Your nutrition questions, answered

17 Mar 2023 14:48PM by Dr Becky Townsend - Head of Nutrition

Becky Townsend, Virgin Active


When it comes to your fitness goals, what you eat and how you train go hand in hand. With proper nutrition and hydration (alongside good periods of rest), you’ll see your training go a lot further. 

But good nutrition is more than that. It’s at the heart of living a healthy lifestyle and you’ll see improvements mentally as well as physically. This could include giving yourself more energy and finding it easier to sleep at night.

To find out more on some healthy habits for your daily life, we spoke to Dr Becky Townsend, our Head of Nutrition. She shared her knowledge on some commonly asked questions and has some simple tips on how you can use your nutrition to help whatever goals you’re chasing.


"Does age matter when it comes to nutrition?"

At different stages in our lives, our bodies need different things. Whether it’s more rest, more movement or more vitamins. And when it comes to nutrition, our bodies are no different. 

Dr Becky says that our hormones play a very big part in many of our physiological processes and as such, changing hormones may mean we need additional micronutrients or macronutrients. That’s because, over time, women produce lower levels of oestrogen which can cause weaker bones. The onset of the menopause can also affect sleep patterns, cognitive function, energy levels, mood and gastrointestinal health. 

For men, the decrease in testosterone is less severe with aging and doesn’t lead to as many symptoms as a reduction in oestrogen in women. However, some aging men can experience stress, anxiety and lack of sleep, among other psychological difficulties, but this more likely to be related to lifestyle factors such as, a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and too much alcohol consumption 

So, Dr Becky says: “Age does matter when it comes to nutrition but there’s no magical or exciting answer.”

We can’t prevent our bodies changing but what we can do is be mindful that we respond in the right way. That could be through: 

• Keeping up a healthy, balanced wholefoods diet
• Consuming enough macronutrients and micronutrients via a food first approach 
• Making sure you up your protein intake, as we become less responsive to protein as we age 
• Keep on top of vitamin D through sunlight exposure or supplements
• Get enough unsaturated fats to help your cognitive function and enough pre- and probiotic foods to protect/improve your gastrointestinal health 
• Work on your sleep hygiene to ensure you get enough high quality sleep

“Can I eat too many ‘good fats'?” 

When it comes to talking about fats, Dr Becky says it’s all about balance. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ fats in her book, it’s all in the context. Typically though, the ‘good’ fats are the ones that reduce levels of harmful cholesterol in our system and boost the good cholesterol. They’re things like ‘monounsaturated fats’ which can be found in avocados, peanut butter, olive oil and most nuts. Then there’s ‘polyunsaturated fats’ like salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna, walnuts and chia seeds. 

Both of these types of fats help to reduce the levels of LDL (or ‘bad’ cholesterol) in your body. But monounsaturated fats also increase your levels of HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol). 

Ultimately, Dr Becky says that:“good fats are very good for our health!” 

The only watch-out is actually to do with other things that might be present in those sources of good fats. If you’re eating a lot of fish, then you’re at a higher risk of consuming too much mercury. The weekly recommended serving of certain types of seafood and fish is 2 – 3 times per week. 

Keep within that range and opt for plant-based fats and you can’t go wrong. 


"What's the best time to eat?"

The bottom line is: there is not right or wrong time to eat. This all depends on your body and its needs as well as your lifestyle. And everyone is different.

Dr Becky says: “Eating at regular and consistent times can regulate circadian rhythms, which can improve sleep quality, digestion and hormonal regulation. And can help regulate energy metabolism.”  

For some people, sticking to a routine of intermittent fasting will help achieve regulation of their eating patterns as well as making it easier to manage meal timing, meal prep and maintain a healthy weight. For others, those patterns may be restrictive and not work with their lifestyle. 

As a general rule, you might find it necessary to eat in the mornings if you’re working out or are keeping particularly active. In terms of late night snacking, Dr Becky advises: “Most people won’t need to eat past 8pm if they’re sleeping around 10pm or 11pm. You won’t really be using that energy. However, if you are consistently training on a daily basis, eating later might help your body recover overnight for the next full day of activity.” 

It’s all about the context. 

"How much does alcohol really affect weight loss?"

When we drink alcohol, our bodies do their best to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Rather than using our fat and carbohydrate stores for energy, our bodies will break down the alcohol instead. 

“Unlike carbohydrates, proteins and fats, the metabolism of alcohol is not regulated by hormones,” says Dr Becky. “There is no storage for alcohol in the body as it cannot be stored in the liver and it has no biological function or benefit.” 

One gram of alcohol contains 7 calories. That’s in comparison to one gram of: 

• Carbohydrates which is 4 calories
• Protein which is 4 calories 
• Fat which is 9 calories 

Then there’s also the calories that come from the carbohydrates and fats that are in our alcoholic drinks. As well as the poor food choices that often accompany consuming alcohol and the changes to your activity levels the next day –  that’s why alcohol is known to have a negative effect on weight loss – it all adds up. But…

While it’s true that there’s no physiological need for your body to consume alcohol, Dr Becky says: “I’m not a no-alcohol nutritionist.” 

Once again, it comes back to context. There are a lot of social benefits that come with consuming alcohol which have a positive effect on our overall wellbeing. Social interaction is at the core of what it means to be human. So reducing your alcohol intake rather than eliminating it completely may be the way to go if you still like a tipple. 

Dr Becky says: “Remember, we’re all about balance and sustainable lifestyle choices!” 

Want to know more about nutrition? This is just the tip of the iceberg. Join our Advanced Nutrition Essentials course via the Virgin Active Academy to find out what it takes to build a healthy and sustainable diet. And, at the end of the course, you’ll also become a Certified Nutrition Coach! 

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