When people say ‘anything is possible’ I don’t know if this is quite what we were all hoping for. We are in a time of unparalleled upheaval with no apparent end goal. That is hard, and it might be that right now, you have absolutely no interest in looking at your nutrition. And to that I would say ‘fair enough’. However, if staying on top of your training and nutrition is something you think you would like to dedicate some bandwidth to in order to keep with routine and for general health, then here are some points you might find useful to consider.
So, what do you need to consider changing up with your nutrition to match changes to your training?
1.Account for a reduction in incidental exercise
The disruption to training may be slight for some and massive for others, depending on what access they have to equipment and training facilities while socially distancing. If you are lucky enough to have a home gym set up or have been able to borrow equipment to get through the gym shut down, then it may be that you only need to make a few tweaks to take into account changes to incidental exercise while working from home. In this scenario, where you are still able to lift weights and training on equipment at a high intensity (as long as you stay consistent and set yourself targets), the only adjustment may be accounting for a potential decrease in general daily activities like walking to work, walking around the office etc. Incidental exercise accounts for ~5-10% of our daily energy output. If you are now working from home, it’s likely that your step count is going to be significantly less. So, for someone who habitually eats 2200 calories of food this would mean looking at reducing energy intake by between 110-220 calories per day to stay weight neutral now that you are working from home. However, if you are relying on body weight training and walking/running, you may need to adjust a bit further.
2. Account for change in training volume, frequency and intensity
Planned exercise usually contributes to ~10% of your daily energy expenditure, depending on the type of training and the duration of the session. If you are going from 6 high intensity sessions a week to 4 body weight sessions, it’s worth estimating a further decrease in energy expenditure. Say on average you expended ~450 calories* in a 30-45 minutes high intensity weights or cardio session 6 times a week that’s 2700 calories expended across the week. If this has changed to 4 low to moderate intensity sessions burning ~300 calories in a 30-45-minute session, that’s 1200 calories expended across the week. This leaves you with a weekly decreased energy expenditure of ~1500 calories or an average of 214 calories per day. If you combined this with a reduce incidental exercise expenditure for 100-200 calories, your total decrease in expenditure would be 300-400 calories per day. This is quite significant if sustained for a long period of time and is likely to lead to changes in body composition, so it is worth taking the time to calculate a rough change in dietary intake that you might need to make.
*These are all rough approximations, if you have access to wearable technology and know your usual energy outputs in a session, you can better estimate how your change in training impacts your energy your outputs.
3. Focus on maintaining muscle with a reduced training stimulus
Muscle maintenance occurs when the rate of loss is equal to (or greater than) the rate of muscle breakdown. Two key factors for muscle maintenance and gain are:
- Resistance training (weightlifting)
- Protein intake
Research shows that muscle protein synthesis is greatest in the period after resistance training and when the powers of these two factors combine, we get the optimised rates of muscle mass gain. So, when one of these factors is missing (or abruptly taken away), what can be done to maintain lean mass? Well, reduction in muscle mass (also known as atrophy) occurs due to a reduced rate of muscle protein synthesis as a result of the stimulus (resistance training) being removed. However, the good news is that dietary protein also stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Looking at the research on the management of body composition for injured athletes, it is possible to make inferences on how to manage this current scenario (strangely I found no research on maintaining muscle mass when gyms suddenly get closed down as a result of a pandemic…could be an area for further investigation). Research indicates that by maintaining or increasing protein intake (for an athletic population we are looking at 1.6-2g/kg body weight daily) and evenly distributing the protein in ~40g serves in meals across the day that we can restrict the loss of muscle mass during periods of reduced training volume. This may be done with fresh protein rich foods, however given the reduction in the availability of many fresh meats, eggs and poultry due to panic buying, whey protein stands to be a very useful and shelf stable addition to daily protein intake which you might include 1-2 times a day for this period. And don’t forget other plant-based sources of protein from legumes, tofu, and wholegrains will also contribute to total daily protein intake and are readily available.
