It’s a common misconception that exercising a lot will erase the impact of all our bad eating habits. In fact, it may be the opposite: not eating the right foods, and not eating enough of them, can impair the power of your workout. I know, all too well, the feeling of going into my workout feeling weak, shaky, and unmotivated and realizing that I haven’t eaten in over three hours. By the time it’s over, it feels as though the workout was more draining than it was empowering.
You’ve probably heard all about the right exercises to tone your abs, or the right intervals to improve your performance, yet few people have a clue about the foods they should be eating to get the most from their workout. Like many topics in nutrition, there is also plenty of debate around the “perfect” foods to eat just before you hit the gym. To be honest, there probably aren’t any perfect solutions. But let’s take a look at the roles of the macronutrients in our exercise routine and some foods that can be great fuel for physical activity.
Fats are our primary fuel source for low-intensity exercise, like endurance running, and for the activities of everyday life like walking, standing, and even sleeping. As the intensity of your workout goes up, your utilization of fats goes down. But fat is an important energy source for long-duration activities, and essential fats play a role in overall brain function and cardiovascular health, with some fatty acids having anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
Carbohydrates are the most important fuel source for exercise, especially high-intensity exercise. Carbs provide energy to the body when they are broken down into glucose, a simple sugar, and then metabolized. These carbs are taken up from glucose in the blood or from a form stored in muscle called glycogen. Have you ever been in the middle of a workout, going strong, when suddenly you feel so spent that you can barely hold your head up? This happens when both of these stores are severely depleted and sufficient energy can’t be drawn from them. Carbs are also necessary after a workout to replenish glycogen stores and aid in muscle recovery.
Unlike the other two, protein is not a preferred fuel source for exercise. However, it is extremely important for many recovery functions, including our favorite: building muscle! A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 20 grams of protein post-workout was sufficient for muscle gains in young men; a general suggestion would be 15-30 grams post-workout depending on your height and weight.
Good pre-workout foods
Pre-exercise, it is most important to consume ample carbohydrates to ensure you have enough quick energy to get you through. It can also be helpful, however, to add some protein to keep you satisfied. Here are a few suggestions for a pre-workout snack.
Bananas. Eating almost any fruit is a good way to fuel up for a workout, but bananas are special. They are rich in carbohydrates, including both simple sugars and starches, and provide fiber and B vitamins to keep you full and energized while you break some sweat.
Nut butters. Peanut butter, almond butter, and basically any nut butters are great sources of protein (peanut butter provides about 7 grams) and rich in the “good” fats like monounsaturated fat. For a quick and delicious pre-workout snack, try spreading some on whole wheat toast and top with sliced banana, or onto apple slices and sprinkle with dried cranberries.
Oatmeal and cereal. Oatmeal is an excellent whole-grain source of complex carbohydrates and a good source of protein. It’s a good backdrop for berries and nuts, and sprinkling in some chia seeds will add additional protein and essential fats.
Good post-workout foods
Really, any of the above can also be good post-workout snacks as well. For optimum muscle recovery, however, it is suggested to eat a meal with a combination of carbs and protein within 3 hours post-exercise. Here are a few suggestions to amp up your protein intake post-exercise.
Grilled fish or chicken breast. Chicken and fish are nearly pure protein and contain all 9 essential amino acids. They make a nice, complete meal after a workout and pair nicely with green veggies and brown rice.
Eggs. An egg is almost entirely protein, packing 6 grams per single egg. Enjoy cooked eggs on toast after a workout for an egg-cellent protein and carb combo. Maybe throw some avocado on for healthy fats, too!
Protein shakes? There’s been quite some debate about protein supplements and whether we actually need them, even if we pick up a weightlifting hobby. If 20 grams of protein is sufficient, as discussed previously, it can be met by consuming the foods above or a combination of them. So in general, you’re better off eating foods that pack protein, carbs, and essential micronutrients as well. But protein powders can be helpful if you routinely have trouble meeting your calorie needs or are working out extensively throughout the day, and can be good additions to recipes like smoothies or oatmeal to add a protein punch. Just don’t overdo it, as some studies suggest that excessive protein intake may cause damage kidney damage. And, of course, eating more than you need can still lead to undesired weight gain!