Whether you’ve just made up your mind to use that gym membership or you’ve committed to training for your first 5k, going from an inactive, sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle can be tough in more ways than one. One of the biggest and most important shifts you’ll have to make is in your eating and nutritional habits. After all, exercise is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to your health.
Being active can’t make up for a bad diet, even if people will use it as a justification to eat junk.
Here’s what you need to know about diet and nutrition when you start getting active. Don’t sabotage your progress. Arm yourself with knowledge and give your body the right fuel to keep moving in a healthy direction.
4 Things to Do With Your Diet When You Begin an Active Lifestyle
1) Anticipate Hunger
When you make the jump from sedentary to active, even if it’s just hitting the gym for half an hour a day a few times a week, you need to anticipate hunger. Suddenly burning more calories is going to ramp up your appetite. Understand that it’s okay to be hungry.
If you satisfy every hunger pang, you’re not going to find your exercise efforts as effective as you like. While recovery is important, it’s really more about hydration than it is about filling back up on carbs. Unless you’re doing an intense workout that is burning several hundred or even thousands of calories, you have no need to slam down protein bars and shakes or go home for a big plate of post-workout pasta.
Keep a realistic image in your head about how many calories you’ve burned versus how much you’re bringing in. Remember, we gain weight because we take in more than we burn. If your recovery involves a pizza, you’re probably negating the calories you burned in your workout. It’s okay to feel hungry. Drink some water instead.
2) Focus on a Quality Caloric Intake
I see even experienced runners and athletes making this mistake. They don’t focus on the quality of their food. Because so many people focus on weight loss and scales as an indicator of health, the balance between caloric burn and intake becomes the equation upon which everything relies.
This doesn’t work because weight is not a true indicator of health. There are factors like cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar at play, among others. Just as a thin person can have high cholesterol and little muscle mass, a person who exercises regularly with a poor diet can run into health problems that going to the gym won’t fix.
This is why the caloric equation of “calories in, calories out” alone is not enough.
Cutting certain carbs and sugars, in general, can be beneficial, as can cutting out fatty red meats. Different diets work for different people, but pretty much everyone benefits from increasing their intake of fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens, and drinking more water.
3) Understand that You Don’t Really Need That Many More Calories
There’s a big mistake that a lot of people make when they switch over from being inactive to embracing exercise. They think they need a lot more calories to “fuel” their workout than they really do. They’ll start drinking protein shakes before their workouts, or have a power bar afterward. Maybe both! They might carb-load even if they’re not a runner!
This is sabotage. Here’s the problem. These are usually “health” foods for healthy people who exercise, but they’re not being utilized properly. People who are focused on weight lifting and building muscle need the extra protein, not your average Joe doing an hour-long workout on the elliptical.
Marathoners carb load, not Sharon in spin class. And that’s not to say these are inferior ways to exercise, it’s just saying that they do not require extra nutritional considerations like more intensive regimens do. Don’t cause your progress to erode by following a strange and arbitrary “health” diet just because it’s there.
4) Don’t Think of Food as a Reward
Here’s another mistake: rewarding yourself with food. If you want to stop your progress in its tracks, go to the gym and burn just enough calories to let yourself have a dessert later. This is not a good way to achieve your fitness or nutritional goals. You’ll only find yourself getting discouraged.
Instead of using food as a reward and having your exercise routine and your nutritional standards fighting against one another, allow them to work hand-in-hand to craft the best you possible. Reward yourself instead with relaxation, time with people you love, or a non-food-based reward.
By educating yourself on the best ways to fuel your new active lifestyle, you'll not only find your exercise to be more effective, but you'll find yourself feeling better and being healthy in the ways the truly matter.
What's the biggest health hurdle you had to overcome when you resolved to get active? Share your story in the comments.