When it comes to achieving your fitness goals, nutrition is just as important, if not more, important than exercise. Have you ever felt like you’re getting further away from your fitness goals, or are at a “plateau,” even when you’re exercising regularly? Well, it turns out that your diet could be the main culprit, not your exercise routine.
Studies have shown that nutrition and exercise go hand in hand when it comes to your level of success in the gym. This is for a variety of reasons. For one, you need to be properly fueled going into a workout to get the most out of it. Secondly, what you eat following a workout will directly affect how your muscles recover and grow.
First off, we’re going to break down the three macronutrients and review their role in performance and recovery.
This one, I know you have all heard of. However, some of you have probably heard or seen carbohydrates as a food component to avoid and/or limit. Well, when it comes to exercise, carbohydrates are actually going to be what fuels your workout. When you eat a banana, your body will take the carbohydrates in that banana and break them down into glucose, which is the body’s preferred immediate source of energy. When your body doesn’t need fuel right away, it will be stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver for later use.1
When glycogen stores are depleted, as a result of prolonged exercise or not properly fueling, you run out of fuel. Similarly to a car, when it runs out of gas (glycogen), it will lead to exhaustion and will not be able to continue driving.
In addition, a depletion of glycogen stores can cause your body to dip into protein stores.2 This can result in decreased lean muscle mass, reducing strength, endurance, and overall performance.
Long story short, if you’re not prioritizing your carbohydrates before a workout, you could be risking muscle breakdown.
So if carbohydrates are vital for pre-workout, what’s the key post-workout? Well, this is where protein comes in.
You may have heard protein being referred to as “building blocks” for the body. During a process called “muscle protein synthesis,” these building blocks actually assist in muscle repair, recovery, and growth.
When exercising, whether weight lifting, running, jumping, biking, etc., our muscle cells get broken down, leading to damage and tears in the muscle fibers.3 Consuming adequate protein after your workout will help replenish your muscles with the building blocks that they need to repair and build the muscle damage that was caused, leading to muscle growth.4
Fat is actually another preferred source of energy for your body. If exercise is continued for a significant period of time, fat will serve as the secondary source of energy once all of your glycogen stores are depleted.5
However, it’s not recommended to consume foods high in fat right before a workout, as fat takes longer for the body to digest and could lead to stomach discomfort and fatigue, which can negatively impact your workout.
What to eat before your workout
As a general rule of thumb, you should eat a snack 30-60 minutes before a workout, and a meal 2-3 hours before a workout, to allow for proper digestion. You want to choose snacks or meals higher in carbohydrates prior to your workout for that boost of energy your body needs. Plus, they are easily and quickly digestible so they won’t leave you feeling sluggish.
Some pre-workout snack ideas:
- Banana + 2 tablespoons of nut butter
- Low-fat yogurt + ½ cup of berries + tsp of honey
- ½ cup oats + ½ cup berries
- Low-sugar cereal + ½ cup milk
Is there anything that I should avoid before my workout?
Two things you really want to limit or avoid before your workout are foods high in fat and fiber.
Fiber is a crucial component of a healthy diet. It can help with weight management, cholesterol management, and many more. However, consuming fiber right before exercise can hinder your workout. Fiber is more difficult for our bodies to digest and it is digested in the colon. As a result, eating it right before exercise can lead to an upset stomach.
Although fat does serve as an energy source for our bodies, the breakdown process is much lengthier than it is for carbohydrates. Therefore, a high-fat meal or snack right before your workout may cause you to feel “sluggish” as the body works to break down those fats.
What to eat after your workout
As I mentioned before, protein is crucial for optimal muscle repair and growth. Therefore, choosing foods that are high in protein would be your best bet after a workout.
Post-workout snack ideas:
- Greek yogurt + berries + nuts
- Canned tuna + whole grain crackers
- Hard-boiled eggs + whole-grain toast
- Turkey slices + cheese slices + apple slices
- Plan ahead! If you know that you’re planning to workout after work, pack a banana or some oats and berries that you can quickly eat before heading to the gym. Or if your plan is to go to work straight from the gym, try to pack a post-workout protein source, like greek yogurt with berries, or hard-boiled eggs and some fruit or toast.
- Give it time. If you’re eating a full meal, try to give your body 2-3 hours to digest it before you dive into your workout. If you’re eating a small snack, you typically will only need about 30-60 minutes before your workout.
- Know your supplements. If you’re opting for a protein or energy bar before a workout, you’ll just want to check the label. Protein bars can be higher in fiber (and protein, of course) and sometimes lower in carbohydrates.
- Food is fuel! Even if your goal is to lose weight, your body needs food to move the way you want it to during exercise. Cutting corners with nutrition can cause fatigue and muscle breakdown. These two things combined can put you at risk for injury.
Honing in on your nutrition pre- and post-workout will allow you to exercise, staying injury-free and healthy!
- Glycogen: What It Is & Function. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23509-glycogen
- How to Keep Your Body Fueled for Long-Distance Riding – Cleveland Clinic. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-keep-your-body-fueled-for-long-distance-riding/
- Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- 5 Facts About Protein and Post Workout Recovery | Clif Bar. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://www.clifbar.com/stories/5-facts-about-protein-recovery-after-workout
- 5. How nutrients impact physical performance. Mayo Clinic Health System. Accessed August 28, 2023. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/how-nutrients-impact-physical-performance
Guest author Mary Kate Lonegan, Dietetic Intern, is a recent graduate of Pace University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Masters Program. She is a retired college athlete, marathon runner, and professional fitness coach.
Peanut Butter Energy Bites
- 1 cups oats quick-cook (gluten free, if needed)
- 1/2 cups peanut butter creamy
- 1/3 cups maple syrup
- 1/2 cups chocolate chips mini
- 1/4 cups hemp seeds
Mix all ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Moistness of mixture will depend on type of peanut butter. Add more oats if too wet. If mixture is too dry, add a tablespoon of water at a time to make mixture come together.
Roll the mixture into bite-sized (~1-inch) balls.
Enjoy immediately or store in the fridge for 7-10 days.
Date Nut Protein Bars
This recipe replicates popular Rx bars. Delicious but expensive to buy, they are easy—and more economical--to make at home with just a food processor and supermarket ingredients. See notes below for flavor variations.
- 1 cup pitted dates
- 1 cup pure egg white protein powder
- 1 cup raw almonds
- 1 cup raw cashews
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 2-4 T. water
Line an 8x8 baking pan or ¼ baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Process nuts and egg white powder in a food processor until the nuts have been chopped into small pieces. Add the salt and flavoring of choice (see below) and pulse a few times to combine.
Add the dates to the food processor and chop until the mixture is fine and crumbly. Depending on the stickiness of the dates the mixture may start to clump together. Add water, one tablespoon at a time as needed, through the feed tube or center hole to the running machine and continue to process until the mixture comes together as a ball. Add only enough water to reach this stage.
Scoop the mixture into the prepared pan and press it into an even layer. It may help to cover the top with plastic wrap or parchment paper and to use a glass or small rolling pin to roll it out evenly. Refrigerate the bars for an hour or freeze for 30 minutes before removing the set mixture on the parchment paper to a cutting board and cutting it into 12 bars with a sharp knife.
Bars can be eaten at room temperature but keep best in the refrigerator or freezer. Wrap bars individually or layer with parchment or plastic to prevent sticking together.
- Mocha bars – add 2 tsp espresso powder and ¼ cup cacao nibs or powder
- Cinnamon spice bars – add 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg, and ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- Coco-cocoa bars – add ¼ cup cocoa powder and ¼ cup unsweetened coconut flakes
Post-workout Snacks or Meals
Strawberry Cheesecake Chia Pudding
- 1 cups strawberries fresh, chopped
- 1/2 cups cottage cheese low-fat
- 4 Tbs Greek yogurt plain, low-fat
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 Tbs maple syrup
- 1/4 cups chia seeds
- 1 cups unsweetened almond milk or substitute your milk of choice
Add all ingredients to a blender and process until smooth. Divide equally into two covered containers or mason jars and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Chunky Monkey Chia Pudding
- 1 cups almond milk unsweetened or other milk of choice
- 1 cups plain Greek yogurt
- 2 Tbs peanut butter powder or nut butter alternative
- 1 1/2 Tbs cocoa powder unsweetened
- 1/3 cups chia seeds
- 1/3 cups quick oats see notes
- 2 Tbs maple syrup
- 1 banana chopped just ripe, no brown spots
- 2 Tbs mini chocolate chips
- 1/8 tsp salt
Add all ingredients to a large mason jar (at least 4 cups)
Shake and let stand for 15 minutes. Shake again then place in refrigerator overnight or for at least 4 hours.
Spoon into small bowls and top with additional banana and chips, if desired.
Chickpea Protein Pancake (CLL)
Chickpea Protein Pancake
Try this savory pancake for a protein packed lunch, brunch, or light dinner topped with whatever you like or as a side to soak up the sauces from a curry or stew. Try pairing with salsa, avocado, and hummus for a healthy lunch, or feel free to make your own combinations. Chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour is available where gluten free flours are sold—Bob’s Red Mill is a commonly found brand.
- 2 scallions finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove minced
- 1/2 cup red bell pepper finely chopped
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 cup water plus 4 tbsp
- cooking spray/ olive oil
Mince the scallions, garlic and red bell pepper.
In a medium sized bowl combine the flour, salt, pepper, baking soda and red pepper flakes. Whisk in the water vigorously (you want a light airy batter with lots of little bubbles). Gently fold in the scallions, garlic, and bell pepper.
Spray a 10 or 12 inch nonstick skillet with cooking spray or drizzle in 2 teaspoons of olive oil and place over medium heat. When the skillet is very hot (a drop of water will sizzle when it hits the pan) pour in half of the batter and swirl to coat the pan in an even layer.
Cook for 4-5 minutes and then flip carefully and cook for another 5 minutes or until done through. Repeat with additional cooking spray and the remaining batter.
- Feel free to make thinner or thicker pancakes as desired. Crepe-thin pancakes without chopped vegetables can be used as gluten-free wraps for sandwiches.
- Try sautéed mushrooms, corn, cooked chopped spinach or broccoli, or other vegetables inside the pancake batter as you like. Feel free to add more spice as well.
High-Protein Peanut Butter Yogurt with Pear (or Apple) Slices
- 2 cups Greek yogurt 2%
- 1/4 cups peanut butter powder
- 2 pears sliced (or substitute 2 apples)
- 2 Tbs hemp seeds
Mix peanut butter powder into the yogurt.
Spread on pear slices or dip, sprinkle with hemp seeds, and enjoy!