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Training Plates

Training Plates

We advocate goal-centered nutrition, ensuring that the food and drink we consume works to help us achieve our goals. This article discusses how to ensure each meal and snack we eat support our goals, focusing on how you arrange your plate depending on where you are and where you want to go.

Training Plates

By: Jeremy Partl, RD

Quality hours training in the gym and practicing on the field or court are important for improving performance and seeing changes in body composition. Progress, however, cannot reach its peak without proper fueling strategies. I’ve written about the importance of adequate nutrition before, and the Barbell Logic Nutrition 101 E-book covers the prioritization of nutrition for strength training in some depth. Whether your goals revolve around health, weight, quality of life, or competition, nutrition plays a key role. As I like to say, “You have to fuel the life you want to live.”

That’s the “why?” behind this article.

The “how?” is where people start to feel overwhelmed. The focus of this article is on some of the nuts and bolts and attempts to answer one main question: “How can I make sure my daily meals fully support my training?” Here, I share some simple models for what your plate may look like, depending on your goals, activity levels, and other factors.

The Background

Let’s face it, nutrition is not just a numbers game. As much as we would like to focus solely on specific daily amounts of calories and macronutrients, we are not machines.

Some apps like MyFitnessPal help track macros and calories and allow some people to create a broad structure to their nutrition. They try to consume specific amounts of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and they can see a lot of progress toward their health and nutritional goals. However, even that is an inexact science. (Calorie labels can have a 20% margin of error.) It is difficult to tell how much of a person’s progress is from their target numbers and how much is from the habits they build by paying close attention to what they eat. (Habits) + (a Good Plan) = Success; neither means much without the other.

Moreover, let’s face it, most people aren’t going to track their nutrition on a daily basis. It could be for a variety of reasons—not knowing how to do so, maybe not having the tools, not having the motivation/willingness to do so. Tracking, as a methodology, works best through consistency—consistent tracking and consistent target calories and macronutrients. Whether through an app or food log, training is a powerful tool for precision changes, but it is often not the first step or the most basic step people can take to fuel their goals.

How do we make sure that we are on track with our nutrition without precisely tracking calories and macros? It can be as easy as using your plate.

Most of us grew up learning about the food pyramid. That was the USDA’s visual guide to healthy eating. The problem with the food pyramid was that it wasn’t relatable to what’s in front of us when we eat. So, in 2011, the USDA changed from a pyramid to a plate, giving a better visual tool, which is now displayed on food packaging and used in nutrition education to represent the latest recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

My Plate

Figure taken from MyPlate.gov

Frankly, it’s actually a pretty decent starting point. We can nitpick certain areas—such as individual food choices within each category, the inclusion of healthy fats, what to drink besides milk, etc. But a person can do a lot worse than following these basic proportions.

And, to be honest, most people do. As I highlighted in a previous article on the Western diet, about 3/4 of Americans have an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils, and most Americans exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.

Taking the Plate Model to the Next Level

While these general USDA guidelines are a decent starting point, I think that we can take the visual plate model to a higher level while still keeping it simplistic.

It’s important to remember that your calorie and nutrient needs change depending on the energy demands of your exercise, your age/sex, daily activities, your goals, etc. Fueling for optimal performance, health, and appearance can sometimes be at odds (although there are plenty of areas of overlap).

To build an energy-packed, nutritious meal, try to include all five of the following components:

  1. Whole grains, or energy-enhancing foods:
    • Carbohydrates fuel muscles and are the quickest source of energy.
      • 100% whole wheat bread, bagels, tortillas, pita bread, and crackers; brown rice; whole-grain pasta; beans; potatoes; oatmeal; whole grain breakfast cereals; yogurt
  2. Lean proteins, or recovery/muscle-building foods:
    • Protein is essential for building/repairing muscle and helping to support immune function.
      • Grilled/baked/broiled/roasted chicken, fish, pork loin, turkey, sirloin, and lean ground beef; eggs; low-fat cheese; tofu
  3. Fruits and vegetables, or antioxidant-rich foods:
    • These provide a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
      • Apples; oranges; bananas; blueberries; grapes; melon; strawberries; broccoli; green beans; spinach; romaine lettuce; carrots; cauliflower; mushrooms; cucumbers; tomatoes
  4. Fats, or immunity/flavor-boosting foods:
    • Fats are a concentrated energy source that helps with micronutrient absorption and other important bodily functions.
      • Salmon; tuna; nuts; seeds; olives; olive oil; canola oil; avocado; nut butters; oil-based salad dressings
  5. Fluids, or hydration-promoting beverages:
    • Regulate body temperature, keep your joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly with water and other fluids.
      • Water; non-caloric beverages like sparkling water; low-fat milk (cow, almond, soy, etc.); 100 percent fruit juice

Those are our building blocks. Moving forward, I’m going to work from the lowest-level plate model, and then I will delve into two variations that can be seen as stepping stones, factoring in individual goals and needs.

As you will see, you can always move up the spectrum to a higher-energy-density plate model if you are not feeling well recovered, lacking energy, want to maintain/gain weight, etc.

Lean Plate

Lean Plate

To decrease energy intake and overall calorie density, this plate features half the plate being occupied by nutrient-packed fruits and vegetables, just like the MyPlate model I referenced earlier.

While I refer to it as a “lean” plate, it’s actually pretty ideal for a general population client who exercises 3-5 times a week for 30-90 minutes per session but is otherwise generally sedentary. It is also the model that I may use for someone who has fat loss goals. A lifter may use these plates on lighter training days when energy needs are not as high.

