The Importance of Nutrition in Exercise and Physical Fitness

Nutrition and physical fitness go hand in hand. Look at the proliferation of athlete’s cookbooks out there! Or any interview with a top athlete that will include what they had for breakfast or how they changed up their diet to improve performance.

In this article, we are going to explore the link between nutrition and exercise. What role does nutrition play in physical fitness? What are the essential exercise nutrition basics? How does nutrition affect your gym session? Can nutrition enhance your performance in sport?

Let's start from the beginning, what do we mean by nutrition? Nutrition is the process by which we humans (and other organisms) obtain food necessary for health and growth. Nutrition is also the study of food and how it affects the body's health and growth. In a nutshell, when we talk about nutrition, we are talking about how the food we eat nourishes our bodies.

Good, nourishing food is essential to healthy living. However, if you’re looking to take the next step, optimising your diet for physical exercise, it is imperative to understand how the food you eat has an effect.

Unveiling the Core Nutrition Principles for Exercise

At the end of this article, you will have learned the most basic building blocks for understanding the link between nutrition and exercise, the essential nutrition rules, and how to get the most out of your exercise, whatever your fitness goals. So, what are the golden rules to get the most out of your exercise?

Eat a healthy breakfast

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, particularly if you are a morning workout person. You’ll want to make sure your breakfast includes a good balance of macronutrients. Ideally, give your body time to digest the food before starting a workout.

Keep an eye on portion size

Particularly before a workout, keep in mind that a smaller amount of nutritious food is more useful than a larger meal. No one wants to exercise on a food bloat! A larger meal needs longer to digest, so aim to give yourself 3 or 4 hours between these and a workout.

Snack strategically

Listen to your body! If you are doing a longer workout, taking a break for a small snack can give that extra boost to keep going. And that might not work for everyone. We’re all different.

Eat a recovery snack or meal

Post-workout, a meal or snack with carbohydrates and protein can aid your muscle recovery. We’ll delve further into this in just a bit.

Don’t get thirsty

Water is a cornerstone of life! And it is an essential component of healthy fitness. Hydration can be looked at as being cumulative, so make sure you drink water before, during, and after exercise.

Macronutrients: Fuel for Fitness

Macronutrients are food that the body requires in a large amount (macro!) as opposed to micronutrients that the body requires in a small amount (micro!). Macronutrients are broken down into three main groups and are all vital to a balanced diet. Each macronutrient plays a different role. 

Carbohydrates: The Primary Energy Source

Carbohydrates are one of three main nutrients needed for good nutrition. The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is the major energy source for the body. Carbs have got a bad rep over the years, but are in fact crucial to healthy function.

Carbs are found in grains like wheat, rice, and barley as well as in fruit and vegetables. We’ll be delving further into the beauty of carbohydrates in a future post, so keep your eye out!

Proteins: Building Blocks of Muscle

The second of the major nutrients needed is protein. It is sometimes helpful to think of protein as (you guessed it!) a building block. Every cell in our body contains protein. Eating protein is vital to cell repair and cell building.

When looking to build muscle, for example, good protein intake is very important, as, on a very basic level, you are trying to build more cells! Protein is also very important for growing children and pregnant women.

Protein is found in meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and beans as well as dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. More information about the brilliance of protein will soon be found here.

Fats: Essential yet Misunderstood

The third pillar is fats. Fats are probably the most misunderstood yet essential nutrient in our nutrition story. Thanks to 80s and 90s fad diets, fats have been considered to be very bad news. However, once you understand the role of fats and can identify good fat, you too will want to add a glug of olive oil to your ZENB pasta dish.

According to Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Naina Junenja, “Fat is an important source of energy, can help stabilise blood sugar levels and facilitate nutrient absorption for fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin D.” You can find fats in oils, butter, and ghee, as well as in fatty cuts of meat, hard cheese, and dairy products.

Understanding so-called good and bad fats is important. According to the British Heart Foundation, “monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are ‘healthy’ fats. Saturated fat and trans fat are ‘unhealthy’ fats. They can raise your ‘bad’ (non-HDL) cholesterol in your blood.”

Micronutrients: The Unsung Heroes

As mentioned above, micronutrients are foods we need in small amounts, usually in the form of vitamins and minerals. In a well-balanced diet, you usually get most of the vitamins and minerals you need from your food, but in some diets, it is important to supplement. If you are focussing on amping up your nutrition and fitness link, understanding the role of micronutrients in physical activity is super important.

