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What to eat before and after a workout

Linda Melone, CSCS, is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and certified personal trainer based in Orange County, CA. Visit her website at www.LindaMelone.com.

Foods to eat for exercise

It seems every other day, new research tells you something different about how to eat when you exercise. Cardio on an empty stomach burns fat – or does it? Eat protein after your workout – or is it carbs first, protein later? Before you opt to simply sit on the couch with a bag of Doritos, let us fill you in on the best foods to eat before and after a workout.

Woman eating granola bar

Your fitness goals dictate your diet

The real answer depends largely on your goals, the length and type of workout (yoga vs. endurance running) and whether you're an average exerciser or an elite athlete looking to shave a millisecond off of your last long-distance run. Athletes in the latter category spend more time calculating, measuring and weighing food than the average person needs or wants to. For the majority, the dietary advice below will help you get through your workout, burn fat and have enough energy left over to make it through a busy work day without falling asleep at your desk.


Foods to eat before you exercise

Many diet books suggest exercising on an empty stomach to burn the most fat. However, to maximize your fitness results, it's best to eat something before and after your workout. The majority of your intake should be carbs, along with some protein.

Eat for energy

Have a small snack like a yogurt or a breakfast bar about 30 minutes before you leave for the gym. If you exercise after work, you can do the same. Most people make the mistake of skimping or skipping breakfast and lunch and are starving by mid-afternoon, with no energy for a workout at the gym.

Healthy pre-workout meals

In general, carbohydrates are your body's preferred energy source. Avoid high-fat foods, which take longer to digest, drink plenty of liquids and eat foods that you know won't upset your stomach. The best pre-workout meals combine a healthy carbohydrate with some lean protein.

Try these pre-workout meals:

  • A slice of whole-grain toast with a tablespoon of peanut butter
  • Half or whole meal-replacement bar (depending on the calories)
  • Whole-grain cereal with milk or yogurt
  • Fresh fruit with yogurt
  • A breakfast shake or smoothie with fruit and yogurt or milk

Recovery foods for after you exercise

The sooner you eat after your workout the better, even if you're trying to lose weight. Healthy carbohydrates prevent you from feeling tired later in the day, but be sure to include some protein for muscle repair, too.

Post-workout meal suggestions:

  • Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce and tuna or other lean protein
  • Cottage cheese with fresh fruit
  • Tuna with salad and/or fresh fruit
  • Lean beef, chicken or fish with brown rice or whole-grain pasta
  • Low-fat yogurt with dried fruit and walnuts

Try different foods at different times to see what works best for you.

More fitness nutrition tips

Snacking around workouts: Do's and don'ts
What to eat after exercise
The best workout foods

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