What Should You Really Be Eating Before and After a Sweat Sesh?
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For all of the expert advice and information out there, the relationship between exercise and nutrition is not an exact science.
Sure, there are all sorts of guidelines and recommendations, but really, every person and every body is different, so the way that one person may react to an increased protein intake may be different from someone else.
The pre- and post-exercise nutrition game is hotter than ever and we wanted to get at least some of the facts straight about what really could make a difference and what’s just fluff. To be clear, these tips don’t center around fat loss as much as they do around optimizing performance and recovery (which is an important step if fat loss and/or muscle gain is a goal, anyway).
We spoke with dietitians, doctors, and fitness experts to learn about some practical ways to boost workout nutrition and the science behind it all.
What to Eat Before a Workout
“We need all the nutrient groups,” says Becky Ramsing, MPH, RDN, and a Senior Program Officer, Food Communities and Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
She notes that the real foundation for regular, injury-free workouts is a healthy diet with adequate calories and a balanced amount of carbohydrates, fats, and protein throughout the day. This means plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and a variety of protein foods.
“Whole foods offer benefits beyond supplements and processed energy foods,” she adds.
Three to Four Hours Before:
Athletic Greens-affiliated naturopathic physician Dr. Ralph Esposito says that depending on the type of training, having a light meal of 30-40g of slow-digesting carbohydrates and about 20-30g of protein will help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide sufficient energy going into a workout.
"Most people doing higher intensity workouts or long-duration training (cardio) will notice decreased performance if they are depleted,” he adds.
An Hour Before:
If you’re simply lifting weights to build or maintain muscle and strength, you’re best served by consuming some simple-to-digest (and absorb) protein or amino acids. A protein powder mixed with water is a great, well-rounded pre-workout approach. Just be sure to stick with a natural protein powder that has as few additives as possible. Loading up on a protein powder full of synthetics will likely do more harm than good no matter what you’re trying to achieve.
Esposito notes that unless you’ve been fasting for 18 to 20 hours, you likely don’t need to eat anything an hour prior to working out. Athletes who burn more calories may need that extra fuel beforehand, but as long as you’re eating 2-3 hours prior, you’ll have enough stored energy to get after your routine.
What to Eat After a Workout
A good post-workout mindset switches to recovery and how to best help your body optimize all of that hard work you’ve just put in.
“If you’re not supporting your body and limiting inflammation, you’re making yourself more prone to injury,” says botanical supplement Flume founder Dr. Taryn Forelli.
Her brand is rooted (quite literally) in the power of plants and she supports turning to herbs like turmeric and remedies like tart cherry and green tea to help support the body’s natural recovery processes immediately after a workout. She also notes that some research supports eating fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, which can help your microbiome (digestion and GI systems) recover after a tough workout as well.
Three to Four Hours Later:
“Bulking does not mean a free pass to the buffet,” Esposito says.
While a larger meal 3 to 4 hours later is typically a good idea, it really does matter what that meal is.
"Most men who want to gain muscle mass think they can eat all they want and then just burn the fat later. Unfortunately, that is not how nutritional thermodynamics work,” he notes. “If you want to eat more to put on muscle mass, you have to make sure you are properly stimulating the muscle you want to grow. If you put the proper load on the muscle and provide sufficient carbs and protein post-training then you will grow.”
The science isn’t clear on what meal is best, but you can bet that you’ll want a colorful, well-balanced meal. Think about a small portion of protein, a whole grain, leafy greens, fruit, and perhaps a small, anti-inflammatory herb like turmeric (taken however you like, just make sure it’s at least 500mg to notice any benefit).
FAQ of Workout Nutrition
How important is protein in workout nutrition and does it matter if it’s plant-based?
Protein specifically matters in weight-dominant workouts, but perhaps not in the way you think. Several studies have investigated whether an “anabolic window” exists immediately after your workout with respect to protein synthesis (i.e: muscle building). The evidence does say that protein or amino acid consumption post-workout is more effective than carbs alone for promoting muscle building. However, it’s uncertain whether protein plus carbs post-workout is superior to taking in protein alone for this same objective.
Although whey is the more popular protein source, plant-based proteins are catching on faster – and for good reason.
“Research has shown significant benefits of a plant-based diet on both blood sugar and athletic performance,” says Koia-affiliated diabetes health coach Lauren Bongiorno. “(Plant protein) also has less risk of inflammation as opposed to whey.” (However, grass-fed whey has been shown to lower inflammation in several studies as well.)
Even a partial reduction in meat protein consumption has been linked to all sorts of health benefits and gradually swapping it for a plant-based protein can make a big difference.
“Plant proteins, such as beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds, also have the added benefit of other nutrients, such as B-vitamins, healthy fats, fiber, and phytochemicals, which are also important for foundational health,” Lansing says. “One cup of beans has an equivalent amount of protein as three ounces of beef.”
Do eating rules vary for cardio vs. weight training?
For hour-plus, intensive exercising like running or cycling, our bodies turn to energy stored as glycogen. Ramsing says that after exercise, it’s important to replenish glycogen stores by consuming carbohydrates. “If you don’t, your next workouts will be harder because you’ll start out at a lower level and deplete your glycogen stores faster. A great post-exercise carbohydrate treat is some cereal with fruit."
Strength training breaks down muscle, which is then rebuilt leaner and stronger. Consuming protein along with carbohydrates (like mixing nuts and yogurt) post-workout is a great way to help the rebuilding process.
When is the best time of day to work out?
Bongiorno says that not all times of the day have the same impact on blood sugar, which will in turn affect energy levels and performance.
“For example, if on Tuesday you do a Crossfit class at 7 a.m, and the following day you do another Crossfit class at 4 p.m, it is likely that your blood sugar response will be different even though the workout may have been similar. Insulin sensitivity varies throughout the day because of natural fluctuations in hormones.”
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