Fitness is not achieved just through exercise; you also have to feed your changing body the types of fuel it needs.
This week I’m stepping on my own toes here, since I am a very picky eater and have a lot of difficulty eating what I “should” eat. I’ve often rebelled against the bland or nasty flavors that I discover in “healthy” food as opposed to unhealthy food…but I’ve noticed that when I do not provide my body with enough nutrients, I get tired faster, I hurt more, and I’m more likely to quit my exercise routine. I would guess that I’m not alone in that.
Eating “right” has become such a cliched phrase in our culture, and yet no one seems to know what it means anymore. What I have discovered is that you should plan your eating around your exercise and your daily routine, rather than the other way around. You’ll need different kinds and amounts of foods than you might be used to eating…and, as I discovered during my research for this post, there ARE tasty healthy foods you can eat to fuel your body!
Pre-Workout Snack: Light, Easy to Digest
Yes, you CAN eat before a workout without getting sick! I didn’t think it was possible until I tried some of the following ideas; I didn’t realize that my heavy food choices were the main culprit behind my waves of nausea during intense cardio exercises.
Small portions of lighter foods (which don’t take a lot of energy to digest) will kick into your bloodstream faster and provide you with more energy during a short workout. You’ll want to avoid foods that will kick your blood sugar up too high, though. Don’t do what I did one time and scarf a bunch of very sweet cookies before my workout; I ended up lightheaded 30 minutes into Zumba because my body’s insulin response to the cookies was so strong.
One caveat: if you’re going to work out for longer than an hour, you’re going to need foods that take just a little longer to digest, so you have some fuel left over for the long haul. Foods that have a little more protein, fat, and/or fiber (like beans, cheese, egg, etc.) are best bets, but still keep the portion small so you don’t end up with stomach cramps.
In general, a pre-workout snack, consumed about an hour before your workout, made up of fruits, whole-wheat bread/crackers, cheese, yogurt, eggs, or legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), will be good for you. Here are some specific snack ideas:
- Bread with cheese or egg
- Grapes and cottage cheese
- Banana with almond butter
- Whole-wheat bagel topped with jam
- Half an avocado spread on toast
- Black beans with brown rice
- Multi-grain crackers or pretzels with hummus or cheese
- Protein shake with fruit and oats
- Small sweet potato with steamed broccoli in olive oil
- A slice of whole-wheat bread with crunchy peanut butter
- Apple with a handful of walnuts
- Oatmeal with your favorite fruit added
- Half a banana blended into half a cup of yogurt
- Greek yogurt, with fruit if possible
- Brown rice with chicken
During Your Workout: Just Water and Honey, Honey
You can take in food/drink during your workout? Sure, why not? If you find yourself in need of a little energy boost, it’s not a sin to munch or sip on a little something. It’s better than passing out in the gym!
Hydration is mainly the key here; since you lose a lot of fluid while working out, you need to replace what you’re sweating out. You want to avoid very sugary sports drinks, though, as they are little better than sodas.
Read the labels carefully on any sports drink you’re thinking about getting, and make sure that the drink will provide carbohydrates and sodium as well as fluid. The folks at WebMD suggest that a good sports drink has at least 14-15 grams of carbs in 8 ounces of fluid, and should also have 110 milligrams of sodium and 30 milligrams of potassium in 8 ounces of fluid.
Flavored water with very little sugar or other additives has also proven to be a good idea mid-workout, especially for people like me who hate the taste of plain water. This option is better for weight loss, whereas the sports drink is a better option for athletes.
As for actual foods to eat during a workout, some studies have shown that honey, especially darker honey, can provide not only a carb boost, but antioxidants and vitamins as well. A spoonful of honey might be just the thing when you’ve been going hard and need a little sustenance!
Post-Workout Foods: The Foods to Rebuild and Recover
After their hard work, your muscles need protein and carbohydrates to recover and repair themselves. It’s best to eat as soon as you finish your workout–giving your body immediate fuel helps it absorb more of the nutrients from your food, and it also stokes your metabolism, helping it burn more for a longer period of time.
You can generally eat the same kinds of foods after your workout as before your workout, but you can have a little larger portion post-workout to help keep your metabolism going. Here are some more food ideas:
- Burrito made with 1/2 cup beans, 1/2 cup brown rice, 2 tbsp. guacamole, and a little salsa
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- Protein shake: 1/2 banana, scoop of protein powder, some almond milk, and some hemp seeds
- 8-ounce glass of chocolate milk (or plain milk)–I’m not kidding!
- Salad with 1/2 cup roasted chickpeas, light olive oil and vinegar
- Banana with peanut butter
- A cup of sauteed/steamed vegetables with a half cup of tofu
- Tart cherry juice (helps with sore muscles)
- A cup of quinoa, mixed with a cup of black berries and 1/4 cup pecans
- 2 slices of multi-grain bread, spread with raw peanut butter and agave nectar
Other Real-World Nutrition Hints from My Experience
- I find that trying to drink very cold water during my workout leads to chest pains–the chill of the water shocks my working muscles and leads to not-happy time. To combat this, I set my water bottle outside the fridge for about an hour before my workout.
- Sometimes I get really nauseated during my workouts, especially if we’re doing very intense cardio work. If this happens to you, don’t be ashamed to step back completely from your workout for a few seconds and take a few sips of water; I’ve tried this and it helps me a lot.
- One of my favorite post-workout meals is a small serving of fettuccini alfredo; I ate this one evening because it was leftovers from lunch, and I noticed I felt much more energized and didn’t crave all the sugary stuff in the cupboards. (I admit, this is a calorie-laden snack, but it did the job of restoring protein and carbs!)
- Pre-workout, I enjoy eating either a cheese stick (usually the low-moisture part-skim mozzarella kind) or a slice of bread spread with peanut butter. I had chosen this because it was lighter and was made up of some of my favorite food–funny that these two snacks appeared in similar forms in my research for this post!
For Further Reading
I couldn’t have written this post without the information included on the following pages. Check them out for even more nutrition-linked fitness info!
WebMD: What to Eat Before, During, and After Exercise
USNews: Best Workout Foods: What to Eat Before a Workout
Shape.com: Best Foods to Eat Before and After Your Workout
FitSugar: Bad Weight-Loss Technique: Exercising on an Empty Stomach
EatingWell: The Best Fitness Foods: What to eat before, during, and after a workout
SportsMedicine @ About.com: What to Eat Before Exercise
Bonus: USNews: 8 Foods to Help You Lose Weight
Next Week: Starting Slow
Want results from your workout quick and easy? Unfortunately, your body doesn’t work that way. We’ll see the importance of getting in shape gradually in the next installment of “Getting Fit the RIGHT Way!”