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What to Eat Before and After a Workout: Dietitian's Guide

What should you eat before and after a workout? This is a bit of a trick question, because as many dietitians will tell you (including myself) the real answer is: "it depends!" Nutrition should be personalized based on the individual, and physical activity is an important factor that should be taken into account during this personalization. There is no one-size-fits-all approach!

Not only do needs vary from person to person, but your pre- and post-workout fueling needs can differ from day to day. When planning what to eat before and after your workout, there are multiple factors to consider. Time of day, duration and intensity of exercise, climate, and other factors contribute to nutritional guidelines for people who are physically active. Athletes and bodybuilders will have different needs than the general population. That's why sports teams have a dietitian on staff!

That being said, there are some things that ring true to pretty much everyone such as the importance of hydration. Let's explore some FAQs about fueling and re-fueling your body!

Should you eat before or after a workout?

Yes, you should eat before and after a workout. What time of day you are working out will be a factor when it comes to specifics in terms of what you eat and when you eat it. Hydration is important before, during, and after exercise. The intensity and type of workout should be considered when choosing how much to eat before and after.

What's best to eat before a workout?

  • Carbohydrates, especially "quick carbs" that give us a burst of energy to fuel our workout.
  • Protein
  • Fluid/electrolytes
  • Low-to-moderate amounts of fat and fiber

What's best to eat after a workout?

  • Ample protein
  • Antioxidants (ex–berries and tart cherries) The theory behind this is that exercise creates some oxidative stress and can contribute to muscle discomfort. Tart cherries provide relief from muscle discomfort following strenuous activity.
  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Fat
  • Fluid/electrolyte containing foods and beverages

Ideas for pre-workout and post-workout snacks

Balanced meals and snacks, those that contain all three macronutrients (carbohydrates + protein + fat) should be a consistent part of a healthy eating pattern. But when it comes to the foods you eat to fuel workouts, these may look a little different than what's on your dinner plate—and that's OK!

Here are some suggestions for what to eat before and after working out:

Pre-workout ideas:

  • Handful of almonds + 1 date or serving of trail mix that contains dried fruit (quick carbs and moderate fat/fiber)
  • 1 slice bread + 1/2 banana + 1 tsp peanut butter or other nut butter (quick carbs and moderate fat/fiber)
  • 1 egg bite or hardboiled egg + 10 pretzels + 4 oz orange juice diluted in 1/2 cup water (quick carbs + fluid and electrolytes)

Post-work out ideas: (higher protein and complex carbs for recovery)

After a workout is a good time to practice intuitive eating, according to Lindsey Gass, a fellow registered dietitian with a popular Instagram account where she documents her workout routines. "If your body feels hungry enough for a full meal but it doesn't line up with a standardized 'meal time,' that's okay," Gass said. "Go ahead and eat a full lunch at 10 am if that's what your body is asking for."

Hydration: Is Water Enough?

Do you really need to buy "sports drinks" to stay hydrated and restore electrolytes? While these premade beverages can be helpful in achieving that goal, they can also be loaded with sugar and unnecessary calories. Electrolytes include minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium. Electrolytes are lost through sweat, and some people lose more than others.

Gass recommends making healthier homemade versions by diluting juice (watermelon, orange, or any potassium rich juice) with water and adding a pinch of salt. "This ideally should be consumed about 30-45 minutes into an activity. Also, temperature plays a factor as well. Those in colder climates may be able to get by with less hydration but it is still important."

Personally, I am a big advocate of coconut water as a source of electrolytes! There are also powdered electrolyte blends to consider that have gained popularity in recent years.

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How much should you eat before and after a workout?

Not sure if you should be fasting, eating a snack, a light meal, or a super-sized entrée? Again, this will depend on the timing and the type of workout you're doing.

Before: Have a full meal within a few hours before your workout. You may also want to have a smaller, carbohydrate rich snack 30-60 min before meeting up with your running partner. Then, plan for a meal rich in protein about 1-2 hours after your workout--or a protein-containing snack or smoothie within the hour, followed by a full meal within a few hours after.

It's best not to eat immediately before working out in order to give your body some time to digest. The timeframe for eating before a workout can range anywhere from 30 minutes pre-workout to 3 hours prior to exercise, depending on if it is a meal or a snack. For example, maybe you had a meal 3 hours before you plan to work out, so you grab a snack to top you off 30 minutes prior to beginning.

