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When you’re an athlete, you really are what you eat.

There’s few people who know more about food than MasterChef Canada Judge Alvin Leung. That’s why we sat down with him earlier this week to get the insider deets on how to properly fuel up for a workout. The timing really couldn’t have been better either: In an episode set to air this Sunday, Leung will preside over a challenge that will see the show’s contestants prepare dishes for Cirque du Soleil performers, some of the hardest-working folks in the entertainment world. After all, this is a job where a bad meal could literally mean the difference between life and death.

“These are athletes. The things they do require incredible strength and stamina,” Leung said, comfortably seated in a Toronto boardroom.

He’s really not kidding:

Performers

So if you want to be chowing down with the best of ’em, what should you be doing before a workout?

First off, Taste is everything

It’s not surprising, coming from someone with a background in culinary arts, that Leung believes the most important aspect of any workout fuel is that it should taste good. “Going to the gym for an hour to an hour and a half, especially if you’re doing the weights, that’s a pretty big sacrifice already,” he said. Food, however, should always be “a form of enjoyment.” He even cited a few athletes who like to munch on a little chocolate before a workout, to reap that quick-hit of energy. “As long as you don’t indulge, you can bring whatever you want,” he said. Which is a perfect reason to ditch those gross protein shakes once and for all and swap them for something more enjoyable. Like chocolate milk, perhaps?

To carb load or not to carb load?

Carbohydrates are important for any workout, but knowing how they effect the body is key to using them properly. “[They are] going to convert to sugar, this is how your body is run,” Leung said. The trick is simply to manage how quickly they can convert into the sweet stuff. You can help control this by choosing carbs of the unrefined variety, like whole grains. Leung specifically mentioned red rice as an example, which is particularly nutritious because the germ is left intact. Loading up on these nutrients, however, is really only necessary if you’re preparing for a heavy cardio-based exercise, like a long-distance run.

A little grease is A-OK

Fat is nothing to fear, according to Leung. But that still doesn’t mean you should be pulling your pre-workout meal out of a deep fryer. Fat not only improves taste (which is Leung’s No. 1 priority), it acts as the second store of energy your body turns to after it burns through its carbs. “[Cirque du Soleil performers] are people who are burning energy like a Porsche turbo,” he said. “You have to make sure that engine doesn’t stop or stall.” If you’re really watching your fat intake though, Leung did offer an alternative way to excite your taste buds: spices, seasonings and herbs.

OK, but what about protein?

As long as you’re getting your protein from healthy sources like vegetables and chicken, and avoiding red meat where possible, you can’t really go wrong. “It’s okay to overdose on protein,” Leung said. “It’s just going to come out of you naturally.” Of course, if your focus is on building muscle or sculpting a set of washboard abs, you’ll want to pile on the protein both immediately before and after your workout.

Are sports drinks worth it?

Sports drinks can be helpful for strenuous workouts involving lots of sweat (they replenish the precious electrolytes you lose in the process), but you have to watch the sugar content while also finding one you can enjoy. “It’s not like Rocky where you wake up in the morning and drink 40 eggs,” he said. “Now you have drinks, like smoothies.”

“These sports drinks, they work. Just be careful of the sugar.”

The next episode of MasterChef Canada airs on Sunday, March 1 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.

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