4. Pay attention to your diet quality
Now is a great time to review the overall, and habitual, quality of your diet. I mention habitual quality because, while there certainly foods which are known to have benefits for immune function, if you are only consuming these foods on occasion, the impact may not be remarkable. The nutrients in foods are of benefit to our body when provided regularly and, generally, via lower doses than you may think. Once off mega-doses are in most cases of little value (unless a medically diagnosed, frank deficiency exists). So, the benefits of that one-week salad kick in January has probably worn off by now. Immune function is a hot topic right now and many people are on the hunt for the one ‘super food’ or supplement that will ‘boost’ their immune function. Here, the sentiment remains the same, in order to benefit, even with supplementation, we need to be consistent. Immune function is of the utmost importance for maintaining health generally and for reducing downtime from the gym, where attendance has already been compromised, it would be smart to use any extra time you may have acquired from reduced transit time to prepare more food from home using healthy unprocessed ingredients to boost your intake of micronutrients. Look up some healthy recipes and practice cooking up batches of healthy meals which you can have on hand for lunches at home or freeze for later.
The next few months have many question marks looming over it. However, where possible it can feel good to take control of the things that you can influence. You may not get ‘perfect’, but I haven’t met many people who do get a clear run when they are trying to change up their nutrition or when training for an event. The people who maintain healthy habits year round are the ones who have established routines and habits and who look for the next best option when things don’t go to plan, rather than throwing the whole plan out. So, while it might not be the perfect time to make changes to your diet, if you can get into a good routine under these circumstances, imagine what you can do when things get back to a more normal pace?
There is no magic here, eating well has always played an important role in supporting our body’s immune system. Nutrition can easily take the back seat, however when it comes to preventing illness, it plays a pivotal role. If you haven’t paid attention to your diet in a while, now is a good time to review and make a start on some changes that will keep your body healthy now and into the future.
When we get sick, the bugs and bacteria damage our bodies cells which is followed up with an immune response to fight and clear away the illness from the body. One of the key pathways of this process is the inflammatory pathway. Establishing and maintaining a healthy diet is one key modifiable factor that can improve immune function, reduce inflammation and boost overall health.
Generally speaking, a healthy balance diet includes a good balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) and a variety of foods which contribute to micronutrient intake (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants). When convenience options are taken off the tables, all it takes is a quick Google search to find easy and nutritious meals you can cook in bulk ahead of time.
And when we are looking to really zoom in on immune function, below are some of the key nutrients which can help boost your immune function.
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a unique ‘vitamin’ as it actually acts more like a hormone. Our body can produce it in the skin from contact with light, and only gets small amounts from the diet. It plays a role in many important functions in the body, most notable in bone health and immune function. Getting enough vitamin D daily is important for maintain bone health and a healthy immune system.
Foods rich in vitamin D: Oily fish, eggs, mushrooms and fortified foods
Daily intake: Males and females 5 ug/day
10-15 minutes of morning or late afternoon light on the forearms, chest and face is adequate to maintain vitamin D levels in most people (avoid long periods of direct sun in the middle of the day and use sun protection).
2. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and acts as an antioxidant for the body and is involved in immune function. Antioxidants help protect cells from damage caused by exposure to environmental toxins. Vitamin E supplementation may assist with reducing viral
Foods that contain vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, broccoli.
Daily Intake: Males: 15mg, females: 15mg
Zinc is a mineral that is involved with a wide variety of functions in the human body including maintaining the health of immune system cells.
Daily Intake: 14mg males, 8mg females
Foods rich in Zinc: Meats shellfish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds whole grains
4. Fish oil and Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are important for healthy cells and cannot be produced in the body, so need to be consumed regularly in the diet. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of essential poly-unsaturated fatty acid, which have anti-inflammatory properties. These fats are involved with inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body. While Omega 3’s can be consumed in both plant and animal sources, marine sources of these fats are the most powerful in reducing inflammation- plant sources, while health promoting, need to be converted via other pathways in order to be used by the body, making them less potent.
Foods rich in essential fatty acids: Oily fish and seafood.
Plant based omega 3 sources: Chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, soy
Daily Intake: 250-500 mg
5. Green Tea
Green tea contains health boosting compounds called EGCG’s (Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate) which help support the cells of the immune system and to reduce inflammation. Swapping a cup of coffee of more green tea could be an easy option to boost immune function.
6. Herbs and spices
Herbs and spices can have powerful antioxidant, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties making them a great addition to the diet on a regular basis and provide flavour without adding extra calories. Use garlic, ginger, chilli, cinnamon a turmeric for a powerful boost to the immune system.
7. Gut Health
Our gut microbiome consists of the trillions of different species of bacteria that line our digestive tract and it is one of our body’s first line of attack for foreign particles that have entered the body; they also help to digest our food and produce some other health promoting nutrients such as short chain fatty acids. As such a healthy gut is imperative for a strong immune system, and a generally healthy body. A healthy gut can be characterised as one with a diverse range of bacteria in balance.