Vitamins: Vital for Energy and Recovery

Many of us take vitamins every day (for example, the NHS recommends everyone in the UK take a vitamin D supplement, cheers lovely weather). But vitamins for athletes or people who have a focus on fitness can be all the more important.

Vitamins play an important role in maintaining energy levels and aiding recovery time, as well as bolstering the immune system. Vitamin D and B12 are a great starting point, but there’s a whole alphabet to delve into!

Minerals: Essential for Muscle Function

Minerals such as iron and calcium are vital for muscle function. Iron is important for maintaining the healthy work of red blood cells (very important for athletes!).

Calcium, on the other hand, is essential for strong bones and also plays a role in absorbing other vitamins.

If you have a balanced diet, chances are you will be getting enough micronutrients in your diet from dairy, some meat, beans and pulses, and fortified cereal, among other products. 

However, in a plant-based diet, it is sometimes harder to get enough calcium and iron, so you might want to consider supplements.

Hydration and Exercise Performance

Did you know that approximately 60% of your body is made up of water? While the exact percentage varies depending on age and sex, water is actually in every single cell in your body, from your brain to your teeth! Water is so fundamental to life, that access to clean water is enshrined as a human right by the United Nations.

When you exercise, you lose water through sweat. That means that you should be hydrated before you start physical exercise, you should top up while exercising, and replenish when you are finished.

The Role of Water in Physical Fitness

If we need water to simply exist, then when we are engaging in physical activity, the need for water is greater. Our bodies are working harder, we are sweating, and our hearts are pumping faster. If you don’t drink enough water, your muscles can cramp and your recovery times can increase, not to mention severe dehydration can lead to more serious health concerns. 

Water is also crucial to your body being able to regulate your temperature (read: how effectively you sweat) and keep your cells working properly (read: keeps your brain and muscles working properly). The importance of hydration cannot be overstated!

Electrolytes and Their Importance

Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge, like potassium, chloride, and sodium (among others). Through the natural processes of the body, these minerals are broken down into liquid which leave the body through sweat and urine. Electrolytes are essential to how the body functions: they play a major role in how nerves and muscles work as well as staying hydrated.

In day-to-day life, most of us get enough electrolytes through our normal diet. However, if more fluid than normal is lost either through vomiting, diarrhoea, or strenuous exercise, some intervention can be helpful. This is either through sports drinks or the dreaded oral rehydration solution, which you probably had as a child.

Electrolytes are particularly important in fitness because they allow the muscles to work normally. For example, according to Healthline, calcium is needed for muscles to contract while magnesium (another electrolyte) is needed for muscles to relax, both crucial actions when engaging in physical activity! Dehydration can lead to confusion, muscle aches, fatigue, and more, so it is critically important to maintain good hydration.

Dietary Strategies for Different Fitness Goals

Depending on what your fitness goals are, your nutrition goals might change. For example, your nutrition intake might look different if you have endurance goals rather than muscle-building goals. Similarly, your nutrition could look different if you are trying to lose weight or if you are trying to maintain weight.

Let’s explore some examples below.

Nutrition for Strength Training

When focussing on strength training, you are essentially working on muscles. As discussed above, protein is paramount in building muscle (and therefore strength) as well as cell recovery.

Ensuring your protein intake is adequate is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass,” says Naina

In the UK, the reference nutrient intake is 0.75g/kg of body weight. So, if you weigh 60kgs you should be aiming to get 45gms of protein in a day. However, the guidance is the minimum to avoid a deficiency and does not factor in activity levels, body composition, etc. I would recommend getting at least the recommended and then adding more based on your goals.”

Eating for Endurance

When focussing on endurance, balance and fuel is key. That means you might need to be a bit more strategic about timing your meals and ensuring you are getting a good balance of carbohydrates for energy and protein for cell recovery.

Eliud Kapchoge, the Olympic gold medalist marathon runner, enjoys simple staples like bananas and eggs to fuel his training days. Interested in reading more about his endurance sports diet? Check out this clever graphic from the BBC.

Balanced Diets for General Fitness

Let's be honest, though. Most of us aren’t marathon runners or bodybuilders (though some of their tactics could help us!). Most of us are attempting to stay active and keep fit.

