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Eating the Right Foods for Exercise
Learn how to choose foods that will fuel your workout routine and give you the energy and nutrients your body needs.

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Nutrition is important for fitness

Eating a well-balanced diet can help you get the calories and nutrients you need to fuel your daily activities, including regular exercise. When it comes to eating foods to fuel your exercise performance, it’s not as simple as choosing vegetables over doughnuts. You need to get the right types of food at the right times of the day. Learn about the importance of healthy breakfasts, workout snacks, and meal plans.

Get off to a good start

Your first meal of the day is an important one. According to an article published in Harvard Health Letter, eating breakfast regularly has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Starting your day with a healthy meal can help replenish your blood sugar, which your body needs to power your muscles and brain.

Eating a healthy breakfast is especially important on days when exercise is on your agenda. Skipping breakfast can leave you feeling lightheaded or lethargic while you’re working out. Choosing the right kind of breakfast is crucial. Too many people rely on simple carbohydrates to start their day. But a plain white bagel or doughnut won’t keep you feeling full for long. In comparison, a fiber- and protein-rich breakfast may fend off hunger pangs for longer and provide the energy you need to keep your exercise going. Follow these tips:

  • Instead of eating sugar-laden cereals made from refined grains, try oatmeal, oat bran, or other whole-grain cereals that are high in fiber. Then, throw in some protein, such as milk, yogurt, or chopped nuts.
  • If you’re making pancakes or waffles, replace some of the all-purpose flour with whole-grain options. Then, stir some cottage cheese into the batter.
  • If you prefer toast, choose whole-grain bread. Then pair it with an egg, peanut butter, or another protein source.

Count on the right carbohydrates

Thanks to low-carb fad diets, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap. But carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. This is especially true if you exercise.

Choosing the right kind of carbohydrates is important. Too many people rely on the simple carbs found in sweets and processed foods. Instead, you should focus on eating the complex carbs found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Whole grains have more staying power than refined grains because you digest them more slowly. They can help you feel full for longer and fuel your body throughout the day. They can also help stabilize your blood sugar levels. Finally, these quality grains have the vitamins and minerals you need to keep your body running at its best.

Pack protein into your snacks and meals

Protein is needed to help keep your body growing, maintained, and repaired. For example, the University of Rochester Medical Center reports that red blood cells die after about 120 days. Protein is also essential for building and repairing muscles, helping you enjoy the benefits of your workout. It can be a source of energy when carbohydrates are in short supply, but it’s not a major source of fuel during exercise you’re well-fed.

Adults need to eat about 0.8 grams of protein per day for every kilogram of their body weight, reports Harvard Health Blog. That’s equal to about 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. Exercisers and older people may need even more. That protein can come from:

  • poultry, such as chicken and turkey
  • red meat, such as beef and lamb
  • fish, such salmon and tuna
  • dairy, such as milk and yogurt
  • legumes, such as beans and lentils
  • eggs

For the healthiest options, choose lean proteins that are low in saturated and trans fats. Limit the amount of red meat and processed meats that you eat.

Boost your fruit and vegetable intake

Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of natural fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that your body needs to function properly. They’re also low in calories and fat.

Aim to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies at every meal, recommends the United States Department of Agriculture. Try to “eat the rainbow” by choosing fruits and veggies of different colors. This will help you enjoy the full range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that the produce aisle has to offer. Every time you go to the grocery store, considering choosing a new fruit or vegetable to try. For snacks, keep dried fruits in your workout bag and raw veggies in the fridge.

Choose healthy fats

Unsaturated fats may help reduce inflammation, and they help provide calories. While fat is a primary fuel for aerobic exercise, we have plenty stored in the body to fuel even the longest workouts. However, getting healthy unsaturated fats helps to provide essential fatty acids and calories to keep you moving. Healthy options include:

  • nuts
  • seeds
  • avocados
  • olives
  • oils, such as olive oil

Fuel up before exercise

When it comes to fueling up before or after a workout, it’s important to achieve the right balance of carbs and protein. Pre-workout snacks that combine carbohydrates with protein can make you feel more energized than junk foods made from simple sugars and lots of fat.

Consider stocking your workout bag and refrigerator with some of these simple snacks:

Bananas

Bananas are full of potassium and magnesium, which are important nutrients to get on a daily basis. Eating a banana can help replenish these minerals while providing natural sugars to fuel your workout. For added protein, enjoy your banana with a serving of peanut butter.

Berries, grapes, and oranges

These fruits are all full of vitamins and minerals, as well as water. They’re easy on your intestines, give you a quick boost of energy, and help you stay hydrated. Consider pairing them with a serving of yogurt for protein.

Nuts

Nuts are a great source of heart-healthy fats and also provide protein and essential nutrients. They can give you a source of sustained energy for your workout. Pair them with fresh or dried fruit for a healthy dose of carbohydrates. However, test these options to see how they settle. High-fat foods can slow digestion, and they may make food sit in your stomach too long if your workout is coming up quickly.

Nut butter

Many grocery stores carry single-serving packets of peanut butter that don’t require refrigeration and can be easily stored in a gym bag. For a tasty protein-carbohydrate combo, you can swipe peanut butter on:

  • an apple
  • a banana
  • whole-grain crackers
  • a slice of whole-grain bread

If you don’t like peanut butter, try almond butter, soy butter, or other protein-rich alternatives.

Don’t cut too many calories

If you’re trying to lose weight or tone your body, you may be tempted to cut a ton of calories from your meals. Cutting calories is a key part of weight loss, but it’s possible to go too far. Weight loss diets should never leave you feeling exhausted or ill. Those are signs that you’re not getting the calories you need for good health and fitness.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a diet containing 1,200 to 1,500 daily calories is suitable for most women who are trying to lose weight safely. A diet with 1,500 to 1,800 daily calories is appropriate for most men who are trying to shed excess pounds. If you’re very active or you don’t want to lose weight while getting fit, you may need to eat more calories. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian to learn how many calories you need to support your lifestyle and fitness goals.

Balance is key

As you settle into an active lifestyle, you’ll probably discover which foods give you the most energy and which have negative effects. The key is learning to listen to your body and balancing what feels right with what’s good for you. Follow these tips:

  • Aim to make breakfast a part of your routine.
  • Choose complex carbohydrates, lean protein sources, healthy fats, and a wide variety of fruits and veggies.
  • Stock your fridge and gym bag with healthy workout snacks.

The right balance of carbohydrates, protein, and other nutrients can help fuel your exercise routine.

Written by: Dana Sullivan Kilroy
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: [Ljava.lang.Object;@6e3baac4
Published: Sep 10, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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