Finding the right balance between nutrition and training

Since food is what fuels the body, fitness should be as much about nutrition as it is about the workouts. Yet, often there is a disconnect.

Two-hour training sessions seven days a week while consuming only 1,200 calories is a poor approach to health. The numbers don’t add up, say health experts, who are increasingly seeing UAE fitness enthusiasts overtrain and undereat to achieve their goals.

“Nutrition plays a vital role in achieving specific fitness goals,” says Adrienne Speedy, the lead dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

“Both what and when you eat and drink are important in terms of providing the appropriate fuel for optimising performance and aiding recovery.

“If you’re not eating enough, you may not be able to perform optimally during training sessions. You could also be depriving your body of the protein, carbohydrates and antioxidants it needs to help repair itself after a strenuous workout. In the short term, not getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals can result in nutrient deficiency, such as developing anaemia. In the long term, unhealthy eating patterns could compromise bone health and may lead to osteoporosis.”

Dubai-based fitness coaches Ross Gilmour and partner Malin Blomdahl Lenner set up their lifestyle coaching company GameChanger Performance last year with the intention of reversing the way people think about nutrition.

The duo provide online and offline nutrition and training modules for clients after comprehensively assessing their fitness goals, eating habits and emotional health.

“A lot of times we see people eat healthily during the week, train hard and then binge on calorie-dense foods over the weekends,” says Gilmour, who is a CrossFit coach at Warehouse Gym in Dubai. “We then have to retrain their psychology, suggest they eat more nutrient-dense food and train smart.”

One of their clients, Jo Kearns, was caught in this unhealthy cycle. Kearns, who is a Les Mills group-class instructor, was teaching and strength training throughout the week, but had restricted her diet to 1,400 calories.

“I thought it was important to keep my calories low and would only buy low-fat products,” says the 29-year-old Irish national.

“But when I started weight and resistance training last year, I realised I wasn’t getting any results and was always tired.”

Gilmour advised her to gradually increase her daily calorie-intake to 2,000, eat balanced meals at the right time and add at least two rest days to her training schedule.

“He also took me through how to time my meals, like to have carbohydrates and protein around my sessions and to reduce my carb intake and increase fats on rest days.”

In the past four months, Kearns has not only seen an improvement in her training but has also managed to reverse her polycystic ovary syndrome condition by cleaning up her diet. She is now able to squat her body-weight with a weightlifting bar loaded to 65 kilograms from 40kg.

Hala Barghout, a dietitian in Dubai, says that a low-calorie diet affects metabolism and mood, as well.

“A low-calorie diet is something like 900 calories a day – a [piece of] fruit for breakfast, a can of tuna for lunch and yogurt for dinner. You may see weight loss, but it will impact your organs, digestion and monthly menstrual cycle.”

She says that to add lean muscle, the calorie intake needs to be increased by 500 every day, with protein making up 20 per cent, carbohydrates at 45 per cent and 30 per cent of the calories from good fats found in salmon, olive oil, avocado and nuts.

Barghout also warns against relying on synthetic food supplements and meal-replacement products to meet nutritional goals.

“Protein shakes and bars are often filled with sweeteners and ingredients that are not natural. A rule of thumb is that the longer the ingredients list, the more it’ll affect your body negatively.”