Top Tips for Feeding a Better Night’s Sleep

4 min read

Last Modified 25 May 2021 First Added 20 April 2021

We all know the importance of following a healthy diet, but it can be tricky to get the balance right, especially if you’re training for a big event. We spoke to performance nutritionist Emma Gardner, who works with Team GB athletes, to find out what we can eat to help us feel better, exercise better, and even sleep better.

Fuelling an exercise regime

Good nutrition combined with regular exercise is the bedrock of good health. So, we asked Emma for her top tips for feeding an active lifestyle.

 

There’s no magic bullet, great nutrition is all about a balance […] we advise athletes have good quality carbohydrates and protein, fruits and vegetables. We also advise including oily fish in their diets, and slow-release carbs with a high fibre content, like oats, whole wheat pasta, wholegrain bread or quinoa. These are particularly important when you’re exercising, to maintain your energy supply.

Vegetarians and vegans need to be extra careful they’re getting the right nutrient intake for their activity levels, especially when it comes to protein and calcium. Emma continues:

There are also certain micronutrients, vitamins and minerals they may not get in the same quantity, so, we may have to supplement their diets.

As well as protein and calcium, people who avoid meat and/or dairy may miss out on iron, vitamin B12, omega‐3 fatty acids, and other micronutrients. However, with careful planning these can all be part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Including nuts, seeds, pulses & lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, soya milk and dried fruits are just a few examples of foods that will help make sure your body gets everything it needs.

Should you exercise on an empty stomach?

While the best time to exercise is 2‐3 hours after a meal, Emma appreciates that some people can train just an hour after eating. But when it comes to exercising on an empty stomach, the science is complicated.

Whether to eat beforehand probably comes down to the type and intensity of your training. With elite athletes, in most cases, we try to avoid exercising on an empty stomach as it can compromise the quality of the training session.

Recent research into nutrition and sleep suggests that high GI foods such as white bread, potatoes and white rice can actually help you sleep better. So, an evening meal containing high GI carbs along with good protein (such as fish, meat or eggs) may be your best bet.

Emma’s other top tips for feeding a better night’s sleep:

  • Stop eating at least 2‐3 hours before going to bed to allow yourself time to digest.
  • Caffeine stays in the body for up to 6 hours, so make sure your last caffeinated drink is no later than mid‐afternoon. Discover the best hot drinks to have before bed here.
  • Food high in fat (such as cheese, cakes and fried food) may have a negative effect on sleep, so don’t eat these just before bed.
  • Drink some tart cherry juice if you’re struggling to sleep. It’s naturally high in melatonin, the hormone that’s released when you feel sleepy, so it might help you nod off.

Snacks and treats

Most of us reward ourselves with a tasty treat for making it through a workout, but Emma has mixed advice on snacks before or after exercise.

For those exercising for less than 90 minutes or only doing light training, there is probably no need for a snack during exercise. But if the activity is intense, I’d recommend a carbohydrate‐based snack, like a banana, to provide some additional energy.

For general snacks, the trick is to plan ahead. “If you’re not very active, you’re probably better off avoiding high carb snacks and grabbing a protein‐based snack, like yoghurt and fruit or glass of milk and a small handful of nuts or some hummus/cottage cheese and carrot/celery sticks. I also give the athletes healthy swaps that feel like a treat but are lower in sugar and calories.”

Emma’s top 3 healthier treats:

  •  Chocolate oatcakes instead of biscuits
  •  Greek yoghurt ice cream instead of full‐fat varieties
  •  Skinny popcorn

Emma is the first to admit that athletes don’t eat perfectly all the time: “They’re like everyone else and they do want to have moments where they can relax about their nutritional intake.” However, they also understand that eating well most of the time will make all the difference to their performance. And this applies to the rest of us too. A healthy diet that gives our body everything it needs will keep us functioning at our best.

Read more from Emma and her conversation with athlete Laura Kenny in our article, Carbs, Sleep, and a Pint of Milk – Food to Fuel Success.