However, some people work out in a fasted state in the morning, and if you do this, you will still need to hydrate. Intensity, duration, and even the type of exercise (such as aerobic or nonaerobic) that will take place, and are all factors to consider when choosing your fuel.

During: Eating during a workout is typically reserved for endurance athletes who need the calories and energy to sustain them through the miles, but can become relevant for anyone working out for prolonged periods of time at high intensity. Everyone should be hydrating during their workout, though!

After: It is important to eat post-workout to replenish your energy and help build muscle. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition "The optimal time period during which to ingest protein is likely a matter of individual tolerance, since benefits are derived from pre- or post-workout ingestion; however, the anabolic (building) effect of exercise is long-lasting (at least 24 hours), but likely diminishes with increasing time post-exercise." So, be sure your meals consistently contain protein, although timing may not be as important as generally thought. A protein shake may be a good choice here, or depending upon the time of day and the duration and intensity of your workout, a full meal with protein may make sense. Whether that's Greek yogurt for breakfast after you exercise, a protein rich snack, or lean meat with lunch or dinner, make sure you're feeding those muscles!

Foods to avoid before a workout

Fats and fiber are important parts of a healthy diet, but eating foods with too much of either or both of these nutrients before your workout may interfere with your performance because it can slow down your digestion. While this can also be beneficial because it can help us feel fuller for longer and support already-healthy blood sugar, nobody wants food bouncing around their stomach during a workout!

Foods to avoid after a workout

Don't derail your weight management plan with fast food, as both exercise and nutrition are an important part of a well-rounded wellness routine. Maybe you are thinking "I earned this," you are feeling famished, or simply want something convenient in a busy lifestyle. Still, you're better off spending a little more time and getting your nutrition right. Make it a habit to brainstorm some healthy options while you are thinking about which muscle groups you will be targeting during your next routine. Avoid consuming empty calories that don't offer important nutrients.

What are the macronutrient requirements for active people?

To fuel those workouts, you need to eat a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, protein and fat; these are the macronutrients we all require. Here's how each macro supports an active body:

  • Protein—for healthy muscles:

    Adequate protein intake is important for promoting muscle protein synthesis.

    While the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for adults is 0.8 g/kg of body weight, some researchers and healthcare professionals suggest this recommendation falls short and recommend higher intakes:

    • 0.54-0.73 g/lb (1.2-1.6 g/kg) for the general population
    • 0.73 g/lb (1.6 g/kg) for more athletic types
    • 0.77-1.00 g/lb (1.7-2.2 g/kg) for body builders

    Taking a food-first approach is important, but so is filling in any gaps from your diet. And with higher protein requirements, it can sometimes be difficult to meet. A meta-analysis finds that protein supplementation significantly enhances changes in muscle strength and size during prolonged resistance exercise training.

    Interestingly, because insulin is an anabolic hormone, it can increase protein synthesis while inhibiting protein breakdown, so adding carbohydrates with your protein can accelerate the building of muscles by secreting more insulin.

  • Carbohydrates—for energy.

    The carbohydrate glucose acts as a form of energy used by our bodies. When it is not being actively used, glucose molecules are stored as glycogen. Muscle glycogen is the primary fuel during exercise of moderate or greater intensity. Consuming a diet sufficient in carbohydrates can support performance and speed muscle recovery. Beginning exercise with ample muscle glycogen stores is an important contributor to improved exercise performance; further, restoration of glycogen stores is essential for complete recovery and subsequent exercise capacity.

    If you generally try to follow a low-carbohydrate diet, you may be wary. You'll be relieved to learn that exercise supports healthy insulin sensitivity and already-healthy blood sugar levels as well. So don't shy away from the carbs!

  • Fat—for energy:

    This macronutrient also acts as an energy source, and is an important substrate during endurance exercise in particular.

Does eating before or after a workout affect weight loss?

If you've ramped up your activity levels because (at least in part) you hope to burn more calories, you certainly wouldn't be the only person exercising to achieve a weight loss goal. That doesn't mean you should avoid workout snacks. Fueling your workouts is important to sustain your energy levels—and it can help keep increased hunger levels in check. Just be sure to choose healthy, balanced foods (and ditch that "diet culture" mentality). Pro tip: combining strength training with endurance training can support weight and fat loss!

About the Author: Holli Ryan is a food & nutrition expert, registered & licensed dietitian-nutritionist, health & wellness writer, blogger, and social media specialist. She graduated from Florida International University and is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her free time she enjoys photography, travel, cooking, art, music, and nature.