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Nourishing an active lifestyle: eating for performance and pleasure

POSTED February 19, 2016 8:09 a.m.
The benefits of regular physical activity are numerous and include support for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, reducing risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, maintaining bone health and even boosting mood and mental health. Given these and other benefits, many Americans are adding more daily movement into their lives so that they can meet the physical activity guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations.

When becoming more active, people often want to know what to eat to fuel their fitness. This article explores some common myths about eating for an active lifestyle and provides practical strategies for choosing nourishing foods that you enjoy. Have no fear. It is possible to eat for performance and pleasure.

Myth 1: Active people must follow eating rules

In today’s culture, the “diet mentality” is common and there are plenty of trendy eating plans promising nearly “instant” results. Often, the food choices are so limited that the diet is difficult to maintain and returning to less healthy eating habits is common.

In addition, for athletes and others in training for races or competitions, there may be a desire to overly restrict food intake or follow a rigid eating plan to meet performance and weight goals. This can have a negative impact on training efforts and overall health over time.

Rather than following hard and fast rules, nourish an active lifestyle by aiming for a balance and variety of healthy foods that fit with personal tastes and preferences. More important than the specific eating approach is what can be maintained for the long run. The good news is that there are a variety of healthy eating patterns to choose from. MyPlate from the United States Department of Agriculture is one example food guide.

Remaining flexible and experimenting with nutritious foods (and beverages) until finding what works helps sustain healthy eating habits. Lastly, individuals should check with their doctor or other health care provider when making changes to eating (and physical activity) habits to ensure their specific needs are met.

Myth 2: Active people must buy expensive supplements and sports foods

While there are specific types of physical activity (such as extended competitions or hard training sessions) that can benefit from the use of sports or “energy” foods like sports drinks and energy gels, it is generally unnecessary to rely on specialty products. For most active people, it’s possible to meet nutrition needs through regular meals and snacks as part of a balanced, healthy diet.

One way to ensure nutrition needs are met is to consider each meal/snack as an opportunity to nourish mind and body. Meals should generally include carbohydrate sources such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables; lean protein like lean meats, poultry, fish, or plant-based protein such as tofu; and fats, especially healthy sources such as plant oils, nuts/seeds, and fatty fish like salmon. Include healthy snacks and fluids as part of your fueling plan and avoid skipping meals. Milk and milk products or dairy substitutes also provide important nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein and calcium.

The Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) website provides a variety of helpful sports nutrition fact sheets with more about specific strategies, including foods and fluids for before, during and after exercise.

Myth 3: No pain no gain

In many areas of life, we may get the message that “more is better.” With eating and physical activity, this is not always the case. Recovery and rest are important parts of an active lifestyle. Eating for exercise recovery means ensuring that nutrients are replaced shortly after hard workouts (such as eating a carbohydrate and protein containing meal or snack like a turkey sandwich or cottage cheese and fruit). Eating plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables on a daily basis also provides powerful phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory benefits for recovery. Consider a blueberry and yogurt smoothie for example.

Rest days provide a chance to repair and rejuvenate both physically and mentally. In addition, choosing foods that are enjoyable (rather than always just what’s healthiest) can provide a mental rest and make it easier to stay with a healthy eating pattern over time.

To allow for pleasure in your meals and snacks, practice paying mindful attention while eating. Make a list of foods that are truly enjoyed — not just those that “should” be eaten. Many enjoyable foods can fit in a healthy eating plan. Try making a few small tweaks to include foods that are healthier yet still satisfying.

Ultimately one lesson to take from active individuals is to remain flexible and adjust eating and exercise habits as life changes. Consider challenges as opportunities to learn, grow and fine-tune eating and activity plans to support life goals.

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