Fitness and Food Timing

Structuring Meal Timing Around your Workouts

The importance of meal timing

When it comes to eating habits and fitness, one factor seems to be given more weight than all others:  when and what to eat in order to maximize muscle gains. Do you eat right after working out? Right before? During?  Many people will tell you there is a small “anabolic window” that is rapidly closing post-exercise, and you, as Indiana Jones runs and dives under the quickly closing door, must put food in your mouth before missing your opportunity for gains.

Like many things when it comes to fitness, it is never as straightforward as an Indiana Jones reference.  Let’s break things down. As we work out, energy is needed to continuously fuel muscle contractions. This is true whether you are lifting weights or endurance training.  This generally occurs through the breakdown of carbohydrates and fat.  In conditions where energy from these sources is not sufficient protein may be broken down as well.

The idea behind the post-workout meal is essentially to prevent the breakdown of protein for energy and restore muscle glycogen levels to expedite muscle recovery and repair. (Semeco, 2016)  To do this, our bodies need adequate carbohydrates and protein, but just how much, and when?  

The main problem with focusing too much on the post-workout meal is neglecting the importance of eating PRE-workout.  In fact, what you eat before you head to the gym could have a greater effect on overall muscle protein synthesis than what you eat after.  As stated in a 2001 study, “the response of net muscle protein synthesis to consumption of an EAC [i.e., a protein/carbohydrate shake] solution immediately before resistance exercise is greater than that when the solution is consumed after exercise.” (Tipton, et al.)

The timing of the pre-workout meal can be up to 2 hours before hitting the gym. (Schoenfeld, et al, 2013)  Within this time frame, rushing home for a post-workout meal is not as critical, as the energy needed is still provided by what you ate before.  However, the longer you go beyond the 2-hour mark, the more important the post-workout meal will become. Because resistance training elicits greater muscle protein synthesis, having these nutrients in the body, ready to go before training will maximize their ability to fuel that process.  

As Jeff Nippard suggests, this points to the idea of a larger window that surrounds the entire workout.  Rather than focusing on just your pre- and post-workout nutrition, think of having a 4-6 hour window with your workout in the middle.  This will ensure that you always have the energy you need to get through your workout, and what is necessary to aid in muscle protein synthesis and recovery after your workout.

Because resistance training elicits greater muscle protein synthesis, having these nutrients in the body, ready to go before training will maximize their ability to fuel that process.  Eating before a workout can be tough though.  Being overly full or bloated while lifting weights, running or cycling can be uncomfortable.  This affects consistency and the amount of effort you are able to put commit.

The key here is balance.  You know you need protein and carbohydrates to fuel your workout, the trick is finding the right combination to give you energy and not slow you down.  I would suggest lighter carbs such as rice cakes, a banana or oatmeal that are quick and easy to digest. They are also easy to pack ahead of time so they are ready to eat when you are.  Since I tend to get my workouts in early in the morning, I try to have a jar of overnight oats with protein powder ready for me.

Fats are not essential for pre-workout meals, and since extra fat can lead to feeling more full and sluggish, I would suggest avoiding it if possible.

In terms of what to eat post-workout, many suggest a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.  The carbohydrates will help to restore muscle glycogen and the protein will help with the muscle protein synthesis that is already underway. (Zawadzki, 1992)  This could be something like chicken and rice, sweet potatoes and eggs, or beans and rice.  

My go-to post-workout breakfast is three eggs, 1 cup each of black beans and rice and 150g of sweet potatoes.  This tallies up to 115g carbohydrates, 40g protein and 16g fat.  This hits the 3:1 carb to protein ratio, with some fat to help me feel more full throughout the morning and to work towards my daily macro goals.

Remember, just because you worked out and need a post-workout meal does not mean you should rush to the nearest drive through.  The quality of food you put in your body now is more important than ever. If you’re trying to build lean body mass, your muscles need quality fuel.  You wouldn’t put the lowest octane gas in a performance car, would you?

It should be noted too that this is only a small portion of your day, and you still want to focus on achieving your overall daily intake goals for protein, carbohydrates and fat.  

To sum things up, the key here is to look at the big picture.  There is a larger window surrounding your workouts in which your body needs quality fuel in the form of carbohydrates and protein.  If you happen to be training fasted, then the post-workout meal becomes more important. If you’re not going to be able to eat right after your workout, then pad that with a little bit more food before you hit the gym.  

If you’re serious about your training and getting your body to where you want it to be, knowing exactly how to fuel it is key!

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Healthy Thai Beef Salad with Rice

One of my favorite Thai Beef Salad recipes

One look in my pantry and you will be able to tell what my favorite type of food is.  My cupboards are full of ingredients that seem foreign and random to most, but to someone familiar with cooking Thai or other southeast Asian cuisines they would be common and familiar.  