If that aligns with your goal, a balanced diet for fitness is for you. And happily, a balanced diet for fitness looks just like well, a balanced diet. Make sure you get a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat in every meal. In between your meals, snack strategically. And drink lots of water!

Timing Your Nutrition: When to Eat What

So you’ve identified what you need to eat to optimise your workout, but how does when you eat affect your physical fitness? How do you time your meals to make the most of the work you are putting into your nutrition?

Meal Timing for Fitness

You know that you feel an effect after you eat a meal. Depending on what you eat, you might have more energy or perhaps it’ll make you feel sluggish. Perhaps some food agrees with you more than other food.

When you are trying to time a meal for fitness, you need to know how food affects you, as we are all different. There are, however, a couple of things to keep in mind when planning your meals.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

In order to get the most out of your nutrition (particularly if you’ve spent the time thinking and planning!), you need to have digested your food to get the best nutrients. According to the British Heart Foundation, a general rule of thumb is that if you are exercising for more than an hour, eating an hour or so before is a good idea.

Naina says: “If you’re looking to burn fat and lose weight, it might be best to skip a pre-workout snack. However, for people looking to build more muscle and those trying to maintain body weight, a good pre-workout snack will be one that gives you quick energy that you can use during your workout like dates or fruits like apples, bananas, etc.”

Post-Workout Recovery

If you have done a longer workout or if you feel you need it, a post-workout recovery meal or snack could be really useful. The three macronutrients discussed above all play a role in recovery after a workout, so it is important that your recovery meal or snack is balanced, containing a carbohydrate, protein, and fat! “Avoid processed pre and post-workout snacks that are loaded with sugar,” says Naina.

Supplements and Fitness: A Balanced View

Supplements can be a benign topic or can provoke intense controversy. One of the confusing things is that the supplement umbrella is large: anything you take to enhance your diet can be considered a supplement, from NHS recommended Vitamin D to protein powder recommended by an Instagram influencer.

Sifting through the vast amount of information and products out there can be overwhelming and often there is conflicting advice out there (particularly on the internet!). A key thing to understand, though, is that supplements are intended to augment not substitute food.

Popular workout supplements include perhaps unfamiliar things like creatine and leucine as well as the more familiar protein and caffeine.

Creatine and leucine are both amino acid compounds and contribute to muscle growth and tissue regeneration (building muscle and recovery). These are just two ingredients that you might find in a workout supplement, as well as being sold in their pure form. In their recommended amount (which depends on one’s weight), they are considered to be safe. However, in larger amounts, for someone with certain underlying health concerns, or if you are on certain medications, they can have some serious side effects.

Protein powders are available everywhere and can be a useful way to quickly increase your protein intake. However, they can often be high in calories and it is worth noting that it is possible to have too much protein, which can put stress on the kidneys.

Of course, there are many more fitness supplements out there, in fact too many to cover here! For some more information on popular fitness supplements, check out this article from Eating Well

When considering supplements for fitness, there are a few things you can do to make sure you are making safe choices.

-) Review your diet to make sure you actually need the supplement.

-) Ensure the product you are buying is reputable. Ideally, has been in business for at least three years.

-) Check the ingredient list and understand the recommended serving size.

-) Finally, if you notice any adverse reaction, stop use and speak to your GP.

Special Dietary Considerations and Fitness

As more of us focus on incorporating more plant-based foods into our diets, there is more and more research available on how different diets affect fitness and physical performance. There was a time when a vegetarian fitness diet or a vegan athlete just wasn’t talked about. But no more! Whether your diet is plant-based or you manage food intolerances, fitness is very much on the table. Naina says “Your way of eating should not stop you from exercising and missing out on the many ways in which it benefits our body and mind.”

Vegetarian Diet

According to the NHS, a vegetarian diet can be as healthy for you as any other diet, so long as it is balanced and contains variety. There are plenty of avenues to get all the macronutrients and micronutrients you need on a vegetarian diet, so long as you vary the sources. If, for example, you need protein, try eating both eggs and pulses.

There was a time when the vegetarian diet was less catered to, but that is no longer the case. There are options everywhere! If you are already eating a balanced vegetarian diet, congratulations, you already have a vegetarian fitness diet!

Vegan Diets

Historically, it was thought that eating a vegan diet would mean that you would not get enough protein. This is now understood to be a myth, so long as you are eating a balance of foods. However, the Association of British Dieticians do recommend topping up certain vitamins and minerals, including B12 and iodine.