The bacteria in our gut feed off the indigestible carbohydrates (AKA fibres) that we consume from our fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and a diet rich in a variety of fibre sources helps to support the diversity of bacteria in our gut.
Probiotics from fermented foods, which contain live strains of bacteria (such a yoghurt and sauerkraut) and supplemental probiotics can also have a positive impact on gut health, particularly when gut balance is known to be out after taking antibiotics or after bouts of food poisoning. They can do this by helping to rebuild the barrier of bacteria in the gut after infection and help to reduce gut permeability. There are thousands of different strains of bacteria, all of which can play different roles in modulating gut health. As such, it is important to note that treatment with probiotics may require specific strains of bacteria, so if looking to supplement it is important to seek out advice from a health professional.
There is a lot of information emerging on factors which impact our gut health; however it is still a developing area of research. You can get started on boosting your gut health now with some simple and actionable steps to improve and maintain your gut health:
- Consume a variety of plants, aiming for 30 different plants each week. This provides a variety of fibres for the bacteria of the gut to feed from, which helps promote the maintenance of a diverse gut microbiome. This allows ensures a mix of soluble fibre (which softens stools) and insoluble fibres (which helps move stools through the bowels) are consumed, which in combination, promotes healthy bowels generally.
- Consume a range of colours, the colours from fruit and vegetables not only help boost our immune cells, but they are also important for the bacteria in our gut.
- Consume fermented foods which contain probiotics that can help boost the population of beneficial bacteria in the gut. There are some conditions where supplementation with probiotics may also be useful, however check in with your doctor or dietitian before supplementing to make sure you are taking the right product.
- Stay hydrated. Adequate water intake helps to keep the lining of the gut healthy and helps keep your bowels moving properly.
- Reduce alcohol intake. Consumption of alcohol can promote inflammation in the gut and alter the balance of gut bacteria. Reducing alcohol, or not consuming it all, will help keep promote a healthy gut.
8. Boost your micronutrients by maximising the colour in your diet
Micronutrients are essential nutrients that keep our body healthy, but unlike macronutrients, they don’t provide us with energy. Micronutrients are vital for hundreds of different chemical reactions and function in our body. We only need to consume small amounts of these, but we need to ensure that we have regular doses. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, and we can also include antioxidants in this group.
Vitamins are used for important reactions such as energy production, immune function, tissue production, nerve function, blood clotting and growth. There are 13 vitamins, some of which are fat soluble (Vitamins D, E, A and K) and the rest are water soluble (vitamin C and the B vitamins).
Minerals are important for functions such as bone and teeth formation, fluid balance, nerve and muscle function and several chemical reactions in the body. There are 14 main essential minerals the main minerals are Calcium, Iodine, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium and Zinc and others which are essential but required in much smaller doses are Selenium, Fluoride, Manganese, Molybdenum, Phosphorus, Chromium, and Copper.
11. Daily Intake Recommendations
There are known minimum requirements for each micronutrient; some are required in larger quantities and some in smaller quantities, but this does not make one more important that the other. Without adequate intakes of each of the essential vitamins and minerals the body will not function properly, and eventually it can lead to deficiencies and disease. Therefore, we need to consume a variety of fresh micronutrient rich foods each day in order to be healthy over the long term. There are daily recommendations for each nutrient set by National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia, based on a very large body of research for each micronutrient. A Recommended Daily Intake (RDI’s) for a nutrient refers to the amount required each day in order to prevent 97.5% of the population from deficiency- pretty much everyone. These amounts will vary from person to person according to age, sex physiological state (e.g. pregnancy) and in some cases, activity levels. There is a handy online calculator by the NHMRC which will calculate your RDI’s available at www.eatforhealth.gov.au.
12. A healthy diet is more than just calories and macros
You can see, while knowing around how many calories and macronutrients you should consume each day is important, these two pieces of information do not give us any indication of how healthy a diet is. You can stay within your calorie ‘budget’ and hit your protein, carbohydrate and fat requirements, however if you do this by consuming foods that are highly processed and lack adequate amounts of the micronutrients, it is highly likely that over a period of time, your energy levels, body and health will suffer.
A really easy way of assessing if your meal is providing you with a decent dose of nutrients is by looking at how many colours are on your plate. The colour of fruits and vegetables are one of the key reasons they are good for us. These colours are pigments from vital phytochemicals (natural and healthy plant chemicals).
