What to Eat Before or After a Workout

For the past 30+ years, our fitness students have asked us to advise them what to eat before and after their workouts. Our answer is very simple, which makes it easy to remember and obey follow –the closer to the ground, the better. In other words, if you can get it from a veggie garden, fruit orchard, or even a chicken coop you’re probably making a better choice than if you got it from a box at the store that lists 43 ingredients, of which you can only pronounce 15.

raspberries for a healthy lifestyleOf course, the full answer is more nuanced, and can get as complex as a physics word problem (guess what topic I avoided in high school). But make “carbohydrates and protein” your mantra. Yes, we mean it — carbs are an important and necessary fuel. For some reason, protein has gotten all the good press, yet it’s really a secondary player.

For those interested in complex answers (and complex carbohydrates), let’s chat about slow and fast release carbs. Fast release carbohydrates are foods that are quickly broken down into sugars. Slow release carbs are foods that are slowly broken down into sugars.

plums - one of our healthy lifestyle tipsMaybe you’re curious about the glycemic response, which refers to the body’s increase in blood glucose (a simple form of sugar. If you see the word “monosaccharide,” that is the type of sugar that is glucose) and insulin after you eat. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a standardized list of food categories. Using white bread as the reference food (GI of 100), foods that have a GI >85 are considered high, foods that are 60-85 are moderate, and foods that are <60 are low. Low Glycemic Index foods are slow release carbs.

Some foods listed as low (<60) on the GI:

hummus                             peaches                        apples

grapefruit                           peanuts                        pears

beans                                  oat bran bread  milk (whole or nonfat or soy)

yogurt                                 dried peas                    egg fettuccini

apricots                              bananas                       wheat kernels

cherries                              plums                           tomato soup

rice                                      bran barley

picture of white foodsFor a truly complete list of over 1,300 food listed on the Glycemic Index, you can click to the International Table of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values: 2002 published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In case you don’t want to memorize the Glycemic Index list, I’ll give you a super simplified way to choose – if it’s white, you probably don’t want it (except milk). If it’s colorful, you probably do. Brightly colored children’s cereals do NOT qualify. One more way to quickly gauge – starchy = fast release; non-starchy – slow release. But I find the white/ colorful easier.

What is the BEST thing to eat pre- and post-workout? Click To Tweet

These sample pre-workout choices give you a good idea when you’re trying to decide:

orange and cottage cheese
whole-grain toast and peanut butter
nuts and apple
yogurt and granola
hard-boiled egg and wheat bagel
string cheese and pretzels
chicken breast (not a nugget) and rice

organic butterNotice how these foods are much closer to the ground than fruit-flavored or infused foods, and that the ingredients ARE the food, rather than a long list of mystery chemicals and additives. In a “silver lining” story, when my 19-year-old was diagnosed as a baby with a lot of food allergies, I had to learn to read labels and cook from scratch. In order to protect his health I ended up protecting the health of my entire family. We started eating organic, non-GMO food, and learned over time which brands we trusted to keep him safe. We were also lucky enough to have space to grow our own vegetables and fruits, plus we had access to farmers’ markets.

Organic food

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You want to eat the right food before and after exercise, right? And I imagine you want to eat the right food the rest of the day too, yes? Use the info and resources in this post to help you choose your meal or snack. As to when to eat pre- and post-workout, it boils down (that’s an egg joke right there) to this: consume a balanced snack 2–3 hours prior to exercise and consume a carbohydrate- and protein-containing snack or meal following the session to help get the most out of your workout, enhance your glycogen stores and recover successfully from that workout (pant, pant, sweat, glisten). And if you live in the real world, and need to eat five minutes before your workout, that’s still a better plan that skipping a meal or eating C.R.A.P. (Color-enhanced, un-Recognizable, un-Appetizing, Packaged). Feel free to come up with a better acronym.

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Alexandra Williams, MA

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