A balanced vegan diet is like any other balanced diet! Ensuring your meals include protein, carbohydrates, and fats (all of which have vegan sources) will keep your fitness goals on track. If a vegan diet its right for you, it won’t hold you back! Top athletes like Novak Djokovich, Victoria Pendleton, and Lewis Hamilton all follow a plant based diet.

Gluten-free diet

A gluten-free diet can feel really restrictive to begin with, particularly if you’ve recently had a recommendation to stop eating gluten. The good news is that you are a step ahead because you are already having to do more planning for your meals!

When planning a gluten free diet for fitness, the principles remain the same: balance and variety. For more on living gluten free, check out this article about what you can and can’t eat and this one about the best gluten free restaurants in the UK.

If you are managing other food intolerances or allergies, these do not need to impede your fitness goals. As you will know, a food intolerance or allergy just means that you need to plan ahead a bit. And that means you’re a step ahead, you are already being intentional about the food you eat, one of the cornerstones for fitness.

Nutrition Myths and Misconceptions Debunked

Nutrition is an area where, unfortunately, myths and misconceptions run rampant. Happily, science has progressed far enough that today we understand more about nutrition and its role in keeping us healthy than ever before. Remember, when you’re taking health advice or considering changing your diet, always ensure your research comes from a reputable source and, if possible, speak to a professional!

A myth Naina would like to debunk is the idea that because you go to the gym, you can eat whatever you feel like. She says, “A lot of people are under the misconception that you can eat whatever you want and burn it in the gym.”

She wants us to understand that the relationship between food and our bodies is much more complicated. “Food provides our bodies much more than just ‘calories’ so you could appear to be thin and have great athletic performance but still have diabetes and hormonal imbalance.” she says. 

Food provides our bodies with information in the form of various nutrients for growth, repair and maintenance of our body tissues and processes. It’s important to focus on the quality of what we consume and making sure we eat a diet with a diversity of plant-based foods.Naina adds.

Planning and Personalising Your Nutrition Plan

If you are interested in being a bit more intentional about your nutrition, you might be interested in creating your a personalised nutrition plan. Naina points out that “making sure your nutrition plan supports your fitness plan is key in ensuring you achieve your goals.” 

Whether you are trying for better overall health, address a specific health concern, or want to optimise your diet plan for a specific fitness goal, here are some ideas to get started. 

1. Assessing Your Dietary Needs

A custom fitness diet starts with you. What is your normal diet? Do you think you need to add anything to your diet? Do you have any intolerances or special dietary requirements? What are your fitness goals? 

2. Customising Your Diet for Optimal Fitness

Once you have answered the above questions, you can filter that down into a diet plan for fitness. This could include meal planning (both content and timings!), new recipes, or simply refining what you already consume.

3. Resources that can help you get started

Whether you choose to go it alone, use an app, or online template, there are many resources out there. For a basic outline, check out this Healthline article.

And remember, listen to your body! Don’t be afraid to try different things until you find what works for you.

Final thoughts: Integrating Nutrition into Your Fitness Journey

The key takeaway here is that nutrition is intrinsically linked to physical fitness. A greater focus on your nutrition will only boost your fitness goals, whatever they might be. After all, Naina says “Consuming a diet that incorporates a variety of plants, good-quality fats and protein helps support your body’s needs.

Here at ZENB, we are passionate about good food that is good for you. Incorporating ingredients like yellow pea pasta, which is high in protein and fibre, as well as a source of iron, could contribute to your nutrition goals.

For more information about nutrition and fitness, check out the British Nutrition Foundation and British Association of Dieticians, where you’ll find more resources for the link between nutrition and exercise.

For more information about gluten free eating, check out our gluten free hub. And keep your eye out for more from ZENB about nutrition, fitness, and exercise!

Stay tuned for more articles from us about the amazing power of plants and how they can impact your physical fitness goals!

For this article, ZENB spoke to Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Naina Juneja. She graduated from IIN and with her expertise, she empowers individuals to cultivate healthier relationships with food, utilizing it as a tool for healing. Through her guidance, Naina has successfully aided numerous clients in managing various lifestyle based conditions such as diabetes, cholesterol issues, and hormonal imbalances like PCOS, fostering improved well-being and vitality. Find her on Instagram or online at