Working in a Thai restaurant really changed my outlook on food.  Both in terms of flavor and health. While at first, the cuisine was completely foreign to me, I soon came to respect the use of fresh, bold flavors and the care for balance in bringing out the perfect taste.  

In many dishes, this flavor is achieved without using added sugars, and as fish sauce is relied upon for savoriness, they are typically low in sodium as well.  Many familiar dishes use soy sauce, but this is actually a Chinese influence on Thai cuisine. 

In addition, many dishes come together fairly quickly, making them ideal for a quick meal or snack.  Once you have a few staple items in your pantry, it’s just a matter of knowing how much to add.

The type of dish I am making today is typically referred to as a Thai “salad” and comes together in minutes.  While “salad” might not be the most accurate translation, think of it as seasoned meat that lends a big punch of flavor when served alongside plain rice.

We start by grilling the steak (usually on the rare side, but you are free to cook it however you like).  While grilling, we combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir them together to allow the flavors to combine.  

A few notes on ingredients:  sticky rice powder is a common ingredient in these types of Thai salads.  If you will never use sticky rice for anything else, I would recommend just using plain white or jasmine rice.  Simply toast uncooked rice in a dry pan, tossing frequently, until browned and then give it a few pulses in a coffee grinder or food processor.  A quarter cup at a time will go a long way, and you can store it in an airtight container for a month or so.

The chili flakes are optional depending on your heat tolerance.  A touch of spice will really add to the flavor so I would recommend a pinch to start and then you can add more as you like.

Once the steak is finished cooking, let it rest for about 5 minutes (this allows the proteins to relax and allows the juices to redistribute within the meat), then thinly slice against the grain (perpendicular to the lines/striations you see in the meat, this will help prevent it from getting stuck in your teeth, if you were ever wondering) into bite sized strips.

Now just toss all of the ingredients together in the bowl and spoon over a bowl of rice.  Your taste buds will be grateful, it will taste so good it feels like you’re cheating on your diet!

See the full recipe here!

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The Importance of Home Cooking

People nowadays are spending less and less time cooking at home.  This is connected with a decrease in the nutritional value of one’s meals week to week.  Not only are home cooked meals healthier for you and your family, but they are also easier on your budget.

A snapshot of my semi-stocked pantry.

Home cooking is a win-win, as the Director of University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition states, “by cooking more often at home, you have a better diet at no significant cost increase, while if you go out more, you have a less healthy diet at a higher cost” (University of Washington, 2017), yet less of our meals are cooked at home.  

Dining out adds novelty and excitement to eating.  A lot of people may think that their skill at cooking is limited to only a few dishes which, repeated week after week, do not seem so appealing.  Dining out gives you the option to eat cuisines and dishes that are unfamiliar and exotic.

Skill, therefore, prevents a lot of us from cooking at home.  Many recipes are overwhelming and contain so many ingredients to wrap your head around.  Not to mention the difficulty in finding some of those ingredients and, once purchased, finding other uses for them.

Time presents another hurdle to home cooking.  One 2013 study found that on average, Americans are only willing to spend about an hour a day on cooking (Smith, Ng, Popkin, 2013).  After dedicating a large portion of your day to work and getting a workout in, the last thing you want to do is spend an additional hour or two “working” in the kitchen.  Not to mention the cleanup.  Having to do the dishes after cooking a meal is the worst!

Skill and time may keep a lot of us out of the kitchen, but the benefits of becoming a confident home cook outweigh the challenges.  

When you cook something yourself, you can add anything to it you want and cater it to your exact tastes.  The more you cook a particular dish, the more it becomes your own as you are able to add your twist to it, making small changes each time.  Once you become confident cooking for yourself, you can start sharing your food with others. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing food with someone and having them be as excited about it as I am.

Cooking at home is easier on your wallet and your waistline.  Consider the average cost of a meal at a restaurant. A 4-6 ounce hamburger with a handful of fries or a side salad will usually come out to around $12.  Yet a pound (16 ounces) of ground beef at the store is around $4.99, that could make two burgers (at least). Plus a $2 pack of eight buns, various toppings (that get more than one use out of them).  Add a potato or two for $1 and you’re looking at less than $12 to feed the whole family.

The health benefits can be seen as twofold.  Without even trying, home-cooked meals are associated with diets lower in calories, sugar and fat (University of Washington, 2017).  Foods that are eaten at restaurants often contain a lot of “hidden” calories for the sake of increasing flavor. For example, there is probably butter on the bun, mayonnaise sauce and the burger itself could be cooked in a pan with vegetable oil.  All of these unnecessary additions skyrocket the fat content.

Additionally, cooking at home gives you the opportunity to completely tailor your meals to your dieting goals.  If you have ever attempted to track your macros and calories using an app such as MyFitnessPal, you already know how hard it is to estimate the calories in a restaurant meal.  When cooking at home, you know EXACTLY what you are putting into your food, and what you are putting into your body.

