I'm going to the gym more often, do I need to change my diet?

That really depends on what your food routine looks like at the moment and also on your level of activity. Most of us can benefit from some fine tuning, but if you’re already in a good routine, starting a fitness routine doesn’t mean that your food routine needs an overhaul. It’s important to know that protein powders can be convenient, but powders and supplements certainly aren’t necessary to make progress at the gym.

What are the keys to a good food routine?

Eat often during the day.

Having something to eat every 2-4 hours during the day will optimize energy levels, concentration, and muscle recovery. Ideally, you should eat when you are just a little hungry and stop when you feel satisfied. Going too long without eating promotes crashes in energy, sluggish workouts, and intense cravings.

If you’re used to eating every 4 hours during the day, starting a fitness routine might mean that you need to eat a little more often (say every 2-3 hours). Alternatively, it might mean that portion sizes at meals and snacks will need to be a little larger in order for you to feel satisfied.

Eating often during the day allows you to spread your food out so that you optimize energy levels and so that you don’t feel over full. Most people can tolerate a small snack 1 hour before a workout. Aim to follow-up your workout with another meal or snack.

Aim for balanced meals and snacks.

When you increase your activity level, your energy needs will also be slightly higher. Most of us can accommodate for this by eating slightly more often or slightly larger portion sizes, as mentioned above. This means that all the foods you would normally include should be increased, not just protein. While protein is important for muscle building, your body can only use so much. Overconsumption will not do you any favours at the gym. Many individuals forget about the importance of grains, fruits, veggies and good sources of dietary fat.

For optimal energy, concentration and muscle recovery, aim to fill ¼ of your plate with grains or starchy veggies (whole grain pasta, rice, quinoa, whole grain cereal or bread, potato, sweet potato, squash), ¼ of your plate with protein (meat, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, milk, yogurt, eggs) and ½ of your plate with fruits and veggies.

At snacks, aim to include a good source of carbohydrates such as fruit, whole grain bread or crackers and a good source of protein, such as nuts or nut butter, yogurt, or hardboiled egg. Just like going too long without eating promotes crashes in energy, sluggish workouts, and intense cravings, so does too much emphasis on protein (ex. Protein powder and water after the gym) and not enough carbohydrates.

Sip fluids all day long.

Dehydration makes your workouts feel harder. Aim to sip water all day long, both during workouts and outside of exercise.

The bottom line

Eating for exercise is not drastically different than eating for general health and wellness. Don’t get caught up in the hype of expensive powders and supplements or be lured by high protein and low carbohydrate diets. Instead, focus on establishing a solid food routine that consists of a variety of whole food options.

Here is an example of a typical day for someone who is moderately active. Please know that this is only one example and everyone’s routine will look slightly different based on their work or class schedule, food likes and dislikes.  I have purposely not included portion sizes for many of the food options below as portions sizes will depend on appetite, body size and activity level. 

  • Breakfast (8am) – 2 eggs, 2 slices whole grain toast, ½ avocado, tomato, spinach, coffee
  • Snack (10am) – 1-2%m.f. yogurt and berries, water
  • Workout 11am-12:30pm – sipping water throughout
  • Lunch  (1pm) – quinoa salad with chickpeas and veggies + apple and peanut butter, water
  • Snack (4pm) – trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate chips
  • Dinner (7pm) – chicken breast, roasted potatoes and veggies
  • Snack (9pm) - fruit and frozen yogurt

Questions about your diet and nutrition needs? All University of Guelph students have access to Student Wellness Services nutrition services (free and fee-based options are available). Students can access these services in three ways: