Eating Right for Exercise

Written by Dana Sullivan Kilroy | Published on September 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 10, 2014

Nutrition for Fitness

There are a few musts when it comes to choosing foods that will improve your exercise performance. You are eating to fuel workouts and to ensure you have energy throughout the day. This isn’t only about choosing vegetables over doughnuts. It’s about getting the right calories at the right times, and it all starts with your morning meal.

Get Off to a Good Start

The research is unequivocal about breakfast. According to the Mayo Clinic, skipping breakfast can lead to weight gain, not to mention a severe lack of energy.

Eating a healthy breakfast is important every day, of course, but it’s essential on the days that exercise is on your agenda. Skipping breakfast can make you feel lightheaded or lethargic while you’re working out.

However, eating the right kind of breakfast is crucial. Too many people rely on simple carbohydrates to start the day. A bagel or doughnut won’t keep you feeling full for very long, and it won’t fuel a workout. Try oatmeal, oat bran, or any hot or cold cereal that is high in fiber, then throw in some protein, such as an egg, some milk, or yogurt. According to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, having protein at breakfast time fends off hunger longer and can actually help with weight loss efforts. If you’re making pancakes or waffles, put some cottage cheese in the batter and slather peanut or almond butter on top before you eat them.

Count on the Right Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap thanks to the last decade’s fad diets, but they are actually the body’s main source of energy. It’s just that in our culture, we rely too much on the simple carbohydrates found in sweet and processed foods. We should focus on the complex ones found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. It’s the complex carbs that make you feel comfortably full for longer.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, whole grains, including whole-wheat bread and whole-grain pasta, have staying power because you digest them more slowly than the refined grains. They also keep blood sugar levels stabilized. About 70 percent of your total daily calories should come from complex carbohydrates.

Add Protein

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), protein helps replace certain cells in our bodies that die out after a certain amount of time. For example, red blood cells die out after about 120 days, and must be replaced. Protein also helps regulate some essential body processes, such as keeping blood vessels open. It also supplies energy when carbohydrates are in short supply. Adults need to eat about 50 to 65 grams of protein a day. It can come from:

  • poultry
  • meat
  • fish
  • dairy
  • legumes
  • peanut butter

Boost Your Fruit and Vegetable Intake

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the recommended “five a day” should be the minimum. Aim to eat fruits and veggies from every color of the rainbow every day. Fruits and vegetables provide fiber, antioxidants, and electrolytes, and other essential nutrients our bodies need in order to function properly. Every time you go to the grocery store, try to choose at least one fruit or vegetable that you don’t eat on a regular basis. For snacks, keep dried fruits at your desk or in your workout bag and raw veggies in the fridge.

Eat These Before Exercise

When it comes to fueling up just before a workout, the right balance of carbs and protein is best. They make you feel more energized than foods made with simple sugars, and greasy food is an exerciser’s worst enemy. Some great pre-workout energy foods are listed below.

Bananas

Bananas are full of potassium and magnesium. These are minerals you need to replenish the fluid and electrolytes you lose when you’re sweating hard.

Berries, Grapes, and Oranges

These are all full of vitamins and minerals. They’re easy on the intestines and give you a quick boost.

Nuts

Nuts are a great source of protein and essential nutrients, and give you sustained energy. 

Nut Butter

Most grocery stores carry single-serving packets of peanut butter that don’t need to be refrigerated and are easy to keep in your gym bag. You can put nut butter on an apple, crackers, or a slice of whole-grain bread. If you don’t like peanut butter, try almond or soy butter.

Add It All Up

According to the CDC, about 70 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates, ideally of the complex variety. Carbs like white flour and rice will make you feel hungry sooner than you would after eating the more fibrous complex carbs. This is because their fiber has been stripped away via processing, so you quickly absorb the energy they provide.

The other issue to consider is how much fuel your body needs on a given day. Weight loss diets should never leave you feeling exhausted or ill. These are signs that you are not getting enough calories. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a diet of 1,600 calories should be sufficient for the average man to start losing weight. Women could reduce their intake to slightly lower than 1,600 calories per day. People who are very active or who don’t want to lose weight during their fitness journey would need to take in more calories.

As you settle into an active lifestyle, you will come to realize which foods give you the best energy and which might have negative effects. For each person, these foods could differ slightly. The key is learning to listen to your body and balancing what feels right with what’s actually good for you. 

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