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What to eat pre- and post-exercise to ensure you get the most benefits out of your workout

By on May 4, 2012

If you’re carving time out of your busy schedule for working out, make sure you’re setting yourself up for success by eating right before and after you get moving. Wondering what meals and snacks make the most sense for exercise enthusiasts? Read on for a guide to workout nutrition.

Before working out

To fuel up before a workout, you want to keep the usual good nutrition guidelines in mind: Have a balanced meal that includes carbohydrates, protein, and a fruit or vegetable. Also, keep the fat and fiber content moderate, as they can be tough for your body to process. “A cheese and steak breakfast sandwich would be very hard to digest before a workout,” says Robin Barrie Kaiden, a registered dietitian and personal trainer in New York. Instead, try something like whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and a banana, oatmeal with nuts and raisins, or yogurt and a piece of fruit.

What works best for you depends on your body’s tolerance and how taxing your activity is. Eating one to two hours or more before you exercise is ideal, but something small like a banana can usually be consumed at any point pre-workout without causing trouble.

And don’t forget to drink water. One to two cups an hour or two before working out will give you the right amount of fluids to stay hydrated.

After working out

While you may be tempted to refuel with a sports drink and a protein bar right after you work out, unless you’ve exercised for more than 90 minutes or have been sweating profusely, you’ll probably just add more calories to your diet than you’ve burned, leading to weight gain.

“If you are hungry, you want to eat lower-calorie, higher-fiber foods that fill you up, like fruits or veggies,” Kaiden recommends. “The best combination after strenuous exercise is carbohydrates and protein, eaten 30 to 60 minutes after the workout.” Carbohydrates, which fuel your body, are used during exercise and should be replaced, while protein aids in building muscle.

Some good recovery meals include a whole-wheat pita sandwich with turkey and veggies plus pretzels; a rice bowl with beans and avocado plus whole-grain tortilla chips, or stir fry with lean steak, broccoli, bell peppers, carrots, and brown rice, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

For recovery snacks that pack well or can be picked up on the go, Kaiden suggests vegetables and hummus, air-popped popcorn, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat (best with all-natural peanut butter and jelly with no sugar added).

Just as before you exercise, it’s crucial to think not only about what you eat, but also what you drink. “Weigh yourself before and after exercise. If you had a really sweaty workout, drink 24 ounces of water for every pound lost,” Kaiden says. Replenishing those fluids will help you recover and feel better — putting you in good shape to tackle your next workout.

Grab and Go

Need a quick snack that fits with your fitness goals? Try one of these options:

Energy bars: The right ones are small yet filling, delivering nutrients you need in a compact package. But beware that many are nothing more than candy bars in disguise. Look at the label for natural ingredients, and steer clear of added sugars and chocolate coatings.

Trail mix: Unsalted nuts, raisins, unsweetened dried fruits, mini pretzels, and a few dark chocolate chips can make for a nice, quick snack. Create your own personal mix by picking your favorite ingredients and combining them yourself.  Labels are important if you opt for ready-made  trail mix. Look for oils, sugars and sodium, and choose brands with natural ingredients.

Small skim latte: Akin to drinking a glass of skim milk, a skim latte is easy to pick up on the road and packs a good punch of protein. Just skip the whipped cream, and don’t add tons of sugar.

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