13. Blue and purple fruits and vegetables
Are rich in a flavonoid called anthocyanin. Foods like red grapes, berries, wild black rice, egg plant, and plums are rich in anthocyanins, which are thought to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties (they help mop up damage to your cells and fight off unwanted microbes in your body).
14. Red fruit and vegetables
Are coloured by a carotenoid called lycopene. Lycopene intake is associated with reduced risk of certain cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Foods such as tomatoes, red grapefruits, watermelon and papaya are rich in lycopene.
15. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables
Are coloured by another carotenoid called beta-carotene. Beta-carotene acts as an antioxidant which converts in the body to vitamin A- an essential vitamin. Foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, rockmelon, red and yellow capsicums and apricots.
16. Green vegetables
Contain a range of nutrients including folate, iron, vitamin C, vitamin K and glucosinolates (sulphur rich compounds that are really good for you). Green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, spinach, dark green lettuce varieties, boy choy, herbs and rocket are all rich in these beneficial nutrients.
17. White vegetables and fruit
Although not technically colourful, also provide many beneficial nutrients. These foods can be rich in fibre, potassium vitamins and minerals and should definitely make a regular appearance on your plate. White foods include cauliflower, garlic, white onions, mushrooms, potatoes and bananas.
Given that 95% of Australians are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables, it is a good opportunity to review your intake and make a plan to increase how much you have each day. Here are some general guidelines to help you fill your day with more colour.
- Aim to have three different colours on your plate at lunch and dinner.
- Put vegetables on your plate first and aim to fill half you plate.
- Aim to build up to having 400-500g of vegetables per day. If you have not eaten this volume previously, make sure you build up rather than going straight to the upper volume.
- Aim to have 1-2 pieces of fruit per day.
- Aim for 30 different plants each week to help enhance the diversity of your gut bacteria
18. Easy to store kitchen staples to build a healthy diet
- Carbohydrates which are rich in fibre and that are unrefined such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, wholegrain cereals, wholegrain flours, wholegrain breads, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
- Protein which are lean such as chicken breast, steak, tinned tuna and frozen salmon, eggs (whites) and whey protein
- Healthy fats including olive oil, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, flaxseed oil, egg (yolk)
- Frozen vegetables
- Frozen fruit
- Herbs and spices to flavour and to add extra nutrition such as garlic, mustard, basil
- Other essential cooking items such as stock, tinned tomatoes, tomato paste, soy sauce, honey
- UHT milks, coconut mik
19. Nutritious, quick and easy cooking ideas:
- Slow cooked meats wit root vegetables
- Bolognaise (with lean mince or with lentils)
- Vegetable soups
- Roasted vegetables
- Minced meat with spice mixes
- Zucchini loaf
- Overnight oats
- Wholemeal muffins
- Pre-made smoothie bags (keep in the freezer)
- Muesli slice
- Protein balls
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A very interesting paper from 2019 titled “The Effect of Resistance Training in Women on Dynamic Strength and Muscular Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta‑analysis” has a few nuggets of gold for the lady lifters out there! To date this is actually the first paper that has reviewed what we know about how resistance training (RT) effects females. The study searched through a bunch of papers (14,067 to be precise) where strictly female strength trainees were studied and found 24 papers that fit their inclusion criteria for the research analysis. The good news is that RT does improve strength and hypertrophy- yay but also duh! And even better news is that this paper gives some REAL recommendations that practitioners can provide (as a ball park) to clients on how much muscle they can expect to gain in a training block (note the studies included were on untrained females with an average age of 27, but it’s a start). Ok, are you ready! The magic number? The paper reported that on average, an untrained female strength athlete might expect to build 1.45kg of muscle over an average 15 weeks of training (range 0.4-3.3kg) and within that time increase strength by 25% (range 4-40%). But what I really want to know is, did these ladies have their nutrition optimised whilst undertaking these programs? Could it be that if they were consuming adequate calories and had their protein intake optimised that this number could be increased? If anyone out there has a spare $100K and 4 years, we could get that questions answered. However, as this was a strictly training focused research paper, and any studies that had a concurrent nutrition intervention were left out, we might just need to start with that number as a ball park figure and hope that more of this fabulous female focused research comes out. The research on how much protein is needed is pretty conclusive, ans we can generally assume this covers female athletes. Philips and Van Loon (2011), two protein research rock stars, specified that a protein intake of 1.3-2g/kg body weight spread over 3-4 meals is to support lean muscle.