholegrain version of any of these foods, for example, wholegrain rice then you will find that energy is released slowly over a period of time. This is useful for those people who participate in endurance sports and so require a continuous energy boost.

Slow release foods such as porridge oats and brown rice are classed as ‘low GI’ foods in that they cause your blood sugar to rise slowly over a long period of time.

To learn more visit our Glycaemic Index (GI) section.

Sugars or ‘simple’ carbohydrates are the other half of the equation: they are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and cause an instant rise in blood sugar levels.

They are often seen as lacking in nutritional value yet if used wisely, can still form part of a training regime. If you require an instant energy boost during training or competition then a glucose based sports drink will help.

Many people assume that there is just the one type of sugar such as ‘table sugar’ which they can buy in the supermarket. However, there are several different types of sugar which are as follows:

  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Lactose
  • Galactose
  • Maltose

Sucrose is a form of sugar which is derived from sugar cane and beet. It is more commonly known as ‘refined sugar’ and is the type of sugar that people use to sweeten their food or drinks. Sucrose is the result of combining glucose and fructose.

However, this type of sugar has little nutritional value and should be used sparingly.

Glucose is derived from the juice of fruits and vegetables and is formed when sugars (and starches) are broken down by your digestive system. This sugar is a vital source of energy for your brain, muscles and nervous system.

Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar, found in the cell walls of fruit and vegetables. It is also found in honey. Fruit and vegetables have to be fully broken down by your digestive system in order to release this sugar.

Lactose is found in fruit, vegetables and milk. It is a naturally occurring sugar which behaves in the same way as fructose in that it is released more slowly than say, sucrose.

However, there are a number of people who find that they cannot tolerate milk products that contain lactose. This is known as lactose intolerance.

Galactose is found in milk products and behaves in the same way as lactose.

Maltose or ‘malt sugar’ is found in some cereals and fermented grain products. It is released quickly into the bloodstream which elevates blood sugar and energy levels.

Ideally, your diet should be comprised of the following:

  • 60 to 70% carbohydrates
  • 15% protein
  • 15% fats

Good food choices include wholemeal pasta, brown rice and wholemeal or multigrain bread; fish, chicken and lean red meat and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. And choose low fat dairy products, for example, skimmed milk.

Keep simple carbohydrates such as biscuits, cakes, chocolate and sugary drinks as a ‘treat’ only. However, glucose based sports drinks, energy bars and gels can be used as they do give an instant energy boost during and after exercise.

The main objective here is to ensure that you are adequately fuelled before, during and after exercise. A good way to approach this is to consume ‘low GI’ foods before exercise, such as a bowl of porridge in the morning but use ‘high GI’ drinks (and food) during exercise. This can take the form of energy bars, cake or chocolate although be aware of the danger of ‘sugar spikes’ whilst doing so.

A ‘sugar spike’ is the name given to a rapid increase in blood sugar which occurs after the consumption of a simple carbohydrate. This is quickly broken down by your digestive system before entering your bloodstream. But, this fast absorption causes an immediate rise in blood sugar levels.

Our Glycaemic Index (GI) section discusses this in greater detail.

What you consume after exercise is as important as what you eat beforehand. Your body will be depleted of essential nutrients and will require protein and carbohydrates for repair and recovery. For the maximum benefit ensure that you consume a protein and carbohydrate snack in the first 30 minutes following exercise. A banana, tuna sandwich on brown bread or peanut butter on a bagel are good ‘post recovery’ choices.

Sports Nutrition Guide Index:

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