Within this plate, you can tweak the types of foods for your needs. When thinking about filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables, consider prioritizing energy-dense foods for higher energy needs and goals. If you’re interested in lowering energy intake, fill it with more vegetables and include fruits less often. Needing a bit more energy? Incorporate a bit more fruit throughout the day. In general, I like to make sure that vegetables are always included in the framework, but the addition of fruit is appropriate for slightly higher energy needs and/or situational with breakfast (veggies in an omelet sounds right, but vegetables don’t really sound appetizing with oatmeal).

The addition of fat typically represents about a thumb-sized portion of fat (a tablespoon of oils, small handful of nuts, pat of butter, quarter of an avocado, etc.)

In general, most of the beverages paired with this plate will be non-caloric beverages like plain water, unsweetened teas, and sparkling water.

Sample Breakfast
Whole wheat tortilla with scrambled egg whites, fajita veggies, shredded chicken, salsa, and low-fat cheese

Sample Lunch/Dinner
Salad with grilled chicken, feta cheese, olives, veggies toppings of choice and a small whole grain pita

 

Maintain Plate

Maintain Plate

While it can be simply thought of as a “maintain” plate, I like to also refer to it as a “peace sign plate.” This plate is balanced in equal thirds—split between carbohydrates, protein, and fruits and veggies.

This plate may be ideal for someone who is training three to five times a week for 60-90 minutes, with a generally active daily routine. It’s an excellent starting point for athletes who are not doing multiple training sessions or training for 2+ hours per day.

Add energy intake through the slight addition of energy-rich carbohydrates, and/or a larger portion of fats. The addition of a caloric beverage like low-fat milk may be included more frequently to add in additional calories without adding extra volume.

Sample Breakfast
Two thin slices of whole grain toast topped with half an avocado and two hard-boiled eggs
Side of fresh fruit

Sample Lunch/Dinner
Roasted potatoes and brussels sprouts (⅓ plate) with salmon filet (4-6 oz.)

Gain Plate

Gain Plate

To increase energy intake and overall calorie density, this plate shifts to having half of it filled with energizing carbohydrates. The addition of a caloric beverage may also be considered.

This plate would be ideal for athletes who have a very demanding training schedule, who are looking to gain weight in the offseason, and/or who need to maintain weight during the season. This may be suitable as well for the hard gainers who are looking to add strength and muscle mass with their lifting routines.

Compared to the lean plate, portions of fat and carbohydrates are typically doubled while the portion of fruits and vegetables is reduced to keep food volume manageable. Pairing with nutrient-dense, calorie-containing beverages is an excellent way to boost energy intake without adding volume as well.

Sample Breakfast
Overnight oatmeal (½-1 cup raw) with a diced apple, a large handful of walnuts, chia seeds, 1 cup milk, and 1-2 scoops of protein powder

Sample Lunch/Dinner
Whole wheat spaghetti (1 cup) with marinara sauce and ground turkey
Side salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing
Optional whole wheat roll (with or without butter) and/or glass of milk

Snacks

For most people, three solid meals is a great starting point. However, if there is one theme here, it is that energy needs, goals, and even lifestyle preferences require us to tweak the basics. With the right kinds of adjustments, healthy snacking can be part of a well-rounded diet. Specifically for athletes, snacking ensures adequate fuel for sport, improves muscle recovery, helps manage weight, and boosts mental performance.

Before I go too far, I think it’s important to distinguish a healthy snack from a treat. Healthy snacks are nutrient-rich and provide fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean proteins, and/or healthy fats. Treats such as sweets, fried foods, and chips lack nutrients and provide empty calories, usually satisfying a craving, but not really satisfying hunger.

While treats are okay on occasion, choosing treats instead of healthy snacks likely won’t make you feel very good and can slow fueling and muscle recovery.

When determining whether or not to have a snack (and what that snack may be), there are several factors to consider, including hunger level, time of day, pre- or post-workout, and weight goals.

When might snacking be a good idea?

  • When you’re physically hungry after work and still have to take time to make dinner, this proactive snack might prevent overeating later on.
  • After a workout, if you are not going to be able to eat for another hour or two.
  • To add extra calories to your diet.

When might snacking not be a good idea?

  • If you are just mindlessly grabbing something because you have sat down to watch Netflix for the night.
  • If your goal is fat loss and your meals are providing enough energy and nutrition.
  • If you are just reaching for something for emotional relief and comfort.

The aforementioned factors dictate whether you choose a light, moderate, or heavy snack. In general, light snacks are usually one item, whereas moderate snacks are combinations of a few items, and heavy snacks tend to resemble a mini-meal.

Light Snack

  • Fresh/dried/frozen fruit
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Granola bar
  • A handful of mixed nuts
  • Veggies and hummus
  • Beef jerky
  • Low-fat string cheese

Moderate Snack

  • Fruit with peanut butter
  • Whole grain bread with peanut butter or avocado
  • Trail mix
  • Cereal/oatmeal and milk or nuts
  • Popcorn with nuts or low-fat string cheese or jerky
  • Greek yogurt with fruit or nuts
  • Chips/pretzels and hummus
  • Cheese and crackers

Heavy Snack

  • Sandwich/panini/wrap
  • Bagel (with peanut butter and jelly, lean deli meat, grilled chicken, or tuna)
  • Waffles with nut butter and fruit
  • Greek yogurt parfait with nuts and fruit
  • Avocado toast

Wrapping Up

Optimal fueling strategies don’t have to be complicated. Instead of going into the weeds, creating “training plates” can teach individuals how to eat healthy for health and performance.

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