Eating for energy: What is The Energy Plan?

Leading performance nutritionist James Collins explains how to use food as fuel to increase your energy levels, no matter what your work and exercise schedule looks like.

James Collins

We asked leading performance nutritionist, James Collins, to run us through his nutritional principles to help keep energy levels high throughout the day. Keen to put them into practice? Try our three-day meal plans tailored specifically for the time of day that you exercise – whether that's in the morning or in the evening.

What do you mean by an 'Energy Plan'?

The Energy Plan shows us how to use food as fuel to meet the demands of your life, choosing meals and snacks that leave you bursting with energy for work and play.

My background is working as an elite sports nutritionist with some of the highest performing people on the planet over the last decade – Arsenal FC, the England and France national football teams and Team GB. I’ve distilled this work into simple food principles that all of us can follow to be at our best.

It’s a fundamental shift on how you think about nutrition – to proactively fuel your body to meet the day's demands – not just eating what you are used to based on old habits.

What is a 'performance plate'?

Each of the meals you eat each day can positively or negatively affect your energy levels and the results from your training – it’s that important. We may eat up to 1,095 meals each year, so it’s important to have a simple process to build each meal, depending on our needs.

The process the athletes use is one you too can acquire, and use when you’re queuing in the staff canteen, browsing the supermarket aisles or looking through the cupboards at home. A process that is based upon what your body requires, not what you are used to doing. Because you aren’t simply working towards having a meal – you are building a performance plate.

Performance plates provide a simple solution to following the right principles at the right times. Athletes, like most performers, don’t need to be weighing food or counting calories at each meal. Ensuring these principles are followed for each meal delivers what they require with minimal effort.

Building your performance plate

Putting together your performance plate is a four-part process. At a football club, we set up the restaurant so that the players pass each food station in the same order, adding a serving of each to their plate. This is something that can easily be replicated when building your plate at home.

1. Maintenance

Salmon, beef and chicken in a griddle pan

Maintenance foods, in the form of protein, is the first step to building every meal – end of story. Your muscles are constantly breaking down and rebuilding over a 24-hour period, and protein is our best aid for this.

Maintenance foods include chicken, turkey, beef, salmon, tuna, eggs, tofu and quinoa.

2. Fuelling

A selection of carbohydrates

Fuelling foods, in the form of low-GI carbohydrates, come next, and how much is required (or whether it’s required at all) depends on the training demands and your goal.

Fuelling foods include oats, wholegrain rice, wholewheat pasta, buckwheat, lentils, sweet potato, quinoa and bulgur.

3. Protection

A selection of fruit and vegetables

Protection foods, in the form of micronutrients from vegetables and fruit, as well as healthy fats, are the third component of the performance plate.

Protection foods include a variety of vegetables, fruits and healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds).

4. Hydration

Hydration is the fourth and final element; the amount required is likely to increase pre- and post-training, to prepare and rehydrate.

Types of performance plates

For most people, two performance plates will be useful – the fuelling plate and the maintenance plate. Those of you preparing for a major event or competition (such as a marathon) will want to use the competition plate.

The fuelling plate

Chicken breast with quinoa

The fuelling plate is used before and after exercise, as it can help to support our two most important nutritional needs – pre-training fuelling (to give enough energy to meet the demands of training) and post-training recovery (to help our muscles to adapt and replenish diminished glycogen stores). The fuelling plate is also an important tool to support energy levels during the working day.

The fuelling performance plate is divided into thirds to give:

1 portion of maintenance (protein)
1 portion of fuel (carbohydrate)
1 portion of protection (vegetables/fruits and healthy fats)

The fluid intake is important with the fuelling meal, as hydration needs are greater before and after training.

Here are some recipes that count as 'fuelling plates':

Mexican beans & avocado on toast
Cajun blackened chicken with supergreen quinoa
Thai prawn & ginger noodles

The maintenance plate

Crab and asparagus omelette

The maintenance plate is used at times when energy requirements are lower – for example, you might use a maintenance plate for your evening meal if you don't exercise after work. This plate provides a larger serving of protein (maintenance) along with a larger serving of vegetables (protection). The serving of carbohydrate is removed.

The maintenance plate is made up of:

1.5 portions of maintenance (protein)
1.5 portions of protection (vegetables)
1 portion of healthy fats

Here are some recipes that count as 'maintenance plates':

Crab & asparagus omelette
Melting tomato & basil omelette
Moroccan-spiced tuna with Asian greens

What should I snack on?

If meals are your foundations, snacks are the supporting structure, there to lend a hand to get you through the day. It’s important that every snack has a function, rather than being just something you eat just to avoid getting too hungry. While snacks do play a supporting role to meet a need, they shouldn't replace meals, cause spikes in blood sugar levels or provide unnecessary extra calories.

Use maintenance snacks (protein-based), in order to:

  • Support ongoing muscle growth and repair (including overnight, following hard training).
  • Meet increased protein requirements alongside a training programme.
  • Increase protein intake during an energy deficit (when trying to reduce body fat).
  • Offset hunger mid-afternoon before dinner.

Examples include seeds, nuts, low-fat Greek yogurt, edamame beans or a protein shake.

Use training snacks (with both carbohydrate and protein) at strategic times:

  • Pre-training: 1-2 hours before a training session such as mid-morning for a lunchtime session or mid-afternoon for after work.
  • Post-training: a quick option to refuel and repair the muscles before your next mealtime such as finishing a class mid-afternoon.

Examples include an open sandwich with smoked salmon, or low-fat Greek or natural yogurt with banana and nuts.

Ready to put James's principles into action? Try our three-day meal plans tailored specifically for the time of day that you exercise – whether that's in the morning or in the evening – plus discover James's 5 top tips to boost your energy.


James Collins is the author of The Energy Plan, published by Penguin. For more information and to find a stockist, visit www.penguin.co.uk.

James Collins is recognised as a leading Performance Nutritionist through his work with Olympic and professional sport. Over the last decade he has worked with Arsenal FC, England and France national football teams and Team GB. Previously elected President of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Food and Health Forum, he has a private practice in Harley Street where he sees business executives, performing artists and clients from all walks of life: www.jamescollinsnutrition.com.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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