In the kitchen, I challenge myself to make great tasting food without unnecessary “cheat” ingredients such as extra oil or sugar.  This usually requires a little creative problem solving but the benefits are well worth it.

There is also another benefit that a lot of people do not consider.  Once you become comfortable in the kitchen (and maybe find someone to clean up for you…) cooking can also be very therapeutic.  For me, after working in stressful restaurant kitchens for years, I didn’t think I would be able to find cooking relaxing. Yet you can really lose yourself in your cooking once you become passionate about it.  Besides, how many other tasks yield immediate benefits. After 20 to 30 minutes in the kitchen, you have a tangible, delicious meal in front of you.

So how do you start?  If you have never cooked before, I would suggest starting small.  Buy a pack of chicken breast and a few dry spices. To use them as a marinade, simply mix with a little salt.  Basil and oregano for a classic Italian combo, paprika and cumin for latin flare or ginger and a soy sauce for an Asian touch.  Let the flavors set in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.  Dry spices add little to no calories and offer near infinite combinations so they are a great way to start.  

For vegetables, the oven and grill are your best friends.  Start with asparagus, as this requires the least amount of preparation.  Break off the lighter green ends and toss in a little fat-free cooking spray or olive oil, salt and pepper and throw on the grill until charred and tender.  Don’t have a grill? No problem!  Simply utilize your ovens “broil” setting.  This can be done with pretty much any vegetable, and whenever I prepare vegetables this way for a crowd, everyone wants to know what the secret is.  Sometimes keeping it simple brings out the best flavor!

Another good thing to master is the art of making rice.  It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised at how many professional cooks I have trained who can’t make a good pot of rice, so if you can get this down it is no small feat!  The trick is rinsing the rice a few times to remove the excess starch. You can do this over a fine mesh sieve or simply fill the pot with water, swirl it around and then carefully pour the water off.  Follow the water to rice ratio on the package as it can vary by style.  I would suggest making at least 2-3 cups and saving the leftovers for later!

To help you all on your cooking journeys, I hope to continue sharing and promoting healthy recipes with the goal of demystifying specific recipes and cooking in general.  The best advice I can give is to put care into whatever you make. You can cook a two-ingredient recipe with care and it will taste better than anything else.  Fitness and food are intricately linked, and gaining the ability to cook the meals your body needs for quality fuel will help you reach your goals faster than any other factor.  

For our easy to follow healthy recipes, click here!

For links to references, click here!

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Our Favorite Fall Comfort Food

Since we are well on our way through the fall, and many places are already seeing an inch or two of snow, we are all craving foods that will comfort us and keep us warm

For a lot of people, the first thing to come to mind when thinking of comfort foods is not the most healthy.  Dishes with fattier cuts of meat such as brisket (think a Reuben sandwich) or pork shoulder (think pulled pork) and lots of butter (think mashed potatoes).  Not to mention pizza or mac and cheese, dishes we are tempted by year round. In moderation, these are all ok. Most of these dishes are connected to a memory of childhood or a favorite restaurant or holiday and a single bite can take you right back to that moment.

Soups are a great way to bridge the gap between unhealthy comfort foods and foods that may fit more easily into your personal diet goals. Be warned, however, soups can lie on either end of the spectrum. Clam or corn chowder and broccoli and cheddar soup can be deceiving as a lot of that delicious flavor comes from the use of lots of cream, butter and/or cheese.

This is another instance where homemade is always the way to go.  When you cook something yourself, you can add anything to it you want and cater it to your exact tastes.  This can seem intimidating at first but the payoff, in the long run, is well worth it. The more you cook a particular dish, the more it becomes your own as you are able to add your twist to it, making small changes each time.  Once you become confident cooking for yourself, you can start sharing your food with others. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing food with someone and having them be as excited about it as I am.

Butternut squash is one of my favorites and its arrival just in time for winter could not be better.  This squash is naturally sweet and contains a lot of Vitamin A and potassium. All it takes to draw out the natural flavor is some time roasting in the oven.

By minimizing the use of butter or oil, we can cut down on a lot of the fat that can be found in pre-made or restaurant versions of this soup.  For this reason, I have also made milk or almond milk optional. If you like the added creaminess, you can add as much or as little as you want, or omit it entirely.  The hardest part about this recipe is peeling the squash itself. If you are confident with a knife you can go that route, as in the video below, or to be safe a vegetable peeler will work just fine.  Once peeled you will need to scrape out the seeds with a spoon and cut the remaining squash into roughly 1-inch cubes.

