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Snacking around workouts: Do's and don’ts

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Do's and Don’ts on snacking

The timing of meals before and after exercise is crucial in giving you the fuel you need to work out as well as facilitate post-exercise recovery. If your fitness regimen includes workouts between meals, strategically timed snacks can ensure a successful sweat session and speedy recovery. Here are a few do's and don'ts to guide you in snacking around workouts.

Woman with Green AppleDos and Don'ts for snacking around workouts

Jenny Schwartz, registered dietitian and personal trainer for Midtown Tennis Club Chicago, says nutritional balance is important not just for your daily diet, but also for your pre- and post-workout snacks. Just as your meals should include complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats, so should your snacks.

DO eat before exercise. "Eating before exercise is vital for an efficient and successful workout," the diet and fitness expert advises. "Your body needs fuel to perform, and the right kind of fuel will help you perform at your best."

DON'T skimp on water. Schwartz recommends adequate hydration to avoid the negative effects of dehydration, such as fatigue and heat-related ailments, and to help your body properly and efficiently digest food.

DO go for well balanced snacks. "Stick to carbohydrate snacks with a bit of protein and fat," says Schwartz. "Carbohydrates provide energy to perform, and protein and fat make that energy last longer and keep you satiated."

DON'T skip meals or snacks. Eating before and after exercise will help stabilize blood sugars, improving your workouts and speeding up exercise recovery.

DO follow a healthful diet. According to the Midtown Tennis Club fitness professional, what and how you eat on a daily basis is just as important as what you eat the day of your performance.

DON'T forget post-exercise meals. To prevent undue fatigue during exercise, eat a snack beforehand. But don't underestimate the benefits of eating a snack afterward. Schwartz says, "It is just as important to eat after exercise. Your body has burned fuel and broken down muscle tissue, and it is essential to replenish both of these with food."

DO strategically time your snacks. "Ideally, you should eat one to three hours before exercise, depending on the type of exercise you are doing and for how long," advises Schwartz. "If you plan to do a long workout that will last more than 1-1/2 hours, eat a couple of hours before, and then eat a quick energy-boost-type food 30 minutes before or bring it with you for consumption during the long workout."

DON'T rely on empty calories. A healthful snack composed of carbohydrates with a little protein and fat is a winning choice for fueling and refueling. Grabbing a Red Bull or a candy bar may give you instant gratification, but these empty-calorie foods don't offer proper pre- or post-workout nourishment. "Examples of quick energy-boosting snacks include energy bars and Gatorade," Schwartz adds.

DO eat within one hour after exercise. "If you are doing a long workout or competition, have a quick energy boost within 30 minutes of the end of your workout, and then eat a meal or larger snack one to two hours after your workout," advises the sports nutrition expert. "Your metabolism is at its peak from about 30 minutes to one hour after exercise, which means you are burning the most calories at this time -- making it the optimal time to fuel the body and lose weight."

DON'T overeat. Schwartz advises against eating foods or meals that make you feel heavy or sluggish and discourages consuming too much food. Working out on a full stomach can leave you feeling lethargic or sick to your stomach because your body is trying to digest and put forth energy for working out. Schwartz also cautions against eating foods really high in fat or fiber, which can cause stomach distress.

Healthy snack choices for before and after exercise

According to Schwartz, whole grains are optimal choices for fueling and refueling; however, the fitness expert says that quick-burning carbohydrates can work as well if you are just finishing a long, hard workout.

The healthiest snacks before a workout include:

  • Whole-grain bread with peanut butter and banana
  • Organic yogurt with 1 cup berries
  • Cereal bar or energy bar with natural ingredients
  • Fruit smoothie made with milk or yogurt, raw carrots and celery with hummus
  • Half a turkey sandwich with whole-wheat bread
  • String cheese, whole-grain crackers and fruit
  • Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit
  • Small baked potato with cheese
  • Whole-grain cereal with milk

It's essential to refuel with the right nutrients after a workout to maintain muscle tissue, prime your muscles for your next bout of exercise, help lessen muscle soreness and prevent injury. "You need to eat after exercise to replenish your glycogen stores. This is what your body uses for energy," explains Schwartz. "Glycogen stores are replaced by eating carbohydrates. If you do not replace glycogen stores, the body will burn muscle tissue for energy and recovery. You want to avoid this because muscle tissue is key to burning calories."

The best snacks for post-exercise recovery, particularly right after a long, hard workout, are:

  • Bagel
  • Fruit
  • Energy bar
  • Energy drink, such Gatorade

Schwartz adds, "If you have done weight or resistance training, consume protein but be careful not to overdo it. Most foods contain protein naturally so you do not need to overdose on protein powders and high-protein snacks."

When it comes to snacking around your workouts, balance is key. The best snacks are comprised of all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Strategically-timed, healthy snacks will give you the energy to power through exercise and refuel your muscles while you recover.

More on what to eat before and after exercise

Recovery nutrition
Sports snacks to boost your energy
The best workout foods
How to eat and exercise to lose weight
Nutrition information for athletes

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