Understanding Food as Fuel

I need to begin by saying I am not a doctor or even a nutritionist. The following information is simply my opinions based on my personal studies of fitness and health. These are the guidelines I have been working with, and techniques I feel have assisted with my own journey. There are certain diets that abstain from carbohydrates for medical reasons, and these recommendations are obviously not best suited for all individuals.

Our daily food choices have an incredible impact on our health and on the results we’re trying to achieve. Many fitness professionals feel nutrition is 80% of how we reach our health and fitness goals. You can spend an hour in the gym lifting heavy or sweating it out on the “dreadmill” but if you swing by McFast Food on the way home much of your efforts will be lost.

When making decisions about food, always look for food in its purest form first. Meat, fruit, vegetables…the shorter the list of ingredients, the better. Eliminate processed foods, refined sugars, things with additives and preservative.

Specific to training, you’ve been putting in time at the gym, working hard, increasing resistance, decreasing rest periods between sets….that’s great! But have you put much thought into how you should be fueling your body to best compliment your training efforts?


ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association) notes that our best source of energy comes from carbohydrates. We need this energy source for everything from performing typical daily tasks, to completing intense training regimes at the gym. Wait…..what? Carbs!?! Somewhere along the line, the word “carbohydrate” has become a sinful thing. It’s important to understand that there are different types of carbohydrates. Once we understand this, we can make better choices in terms of what foods we need to fuel our bodies.

There are simple carbs (containing one or two unit sugars, they are quickly absorbed by the body and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels), and complex carbs (containing many units of sugar, they are absorbed more slowly by the body and as a result can sustain blood sugar and glycogen levels for a longer period of time…providing energy for a longer period of time). Simple carbs are sometimes referred to as “bad carbs”, but that isn’t entirely true. While candy, cake, and soda are all classified as simple carbs, so are fruits! But fruit also contains fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants! This demonstrates to us that perhaps all simple carbs aren’t created equal.


Understanding that we need carbohydrates as an energy source is only one part of fueling for training. Protein is another key into getting the most out of our time invested at the gym (or home workouts). Protein assists with both fueling and recovery of our muscles. Recommendations for daily intake of protein range depending on the source. On average I would say anywhere between 0.5-1g of protein per pound of body weight has been prescribed. The lower end would represent a more sedentary lifestyle, and the higher end would represent a more intensive training schedule. Protein is key in our daily food selections as it provides a sensation of saiety, and you will be less likely to wander back to the kitchen 30 minutes later for a snack. So how much of our daily protein requirements should be allotted toward training? Again, the numbers fluctuate but anywhere from 20-30g total (pre and post workout) is good.

When looking at protein supplements, there are a variety of protein sources. Without delving too much into the differences between these sources (which could fill an entire blog entry on its own), whey protein isolate is a popular choice for quick absorption and a more immediate reaction in the body (although not appropriate for someone with a lactose intolerance).

Food as Fuel

Now that we have listed two essential components for fueling and assisting in recovery, let’s discuss how they work together. If we deplete our carbohydrate reserves, our body will then move to our protein reserves for energy.  Ahhhh, but we need that protein to build and repair this muscle growth we’re working so hard to achieve! A thoughtful selection of both carbohydrates and protein pre and post workout will provide us with a good balance.

The timing of your pre-workout food depends a lot on the size of the meal. It can range anywhere from 2 hours before you train (if eating a large meal) to 30 minutes before you train (if fitting in a small snack). Ideally, you just want to ensure you’ve had some time to digest and that you don’t feel so full that it hinders your performance. A post-workout meal should be consumed between 30-60 minutes after you complete your training session, when the body is most receptive and primed for accepting the required nutrients.

To help you get started, I am providing a list of carbohydrates that are (mostly) slowly absorbed to sustain energy and provide fiber, and/or vitamins and minerals. Pair something from this list with something from my list of proteins to create a balanced pre and post workout menu selection.


  • brown rice
  • whole grain pasta
  • beans/lentils
  • whole wheat bread
  • whole oats
  • whole rye
  • whole grain barely
  • fruits/berries
  • vegetables


  • nuts/nut butters
  • hummus
  • yogurt
  • tuna
  • chicken
  • turkey
  • cheese
  • eggs
  • whey protein supplement in the form of a shake or a bar

I hope this helps provide a bit of clarity when making decisions on how to best fuel your body and get the most out of your training sessions. Train hard, train safe and have fun!