While you are cutting the squash, you can have the oven heating up to around 350ºF.  Once you have the squash cubed throw it in a bowl and spray it down with some nonfat cooking spray (feel free to use olive oil or coconut oil if you would like), just enough to coat the squash.  Toss it around with some salt and pepper and now it is ready for the oven.

To save time while the squash is roasting, you can get your onion and garlic diced up and ready to go.  The size of the cut isn’t incredibly important here, as everything is going to end up in a blender at the end anyway.  After about half an hour you can start cooking the onions, as the squash should only take 30-45 minutes. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pot and allow the onions to cook down.  Once the onions are soft add the garlic, I wouldn’t recommend adding the garlic at the same time as the onions, as it will cook faster and burn, adding a bitter flavor.

When the squash is “fork tender” (meaning there is no resistance when pierced with a fork or knife), add it to the pot and stir it around with the onions to combine.  You can now add the stock or water. This will allow the squash to cook down a little more and make it easier to blend in the next step.

Now its time to break out the blender or food processor.  One note on which one you use: there is a trade-off. The food processor will break everything down a lot easier than a blender, but the blender will yield a smoother soup.  Depending on the quality of the blender, you may have to continuously shut it off and stir things around to make sure everything is blending consistently and use smaller batches.  I just set a mixing bowl or another pot on the side to separate the blended from the unblended.

Once blended, you can serve immediately if it is still hot, or allow it to cool down before putting it in the fridge to enjoy throughout the week on those especially cold nights.  I would recommend hiding it in the back where no one else can find it!

See the full recipe here!

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Three Holiday Health Tips

Its that time of year again.  A time to take a break from the day to day.  To spend time with family and friends. To take a vacation, maybe?

This is also a time when many of us are pressured to indulge.  Maybe you have been good about eating and getting enough exercise for the last few months.  Whether or not this is the case, holiday parties can seem like a minefield of bad choices we must face, and sometimes avoiding the bad choices we are confronted with becomes punishment in and of itself.

Cookies and cakes are the food we typically associate with the holidays

The month of December has other stressors as well.  You might happen to be one of the 107.3 million other Americans who will travel for the holidays (USA Today, 2018).  Travelling makes it extremely difficult to balance out healthy meals and to find the time for exercise. If you’re stuck with a four hour layover, your healthy options are limited to just about none.  It is just as difficult to bring your own food if it is not properly packaged. Who wants to take the time preparing meals for a day of travel, just to have them end up in the TSA office trash bin.

There are ways to combat the flood of unhealthy options that surround us.  Below I have three tips that I try to keep in mind throughout the year and especially during the holidays.  Think of it as altitude training:  If you can stick to these rules during the holidays, the rest of the year will be a breeze!

•  Rethink holiday food.  For most, the holidays offer an excuse to indulge, but we all know better.  It is time to move away from the typical spread of cookies and chocolate and start bringing healthier dishes to the table.  Do you have a famous french onion dip that everyone will be expecting? Swap out the sour cream for fat free greek yogurt! I’ve found grilled or broiled vegetables are always an unexpected hit.   Simply drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and cook until tender and a little charred. You would be amazed at how many people I have turned on to brussels sprouts with this simple preparation.  You may be surprised at how many people you can turn on to the healthy alternatives you bring to the table as well.

Roasted brussels sprouts with almonds and lemon zest

Another piece of advice I think really works:  when you’re at a holiday party, hang out near the veggie platter.  That way, when you are tempted to munch, your closest option will be much healthier, which should also help fill you up to avoid some of the more tempting sweets.

•  Stay Active.  Whether you like to jog, ski or lift weights, whatever keeps you active during the winter, stick to it!  As it gets colder and darker it gets that much easier to resign ourselves to stay indoors where it’s nice and warm.  However, getting in those workouts will balance out that one cookie or that extra slice of cheese you might sneak during the holiday party.

Exercise can also be hard while travelling, and many gyms will have different hours during the holidays.  For this reason it is a great idea to have an outdoor activity you enjoy doing, or a workout you can do in your home with minimal equipment (hoping to post some workouts this week!).  If you are travelling try to stretch in between flights, especially the lower and upper back, hamstrings and hip flexors as these are typically most affected by extended periods of sitting.

•  Don’t wait until New Years Day to start your resolution.  We’ve all been there.  On December 20th you decide you are going to make healthier decisions for the new year.  Now you have a free pass until the 1st, right? Wrong! Start now and you will feel much better throughout the holiday.  Start making it to the gym, cut out sodas and high calorie drinks. Theses small changes will put you ahead of the game when the new year rolls around and you will be ready to conquer.  You might even be able to recruit some friends or family to join you!

The holidays should be an enjoyable time with family and friends.  If these habits are adopted not just for the holidays, but every day, you might find your willpower is a lot stronger than you  thought. Give yourself more credit! Once these small tricks become habits of daily living, healthy choices become second nature.

Happy Holidays!

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