Whatever your training goal is, diet is a key factor in the effectiveness of your programme, especially when it comes to weight training.
Your body relies on different energy systems to fuel its movement and it’s your diet that fuels these systems.
When it comes to weight training, whether for strength or size, what you eat and when will be as crucial to your result as how frequently you train or how heavy you lift. Lifting weights is hugely beneficial, though can be taxing on your body without the proper fuel: like a car, it just won’t run.
There’s lots of debate about the best diet to compliment a weight training programme, sometimes confusing and contradictory.
However, I’ve found these 8 non-controversial weight training diet rules to be helpful.
1. Ditch processed food
Choose fresh whole foods when you can and reduce or completely remove refined sugar and processed foods. This means eating food in its natural state, or as close to as possible – which helps to avoid any confusion over ingredients.
Eating whole foods also ensures you receive more nutrients from what you consume like fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, all vital for keeping you energised and healthy.
Most processed foods contain little to no real nutrition, have additives and have been linked to obesity, which is particularly unhelpful if trying to get lean!
2. Eat protein
Protein is required for building and repairing muscle. It helps to balance blood sugar levels and keeps you satiated for longer. Protein is found in meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and vegetables like spinach; some foods contain more complete protein than others.
Your exact protein requirement is determined by your current weight and training goals, though many people, training or not, may eat too little and could benefit from including about 30grams with each main meal.
3. Choose complex carbohydrates
Carbohydrate helps to provide your body with energy, which can be stored in the muscle as glycogen to be utilised during weight training.
Because carbs are essentially sugar, it’s better to choose complex and unrefined carbs as opposed to simple or processed ones. Complex carbohydrates are higher in fibre and unprocessed with no added sugar, so they release energy more slowly.
Sources of complex carbohydrate include: whole grains, nuts, legumes and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes. If training to build lean muscle, avoid eating carbohydrates immediately before your workout, to ensure you first use the energy already stored within your muscles.
4. Enjoy healthy fats
Fat is needed by many of your body’s metabolic processes. Healthy fats, give you energy, are flavourful, keep you fuller for longer and help to reduce sugar cravings.
Eating healthy fats encourages your body to use fat as a fuel source and reduce your reliance on refined carbohydrates for energy which can spike blood sugar levels and eventually be stored as fat.
When combined with a weight training programme, a diet rich in unrefined, healthy fats – which includes oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, olive, hemp and flaxseed oil – can help to raise your metabolism, build lean muscle and burn fat.
5. Fruit in moderation
Fruit is full of vitamins and fibre and also contains sugar as ‘fructose’ which can have the same spiking effect on blood sugar as other sugars.
As such, it’s advisable to consume it in moderation. Fruits like berries, apples and pears are lower in sugar and can help to naturally satisfy your sweet tooth. When training, fruit is best eaten post workout, with a source of protein or healthy fat to keep blood sugar levels balanced.
Fruit juices fresh and concentrated, should be avoided, because your body metabolises them faster, which may result in blood sugar highs, subsequent crashes and weight gain when the sugar is stored as fat. Plain water is always best for hydration.
6. Stay hydrated
Your body is two thirds water. Water is an essential nutrient which helps to regulate your body temperature, keep electrolytes balanced and carry nutrients to the cells so they can function. During exercise your body loses fluids and electrolytes, making hydration essential.
When training, avoid colourful energy drinks which are expensive and often contain sugar. Stay hydrated by drinking at least 2 litres of plain water throughout the day and as needed while training. To help replace the electrolytes lost through sweating, try adding a small pinch of sea salt or a slice of lemon and lime to each 500ml.
Glycogen, a form of glucose stored in the muscle is depleted by training. As a result, following a workout, your muscle tissues are more responsive for a period of time to particular hormones and key nutrients like protein and carbohydrates.
This post workout ‘refuelling’ window can last from 30 – 90 minutes, what you can and should eat during this time depends on your training and goals.
If working to retain or build lean muscle, consuming the right proportion of some form of high quality protein (about 20gms) and fast acting complex carbohydrate immediately after training may be beneficial. This could be a protein shake, bar, smoothie, some fruits or a light meal.
8. Mind your macros
Understanding the correct proportion of the macronutrients or ‘macros’ (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) needed to meet your training goals, will help to balance your body’s energy requirements with its ability to burn fat, build muscle or generate power.
Being mindful of your macro ratios is not the same as ‘calorie counting’, which can be arbitrary and sometimes damaging because it can disproportionately reduce your intake of nutrients like fat.
When it comes to exact macronutrient ratios, there are different nutritional schools of thought. Though it’s safe to say that your optimal ratios will be determined by lifestyle, life stages, gender and activity levels. By being aware, you can observe the effect certain foods have on your energy levels, training and results and adjust accordingly.