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Do you know true fitness isn’t built in the gym but in the kitchen? Fitness and nutrition go hand in hand, with many sports nutritionists estimating that reaching fitness goals requires 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. Without the proper nutrition to support your active lifestyle, all those hours spent on the treadmill or lifting weights could be largely wasted!

Even if you hit the gym every single day, even if you hire a trainer, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. But by adopting a diet centered on nutrient-dense food and targeted meal timing, you can fuel your workouts and lose body fat while also building muscle. Check out our step-by-step fitness nutrition guide below for easy nutrition and exercise strategies to help you reach your goals.

Here are two main simple steps you should follow for better fitness and nutrition results:

Step 1: Dump the Junk.

If you are just starting your fitness and nutrition journey, getting in shape starts with the food you eat. Ultra-processed foods filled with refined grains, sugar, and unhealthy fats make up nearly 34 percent of calories in the average diet. Not only do these foods contribute to weight gain, but they also foster systemic low-level inflammation and, according to new research, increase the risk of chronic illness and early death.

What’s the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods? Processed foods are real foods that have been altered during the manufacturing process to increase the nutrient profile or extend the food’s shelf life. Good examples of this are sweetened fruit juice or frozen potatoes. Ultra-processed foods, however, are foods that contain artificial colors and flavors, added sugars, hydrogenated fats, and chemical preservatives designed to light up the reward centers in our brains. Examples of these faux foods include soft drinks, energy drinks, artificially flavored chips or crackers, and sugary breakfast cereal. Because these foods are nutritionally bankrupt, they won’t do a thing to boost your fitness levels. 

Step 2: Mind Your Macros

Paying attention to your macros and timing your nutrition to support your workouts are two of the best ways to move closer to where you want to be. While protein gets a lot of press among athletes and weight loss gurus, it’s not the only macronutrient you need! The three primary nutrients your body needs to function are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Each plays a different role in overall health and in helping you achieve your fitness goals. While both protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram. To meet your daily nutritional needs and to support your workouts, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine recommends distributing your macros as follows :

  • Protein – 10%-35%
  • Carbohydrates – 45%-65%
  • Fats – 20% -35%

When you eat enough protein you provide your body with the building blocks (amino acids) needed to repair, maintain, and build your muscles. Including protein in every meal also boosts your leptin levels—a hormone that suppresses your appetite. Pairing protein with a good quality carbohydrate can help you feel full longer. But because the body can’t store protein for later use, it’s important to include some protein at every meal and snack time. It’s also smart to space your protein intake evenly throughout the day—about every three to four hours. Eggs, grass-fed beef, chicken, turkey, and omega-3 rich fish like salmon are good sources of protein.

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad name lately, but they are essential for energy and exercise performance. Healthy complex carbohydrates are an efficient source of energy that fuel muscle contractions. Carbs are broken down into smaller sugars (glucose, fructose, and galactose) in the body to be used as quick energy for immediate tasks. Any unused glucose will be converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver for future use. Glycogen is the energy source most often used for short, intense bouts of exercise, such as sprinting or weightlifting. If your fitness routine falls into the low to moderate exercise category, the carbs you eat during your regular meals are probably sufficient. However, if you participate in high-intensity exercise or endurance activities that last for more than an hour, it’s smart to replenish your carbohydrate stores during your workout. Look for healthy complex carbs in whole grains like oatmeal, farro, and quinoa, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and parsnips.

Fat is another macro-nutrient that has suffered from a bad reputation in the fitness and weight loss world. But research shows that eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Instead, healthy fats provide critical fuel for lower intensity activities like walking or biking, as well as endurance exercise. Essential fatty acids are also critical for overall health. Not only do these fats ensure healthy cell structure, protect your internal organs, and help to keep you warm, they are also necessary for the absorption of some nutrients and the production of hormones. Healthy fats include avocados, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and nuts.

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