If you work out regularly, you may have heard of a million meal planning techniques, each promising to take you to your desired goal. Cut the carbs. Go Paleo. Praise kale. Tips like these are all over the place about what foods are best to eat.
But while we discuss what to eat, we neglect to discuss when to eat. The NCAA observes about student-athletes that "the right fuel at the right time influences how well they feel, learn, perform and recover." That applies to every athlete regardless of their stage of life, especially when they need to balance working out with other responsibilities.
Throwing in when to eat on top of the myriad guides on what to eat can seem to make constructing a good meal plan even harder, but it is not that difficult. The challenges come in ensuring that you actually stick to your schedule and don't indulge yourself.
Here are three important tips for constructing a proper meal plan.
1. The Importance of Meal Timing
To explain why meal timing is so important, you need to think about why you eat in the first place. Because while some athletes view food as a means to build muscle or achieve some other exercise goal, eating is fundamentally about having the energy you need to be active both in your daily activities and when you work out.
Take "food comas" for example. After a particularly heavy meal, you might pass out or become lethargic for a period of time as your body works to digest all of that food. And scientists have discovered that carb or fat-heavy meals are much more likely to produce food comas compared to protein-heavy or balanced meals.
Now you can use this information to your advantage. For example, you should eat multiple small meals and snacks throughout the day to keep your energy up instead of a few large meals, which can induce lethargy. But make sure your snacks are low-carb foods like yogurt and raisins, because constantly eating carbohydrates throughout the day adds up.
If there is a good time to eat a large meal with carbs and fats, it's at the end of the day after you have worked out. The lethargic state produced then will help you sleep better.
2. Planning Ahead
If you want to get an idea of how a meal plan can help your body, just look at former NBA great Steve Nash, who was able to play at an All-Star level into his late 30s, partly through paying attention to his eating habits. Nash didn't follow some mysterious, secret diet. He just eschewed sugar, ate a lot of whole foods like chicken and vegetables, and prepared in advance.
And that third part is the most crucial. As Nash observed, "If you get hungry between meals, have a plan as to what foods you'll turn to and make sure you have plenty of them so your only options aren't will power or ice cream."
When you get up every morning, you should not have a rough idea of what you will eat that day. You should have a rough idea of what you will eat over the next few days. Above all else, do not have a hard workout and think, "I did really well, so I can afford to pig out a bit."
3. We're Not All That Different
One reason why forming a proper athlete meal plan is so difficult is that a plan that may work for one athlete may not work for another. It can be made even more challenging by the fact that we all have different schedules, which affect when we need energy and what times we work out.
But no one should pretend that eating fast food is actually good for their health. And in that same vein, there is the danger of athletes thinking that they are special snowflakes who will succeed on some super diet. Thinking like that will make you more prone to fall for fad diets, which will not actually help you over the long run.
There are basic dietary guidelines that any athlete should follow regardless of body type or goals. Avoid junk food (and I'd expand the definition of "junk food" to include things like fruit juice and anything with the label of "organic" or "fat-free" on it). Keep a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Eat regular meals. And avoid ideas such as fasting or binge-eating.
Far too often, athletes use the excuse of "being different" to explain why their diets are not working. And while that can sometimes be the case, all too often they are not following their diets strictly nor are they using the right diet at all.
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