A diet guide for the already-initiated
When it comes to diet, there is no single formula to fit everybody. Don’t trust anybody that tells you otherwise. By the same token, there is more than one right way to do it. This is why we see a plethora of diets that all claim success. Why and how are all of them effective? Because the wonderful human body adapts. Give it one kind of pattern and it will make the most of it – be it training your muscles or training your gut.
I’m attempting to give you thumb rules and good habits to qualitatively design your own diet. In my opinion, you’re the best advisor for your specific lifestyle and body. If you’re a professional athlete, get a professional diet expert. For everybody else, here is my two cents:
During the workout
Depending on the type and length of workout, your food habits must change. Broadly, let’s say there are two kinds of workouts:
Low-medium intensity workout: If it is a recovery or easy workout, such as a jog, walk or an easy bike ride, you do not need to eat before or during the exercise if it is less than 1.5-2 hours. If it is longer than 2 hours, eat every 90 minutes during the workout.
You don't necessarily have to eat anything before the ride. If losing weight is your focus, don't eat in the first 90 minutes or the last 30 minutes of the workout. I’m not advocating exercising on an empty stomach, though (although there is nothing inherently wrong with that).
High intensity/interval training: You should never start these workouts on an empty stomach. At least an hour before the workout starts, eat something that is easy and fast to absorb. Fast-absorbing carbs, of course. Sugar is fine. Eat every 60-90 minutes while on the ride. You should not feel light headed at any time.
What to eat: Carbs like rice cakes, white bread, jams, bananas or any sugary fruit. Not all carbohydrates are identical. There are fast absorbing (high on the Glycemic Index (GI) chart) carbohydrates and slow absorbing (low GI) carbohydrates. In a nutshell: white sugar, processed food, cola are high on the GI scale, while nuts, tomatoes, carrot soup and yogurt are at the very bottom. The good stuff is high and the drag is low. Now is the time to eat the high GI kind. During exercise, very little blood goes to your stomach. If you eat something that is hard to digest, it's not going to do anything for you. If you eat stuff that is easy to digest, in small quantities, frequently enough, you are doing it right.
After the workout
First meal: I define the beginning of a “meal” as the moment you put something in your mouth. As soon as possible, eat your post-workout meal. This has to be ASAP! This meal has to have a lot of fast absorbing carbs. Even sugary stuff is fine and protein should be present as well. The ideal ratio of carbs to protein is 4:1 (by weight), they say.
Second meal: Probably after 1-2 hours from the post-ride meal, depending on how much and what you ate after the workout. Again, a lot of carbohydrates with protein. The ratio, this time, is between 4:1 and 2:1.
Third meal: Now is the time to eat the bulk of the protein, but don't leave out carbs in this meal. All meals from this point fall under the category of “rest of the day”.
Rest of the day
The best diet advice I have ever received is that before, during and after a workout, eat food that is more than 60 on the GI chart. All other times, keep it well under 55. Strive to have fat, fibre, carbs, protein and micronutrients in most of your meals. Eat small portions, eat more often.
Putting huge amounts in the stomach is not the most efficient way to eat, whether you are an active or sedentary person. From my experience, a good frequency is every 2-3 hours. Experiment and see what works for you.
There is no "hard" rule to eat as soon as it's 120 minutes. Do it at your convenience but don't starve yourself. Don't ever starve yourself. This is bad for the body and more for the mind. One possible side-effect: by the time you arrive at your next meal, you will be ready to devour anything and this often results in binge-eating.
Sweet Tooth: If you have one, keep the sweets for before, during and after the workouts. At most, eat dark chocolate after meals, and only a bit. The problem with eating a lot of sugar when you're not working out is that insulin spikes and when it drops: you feel drowsy/lethargic soon and are hungry sooner than you actually need to eat.
Fat: Fat is important, and it inevitably enters our food (unless you’re consciously staying off all fat). You don’t need to consciously add fat to your diet. In my opinion, we get enough of it in most meals. Nuts, avocado, fish are great for fat.
Caffeine: This substance helps in so many ways... you stay alert during the workout, it is literally a rush, your capacity to endure pain is a bit higher, your body gets better at burning fat... there are loads of other benefits when done right.
Vitamins and other micronutrients: They are extremely important for so many functions of the body and literally your very survival. You can do this two ways... get supplements or get it from food. You can get all vitamins from your food if and only if you have a balanced diet. Supplements are a sure way to get vitamins, but are expensive, and a big part of it lost through urine.
The other aspect is: for the proper absorption of vitamins in your body, you often need other nutrients (e.g. some vitamins are absorbed only in the presence of fat, iron, or other vitamins; some during specific times of the day). Which is why we are always taught to have a balanced diet. Because even if you don't know how it works, you are sure that you are getting all the important macro and micronutrients. Keep changing your sources as often as possible. Don't stick only to one kind, or don't stay away from any kind of food source.
This is work. You are essentially building new habits and forcing something that goes completely against what you have been used to your whole life. It takes effort before you get on auto pilot.
You will have to look up a lot of lists – GI charts, charts at the back of food packaging - search for the right food, new, different, cost effective sources, chop vegetables, toss salads, bake and cook in new ways, say no to junk food, not give in to temptations when socializing, and so on.
Your body and mind will react to all the changes, but keep the habit going and soon you will wonder what you were doing all these years.