Nutrition Considerations for Active Individuals & Athletes with IBD

Being active with IBD has many health benefits and can improve your overall quality of life. If you live an active lifestyle with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis – whether that means going to the gym a few times a week, being a “weekend warrior”, or being an elite athlete; it can be challenging to fuel for your activities while sticking to foods that are suitable for your digestion.

There are a few key points to consider as an athlete or active individual living with IBD:

  1. It’s important to meet energy and nutrient needs, which are elevated when participating in sport and exercise.
  2. Regular exercise can contribute to further inflammation; it’s important to eat foods high in anti-oxidants and protein.
  3. Time your meals and snacks around workouts & activities each day for optimal energy during workouts and effective recovery afterwards.
  4. Stick to eating “safe foods” that you know won’t trigger symptoms throughout the day and during activities.

These points will be discussed with some practical recommendations below.

1. Meeting energy and nutrient needs

First and foremost, it’s important to get the basics down. Read about meeting your general energy and nutrient needs with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. How much extra energy you need from food depends on the type and amount of activity you’re doing, as well as any specific goals you have.

Generally, follow the “plate rule” at all meals for an ideal balance of nutrients to optimize performance. Refer to the article “Practical Strategies for Optimal Nutrition with Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis”. As you increase the amount of activity in your day, or participate in more intense training, you may want to eat more calorie-dense foods and protein – eating equal amounts of grains/root vegetables, high protein foods, and vegetables & fruit. Your plate may look like this:

Grains include rice, pasta, breads; root vegetables include potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes & squash. Protein foods include lean meats and fish, legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), and dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Be sure to add healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds with your meals and/or snacks throughout the day.

Aim to have snacks between your meals as well to help you meet your energy and nutrient needs. Combine ‘ENERGY foods’ with ‘SUSTAIN & REPAIR foods’. Try to include ‘PROTECTION foods’ (vegetables/fruit) with all snacks*.

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Note: “carbohydrate foods” also include vegetables & fruit. If you’re less active, stick to vegetables/fruit + protein as a snack. If you’re more active and/or struggle to keep on weight, add a grain or root vegetable with that.

Ask your doctor about getting blood tests more often as an athlete or active individual with IBD. Nutrients of particular concern include iron, vitamin B12, folate, and vitamin D.

2. Eat foods that help fight inflammation

While there are many health benefits associated with regular exercise, high-intensity training can also contribute to inflammation in the body. You can counteract this by eating more foods that are high in antioxidants and healthy fats (omega 3’s).

Aim to have more of the following foods each day:

  • Bright coloured vegetables and fruit. Aim to have at least one serving of dark leafy greens AND one serving of orange vegetables or fruit
  • Green tea
  • Dark chocolate (>70% cocoa)
  • Turmeric tea or juice
  • Tart cherry juice (1 oz. before and after each workout, if tolerated)
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines), chia/flax seeds, walnuts, olive oil

With Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, protein needs are already elevated. Add regular exercise into the mix, and your protein needs are even higher. Aim to consume protein with every meal and snack throughout the day.

3. Timing of meals & snacks to optimize energy and facilitate recovery

What to eat before your workouts depends on when you eat in relation to your workout. See the chart below to help determine what to eat depending on when you train.

Recovery is an essential component of any exercise or training program. Make sure you refuel with carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes after training to replenish energy used during today’s session, preparing you for tomorrow’s session AND to stop muscle breakdown and start muscle building. Examples of good recovery foods include: chocolate milk or soy milk, a fruit & yogurt smoothie, or a meal following the plate rule mentioned above.

4. Keep symptoms and energy levels under control

While there are certain things in sport nutrition that are important for optimal energy, fueling and recovery – it’s important that you still stick to safe foods that you know won’t trigger symptoms. For example, sport nutrition products such as energy drinks & bars may be convenient, but can often be high in sugar and other ingredients that you don’t digest well.

Consider keeping a food, exercise, and symptoms log to help you to identify which foods you feel the best on, and which foods you may want to avoid before a workout if they trigger any symptoms. Take note of your energy levels as well to help you determine a workout program and diet that doesn’t contribute to more fatigue.

Sample Food, Exercise & Symptoms Log:

As with anyone participating in a new training program, make sure you listen to your body. If you feel more fatigued than usual –lower the intensity of your workouts or take a day off. Prioritize your recovery. In addition to eating after each workout, make sure you get adequate sleep, stay well hydrated, and eat more foods with lots of antioxidants.

While this article serves as a good starting point for anyone who’s active with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – it’s recommended that you work with a Registered Dietitian to help you meet your energy and nutrient needs, while also keeping your symptoms under control.

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