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Nutrition Know-How for Physically Active Adults

Nutrition Know-How for Physically Active Adults

Healthy eating is the key to getting more fun and fitness from your exercise program. Exercise makes your body work hard, and the right food helps your body respond. Food provides fuel (calories) and supplies body building materials (nutrients) to improve strength and aerobic fitness.

Feed the Machine

Physically active adults, getting 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week, can easily meet their body’s demands for fuel and nutrients through a well chosen eating plan that matches their weight goals. Choose mostly nutrient-rich foods from the four food groups to get the carbohydrates, fibre, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals you need to be your best.


Carbohydrates from whole grains, vegetables and fruits are your body’s favourite fuel because they turn into energy fast. They also supply vitamins and minerals that help your body get oxygen to cells and repair muscle and bone stressed by exercise. Depending on your sex, age and calorie needs, aim for:

  • Vegetables and Fruit: 7-10 servings daily.
  • Grain Products: 6 to 8 servings daily. Make at least half your grain products whole grain each day.


Getting enough protein is vital for building or repairing muscle, replacing worn blood cells and boosting your immune system. Canada’s Food Guide recommendations provide all the protein you need:

  • Meat and alternatives (eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes): 2-3 servings daily.
  • Milk and alternatives: 2-3 servings daily. One slice of process cheese or 1-1/2 ounces of natural cheese also equal one serving. One cup of calcium-fortified soy milk delivers protein and calcium.

More on Protein!

Unlike protein powder supplements, food sources of protein deliver important nutrients such as iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium and calcium. These nutrients are needed to turn protein into muscle and carbohydrate into energy, create red blood cells, send messages along nerves and contract muscles to get your body moving. Protein powder will not help you build muscle – the only way to do that is through exercise. So, there’s no bonus to protein powder supplements for most people. Food sources of protein taste better, too!

A Little Goes a Long Way

A little fat with each meal helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins that help build your immune system and strengthen bones. Fat is also a concentrated energy source your body can use during extended exercise. But a little goes a long way.

Focus on unsaturated fats from fish and plants, such as olive, canola or soybean oil, along with nuts and avocados because these fats are good for your heart. Include a small amount (2-3 tbsp) of unsaturated fat each day. Research suggests that eating too much saturated fat and trans fat can raise cholesterol and heart disease risk in some people, so limit the amount you eat.

Cool It

You get fluids from food and beverages. Daily intake from water, milk, vegetables and fruits, juice and sports drinks carries heat away from your exercising muscles, cools them down and prevents injuries. Take along a water bottle when you exercise, especially on hot and humid days.

Fuel First

One to two hours before exercising, eat a carbohydrate-rich snack. Handy options are yogurt, fresh or dried fruits, whole-grain crackers and cereal bars. The energy boost will make your workout seem easier and more fun!

Special Needs of Adult Endurance Athletes

Athletes who work out vigorously (more than 60-90 minutes daily), such as marathoners or body builders, need extra fuel and fluid to meet their energy and nutrient requirements. The amount of extra fuel required will vary depending on the type of activity. You may wish to speak with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition to determine your energy needs.

Extra Carbohydrates and Protein: Eat to Compete

  • Before: About 3-4 hours before, consume 200-300 g of carbohydrate. The meal should be low in fibre and fat to ease digestion and should have sufficient fluid.
  • During: 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, after the first hour, from sports drinks, energy bars, gels or fruit.
  • After: 30 minutes after exercise eat a carbohydrate-rich snack such as a piece of fruit with non-fat yogurt. No more than two hours later, eat a post-event meal of carbohydrate, lean protein and unsaturated fat to help re-load the muscles with energy for the next day’s workout.

Extra Fluids

Sports drinks with carbohydrates and electrolytes improve performance by cooling you down, fueling you up, and replacing lost fluids, sodium and potassium. Here’s what to do:
Start Wet: Drink 2-3 cups of fluid 2-3 hours before activity.
Stay Wet: Drink at least 1/2 cup of water every 15 minutes. Don’t wait to be thirsty.
Replenish: Weigh yourself before and after exercise, after voiding and without clothes. For every kilogram lost, drink 1 to 1-1/2 litres of fluid to rehydrate fully.