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Fit, Fitter, Fittest: Get Results with Good Nutrition

UC San Diego Health sports dietitian offers tips on what and how you should be eating to support specific fitness goals

By Melanie Peters   |   December 21, 2018

When January rolls around, many of us make resolutions to improve our lives in some way. Despite the low odds of keeping these proclamations of betterment, there’s something about the beginning of a year that makes us want to begin again too. Maybe you’d like to learn a new language or volunteer for a worthy cause. More than likely — based on the ad campaigns that start rolling out even before the New Year’s Eve ball drops — you’ve made a resolution to get fit. Or fitter. Or the fittest you’ve ever been!

But where to start?

Making resolutions may be an exercise in futility, but they don’t have to be unattainable, especially when it comes to fitness. The trick is having the right tools to help you reach your goal. With this in mind, we’ve given Suzanne Smith, RD, sports dietitian at UC San Diego Health, three fitness scenarios and asked her to provide nutrition guidance to support these goals. Whether you’re wanting to eat better (fit), trying to lose some weight (fitter) or training for a marathon (fittest!), Suzanne shares insight into how to eat well for each of these goals.

Fit: I have a good fitness routine but sometimes I skip meals, which leads to late-night snacking on “bad” carbs. What are some tips to avoid this trap? Is there such a thing as “good” or “bad” carbs?


It’s important that active individuals aim to eat three balanced meals and one to two snacks per day to support general health and activity. Skipping meals or having too small of a meal will often lead to more hunger and snacking later on. It’s not uncommon to want to reach for carbohydrates, like potato chips, because it’s the quickest way to get energy. But just increasing the daily intake of carbohydrates in your diet may not solve the main issue, which is skipping meals. If you’re still under-fueling yourself, you may still experience constant hunger and cravings. To help combat this, take control of your schedule and plan your meals ahead of time so you always have a balanced meal to support your exercise and lifestyle.

There aren’t “good” or “bad” carbs, just different types with varying amounts of nutrients and fiber. I suggest outside of the exercise window that people choose carbohydrates that are rich in fiber, like beans, quinoa, or whole wheat bread and pastas. These foods not only provide your body with fuel but also fiber and beneficial vitamins and minerals. Right before, during, and immediately after exercise it can be good to include carbohydrates that are lower in fiber so they can be digested more quickly and tolerated better during activity. Examples of low-fiber carbs are white bread, low fiber cereals, applesauce or granola bars.

Also, try chewing your food more slowly. When you chew slower and are more mindful during a meal, you will find you’re more satisfied because you’ve had the chance to taste your food more fully and enjoy it. Chewing slower also helps improve our digestion.

Fitter: I’d like to lose 10 pounds before summer — is intermittent fasting a good option for losing weight quickly?

Losing weight quickly isn’t something I ever recommend. My goals for people are to find a way of eating that helps them lose weight but maintain the loss long-term. Quick-fix diets rarely turn into a sustainable way of eating that keeps the pounds off. And it’s important to note that intermittent fasting is not advised for anyone with an eating disorder or a history of an eating disorder.

That being said, intermittent fasting may be an option for weight loss for individuals without underlying health conditions but there are a few key things you should consider before trying this type of plan. Does intermittent fasting fit your lifestyle? For instance, do you enjoy meals with family and friends and does this diet allow for that? Do you have to avoid social events to stick to this way of eating and is that okay with you? Is the timing of the meals something you can easily manage? And will this type of eating support your current activity level?

More research needs to be done to learn whether intermittent fasting is a good option for long-term weight loss. Currently, the research shows that there isn’t a significant benefit to intermittent fasting versus a low-calorie diet as both result in weight loss.

So again it goes back to the question of which approach can you see yourself sticking to long term. If intermittent fasting is something you want to try, I suggest talking to your doctor first then meeting with a dietitian to help you implement it in a safe and healthy way.

