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The best foods to fuel a workout

Medically reviewed on December 31, 2016

Sports nutrition isn't just for competitive athletes. Your diet provides the fuel for all your physical activities, from a casual stroll around the neighborhood to a tough sweat session at the gym. Plus, if you're just beginning an exercise program, being intentional with nutrition and making smart eating choices will help you reach your goal quicker, whether it's weight loss, weight gain or maintenance.

While there are many sports drinks, bars and nutritional supplements on the market that claim to improve exercise performance and recovery, the best way to fuel your body is to eat real food. Read on to learn what to eat based on your health goals, plus the best pre- and post-workout snacks.

What to eat each day

If you are physically active, your diet should maximize nutrition to provide energy to your muscles and facilitate recovery from exercise. Start by learning how many calories you should be eating based on your activity level and goals. Are you trying to maintain, lose or gain weight? Have you stepped up your activity recently, or are you training for a race?

Every day, eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods, including whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. If you're physically active, these three elements of your diet are especially important:

  • Healthy carbs. Carbohydrates provide a quick source of energy, but it's important to reach for the right kind. Go for whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice, which provide healthy carbs as well as fiber and protein.
  • Lean protein. Protein is crucial for repairing and building lean muscle tissue. Research shows that, for appetite control and gaining or maintaining lean tissue, it's most beneficial to consume protein throughout the day. Aim to eat about 15 to 25 grams at each meal or snack, keeping in mind your total calorie needs.
  • Water. Staying hydrated not only helps you stay physically active but may also help reduce your daily calorie intake. A simple trick is to keep a water bottle on hand and drink your H2O throughout the day. How much water is enough? Everyone has slightly different needs, but the Institute of Medicine recommends roughly 13 cups of total beverages a day for adult men and 9 cups for women.

When to eat

Beyond focusing on what to eat when you're physically active, also consider when you eat. The two important times to focus on are just before and immediately after exercise.

Pre-exercise: As a general rule, eat a snack or small meal one to four hours before exercise. A good choice is carbohydrate-containing foods with moderate to low protein and fat. The carbohydrates in the meal will help fuel your workout, but with lower protein and fat, digestion will be quicker, reducing the possibility of gastrointestinal discomfort. Examples include:

  • Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Banana with peanut butter
  • Oatmeal and berries
  • Turkey sandwich

Post-exercise: After your workout, eat a snack or meal consisting of both carbohydrates and protein. The carbohydrates help replenish the glycogen lost in your muscles during your workout, while protein provides amino acids that facilitate muscle repair and rebuilding. Depending on the time of your workout, you can either eat a snack followed by a meal two to four hours later, or you can go straight for a meal. A few post-workout snack ideas include:

  • Tuna on a whole-grain wrap
  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • Fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt
  • String cheese with an apple

Experiments

Use food to fuel your workouts by trying Jason's suggestions.

  1. Incorporate at least three servings of whole grains into your diet each day.
  2. Find the daily calorie range that works for your health goals.
  3. Stock up on nutritious foods, and plan at least one pre- and post-workout snack or meal.

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