Let’s be honest. Although most of us like that our workouts make us stronger, healthier, feel better, etc., the main reason we’re doing it is to look better. We want that six-pack, tighter butt, bigger chest, bigger biceps, you name it. So, we go lift heavy weights over our heads, run fast, jump high, and work up an intense sweat. But then what happens . . .
Working out intensely gives us an intense appetite. And we think its then okay to go home and gorge ourselves on whatever we have lying around the house or what’s readily available at the local drive-through. We think to ourselves, “I must have burned thousands of calories!” Well, you actually didn’t. You probably only burned a couple hundred, no more than a slice of bread or two. And you damaged your muscle tissue enough that it is in desperate need of some branch chain amino acids (ie protein) for repair as well as some carbohydrates to facilitate the repair process.
So, why the exercise? Is it actually doing anything? Yes, it is doing quite a bit, but calorie burning is not actually the primary goal. What we are doing is building a bigger engine with the end result being to raise our overall metabolism. Muscle contains mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Mitochondria burn ATP for energy (this is where calories get used up) and so the more muscle you have and the more mitochondria those muscle fibers have, the higher your metabolism is. Through training, you can actually increase the concentration of mitochondria in your muscle fibers. Hence, the bigger engine. In order to build this engine, as with all maintenance and repair jobs, we need to provide our bodies with the right tools and materials.
Building muscle requires protein, lots of it. Using muscle requires energy molecules which are carbohydrates and fats. Most of us, women especially, do not get enough protein in our diets. Our American diet is rich in processed carbohydrates and we eat the bulk of these at dinner and before bed when our body is ready to shut down and store all those excess energy calories for the night. However, it’s the perfect time for muscle growth and repair so eating a meal rich in protein and vegetables before bed is a much better idea than eating a big bowl of pasta followed by dessert. Simply put, do you want your body working on the engine or beer gut while you sleep?
I read client’s food logs all the time and one of the biggest complaints I hear is that they are too hungry not to snack or have dessert after dinner. However, the majority of the snacks I see them eating are primarily carbohydrates or sugar. I also don’t see them eating nearly enough protein throughout the day so it comes as no surprise that they wanting to snack late in the day. Why? Protein is much more satiating than carbohydrates and helps control hunger. Another problem I often see is starting the day with a carbohydrate heavy breakfast such as yogurt and/or boxed cereal and fruit. This kind of breakfast offers very little protein, is high in sugar, and spikes one’s insulin levels first thing in the morning. Insulin quickly drops one's blood glucose level leaving one feeling tired and hungry. This causes decreased performance in workouts and sets in motion a bad cycle of eating throughout the day.
Increasing one's protein intake at breakfast and eating lower glycemic index carbohydrates can help stabilize one's blood sugar and insulin levels to increase performance and control hunger. Continuing this pattern with lunch, post-workout meals, and dinner will help decrease the amount of excess snacking one does towards the end of the day when we are typically more hungry and thirsty. Thirst is an important factor to consider as well as it is often mistaken for hunger. The next time you think you are hungry for a snack, try drinking a large glass of water. Your may really just be desperate for a drink. And don't save room for dessert, try having a second helping of protein and then see if you have room. There's nothing wrong with treating yourself, but don't do it if you are depriving your body of necessary building blocks.
So, how do you get that six-pack, tighter butt, bigger chest, bigger biceps, etc. without starving to death or getting a Ph.D. in nutrition? Well, the best thing to do is to keep a food journal along with your workout journal. Write down what you are eating and see if it’s working for you. If it isn’t, you need to make changes in what you are doing. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. You need to have protein at every meal and at the bare minimum, you should be getting at least 0.8 to 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight if you are weight training. Read your food labels. See how much sugar and fiber are in your carbohydrates. You want the fiber, not the sugar. Better yet, eat foods that don’t come in packages such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and lean meats. Eat as close to nature as possible.
When we are on a strength and conditioning program and using good sense with our nutrition we can’t help but get stronger, faster, more healthy, and have a positive change in our body composition. It won’t show up on the scale at first so much as in the mirror and in the way our clothes fit, but building that bigger engine coupled with good nutrition will set you up for a long term body composition change that can’t be undone by a weekend away or even a family vacation at the beach. When you change your metabolism and your basic eating habits, those changes are incredibly hard to undo.