Fittest: I’m training for a marathon. How should I be eating during training? Should I be eating more carbs or more protein? Should I eat while I’m running?

running stairs

During training, you want to make sure you’re planning ahead to have three healthy meals and possibly a pre- and post-workout snack. How you build your plate will be determined by your fitness level, amount of training you’re doing, and your training intensity.

If you’re logging a lot of miles with varying intensity during the week and on the weekend, then you may want to have a plate that consists of half carbohydrate, one quarter lean protein and one quarter vegetables, along with a serving of a healthy fat. A meal like this will support your activity leading to race day by replacing glycogen stores (fuel for the working muscle) from carbohydrate rich foods and supporting muscle recovery and repair through the amino acids in protein. Vegetables and healthy fats are also an important component of the meal because of their role in reducing inflammation and supporting the immune system.

If you’re not training as hard or logging a lot of miles, then aim for a third of your plate to have carbohydrate, another third filled with vegetables, a quarter with a lean protein source, and the remainder with a serving of a healthy fat.

You should plan to have a pre-run snack if it’s been more than three hours since your last meal. The size of the snack and timing will depend on your gastrointestinal (GI) tolerance, but in general, try to eat your snack one to two hours before your run. It should include carbohydrate, a little protein, and be light on the fat if you have a sensitive stomach. An example would be a banana with peanut butter or a small bowl of low-fiber cereal and milk.

After your run, plan to have a meal as described above to optimize recovery within 90 minutes. If a meal isn’t possible within that timeframe, then plan a small snack that includes a serving of protein and carbohydrate. A great option would be Greek yogurt with fruit.

If you’re running longer than 90 minutes, plan on bringing nutrition with you and having something every hour of running. The general recommendation is to have 30 to 60 g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise. The type of nutrition product you use — bars, gels or chews — will depend on GI tolerance and what you want to carry with you. It’s important that you practice this during your training to find the right plan for you. Working with a sports dietitian can help you figure it out.

Remember that you also need to stay hydrated. You should stay well-hydrated the day before your run by drinking fluids throughout the day. You’ll know you’re hydrated by the amount of trips to the bathroom and if your urine is pale yellow in color. The morning of your run, drink 16 to 24 ounces of fluids prior to lacing up your running shoes.

Here are some easy to prepare meals that will support your active life and taste good! I love bowls because they’re quick to prepare and versatile, too.

bowls of food

Healthy Bowls Three Ways: each bowl serves one

  • Choose a Protein: Chicken breast, salmon, cod, ground turkey, tempeh, tofu, etc.
  • Choose a Starch: Brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat noodles, spaghetti squash, lentils, black beans, etc.
  • Choose a vegetable: cauliflower, broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini, squash, kale, Swiss chard, etc.

1. Asian Broccoli Bowl

  • 1 - 2 cups steamed broccoli
  • 0.5 - 1 cup brown rice, cooked
  • 3 - 4 ounces chicken breast, baked and shredded
  • Toppping ideas: Soy sauce, sesame oil, peanut sauce, siracha or sesame seeds

2. Fish Taco Bowl

  • 0.5 cup shredded cabbage
  • 0.5 cup sliced bell peppers, sauteed
  • 0.5 - 1 cup quinoa or brown rice, cooked
  • 0.5 - 1 cup black beans
  • 3 - 4 ounces grilled cod
  • 1 diced avocado, small
  • Topping ideas: Salsa, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro or lime juice

3. Italian Bowl

  • 0.5 - 2 cups roasted spaghetti squash
  • 3 - 4 ounces ground turkey or tempeh, cooked
  • 0.5 - cup kale or Swiss chard, sauteed
  • Marinara sauce
  • 1 tablespoon pesto
  • Parmesan or feta cheese, cracked black pepper, fresh basil or flat Italian parsely
  • Combine ingredients in a serving bowl and top with desired sauce (Marinara or pesto), pepper, cheese and herbs

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