Just as a car needs fuel to run, your body needs fuel to sustain you when you’re exercising. Working out is a great step toward getting healthy, but don’t counteract the progress you’ve made — avoid eating foods that just aren’t good for you.
In addition to choosing healthier foods, you can also go for specific items that are great for giving you the energy you need to work out. There are even foods that can help your body recover after exercising without adding on unnecessary calories.
So, what foods are best to eat before and after a workout?
“There are a few factors involved,” says certified health coach Joanne DiCesare of Newburgh. “The first is, what’s digestible for you? The second, what are your preferences? Third, you never want to work out on an empty stomach.”
The Mayo Clinic reports that eating too much before you exercise can leave you feeling sluggish, or worse, with a case of diarrhea or stomach cramps. Eating too little may not give you enough energy to keep you feeling strong throughout your workout.
DiCesare advises avoiding greasy foods, spicy foods and fatty or sugary foods such as doughnuts, potato chips and candy bars.
Alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as coffee, soda and energy drinks are also a no-no, as they can cause you to dehydrate.
BEFORE A WORKOUT
• Bagel or whole-wheat toast with peanut butter
• Yogurt with unsalted nuts and seeds
• Trail mix with seeds, nuts and dried cranberries
• Smoothie made with berries and nonfat yogurt
• Potato chips
• Candy bars
• Sugary, spicy or greasy foods
• Caffeinated coffee, soda and energy drinks
• Fruit juices
AFTER A WORKOUT
• Peanut butter sandwich
• Lean meat sandwich
• Eggs with whole-grain toast
• Salad with beans, vegetables and lean meat
• Stir fry with brown rice or pasta in a light sauce
• Waffle with yogurt and fruit
• Lean protein such as chicken, seafood or beans
• Fast-food burgers
• French fries
• Bacon and eggs
• High-fat foods
“Optimally, the best thing to eat before you work out is an apple, a banana, a bagel or some toast, and water,” says certified health coach Joanne DiCesare, pictured shopping for fresh produce at Overlook Farm Market in Newburgh. “You should have something really nutritious, like whole wheat toast with peanut butter.”
If you’re planning on working out and haven’t had a meal in one to four hours, have a healthy snack 15 to 20 minutes before the workout.
Snacks eaten soon before exercise probably won’t give you added energy, but they can help keep up your blood sugar and prevent distracting hunger pangs.
“If you eat something before, you shouldn’t be that hungry right after,” said DiCesare. “If you’re just doing an hour of cardio or one class, you should be all right, and then have a normal meal after.
“Optimally, the best thing to eat before you work out is an apple, a banana, a bagel or some toast, and water. You should have something really nutritious, like whole wheat toast with peanut butter. You want your source of energy to come from complex carbs.
“It also depends on if you’re watching your weight or not. If you are, have a banana. If you’re going to do a long exercise, have a bagel. It depends on what your goals are.”
Trail mix is another source of energy you could eat before a workout, although DiCesare recommends making your own natural mix with seeds, nuts and dried cranberries, “not one from the store with M&M bites. Yogurt with some nuts and seeds, unsalted, is better than granola, which might have sugar in it.”
Another energy-boosting snack DiCesare suggests is making a smoothie out of berries and nonfat yogurt, staying away from packaged smoothies unless they’re organic with a lower sugar content.
Your mom was right -- an apple is one of the best foods you can eat before working out.
“Liquids are one of the best things you can have,” said DiCesare, “because they’re easily digestible.”
But she doesn’t recommend fruit juice. “It has sugar added, elevates your blood sugar and doesn’t have fiber in it. Rather than orange juice, eat the whole orange. Rather than apple juice, eat the whole apple. You want the fiber, that’s the key, so it gets eliminated, pushing the waste through your body. Juices are high in sugar and leave you feeling more hungry.”
A good pre-workout breakfast would be a small bowl of oatmeal or cereal with skim milk.
“Not a sugary cereal,” said DiCesare. “Pick one with less than three grams of sugar and more than three grams of fiber.”
For proper digestion, wait one to four hours after eating a full meal before working out, depending on how much you’ve eaten.
“Throughout a long workout, you should hydrate and have a sports drink to provide electrolytes to restore balance in your body,” said DiCesare. “For shorter workouts, water is fine. Keep hydrated.”
To stay well-hydrated for exercise, The Mayo Clinic recommends that you:
Drink roughly 2 to 3 cups of water during the two to three hours before your workout.
Drink about ½ to 1 cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes during your workout. You may need more, depending on how large your body is or how warm the weather is.
Drink roughly 2 to 3 cups of water after your workout for every pound of weight you lose during the workout.
Water is generally the best way to replace lost fluids. But if you’re exercising for more than 60 minutes, use a sports drink. Sports drinks can help maintain your body’s electrolyte balance and give you a bit more energy, because they contain carbohydrates.
Whether you feel hungry or not after you exercise, the Mayo Clinic suggests having a healthy meal or snack to help your body recover by reducing muscle soreness and replenishing your energy.
Plus, it keeps you from feeling famished later on in the day, which could cause you to snack on junk foods or eat unnecessarily large meals.
The best things to include in a post-workout meal or snack are proteins and carbohydrates. Ideally, you should eat these items within 30 minutes to 2 hours after working out.
The Mayo Clinic’s post-workout menu suggestions include a peanut butter sandwich; a lean meat sandwich; eggs with whole-grain toast; salad with beans, vegetables and lean meat; and a stir-fry with brown rice or pasta in a light sauce.
DiCesare warns that women get more hungry than men do after a workout.
“The rule of thumb is, you shouldn’t eat more than you burn if you’re trying to lose weight,” she said. “Portion control is critical when you’re trying to lose weight.
“You can really have anything as long as you have a carb, lean protein and a fat — and try to have a fruit.”
A good breakfast after a morning workout would be a waffle with yogurt and fruit.
Doing an afternoon workout? “A lean protein such as chicken, seafood or beans and a salad with a little dressing,” suggests DiCesare. “Or a cup of pasta with chicken, spinach and oil in it, for dinner or lunch.”