Food is to the body what gas is to a car. So naturally, fueling before hitting the gym gives you energy so you can work harder and perform better, while eating after allows you to recover from your workout faster and helps your body repair and grow muscle tissue. Failing to provide your body with enough food pre- and post-workout can lead to muscle loss, increased fatigue, and even injury. But too much food, the wrong kind of food, or eating too close to your workout, can be as bad as not eating at all.
To help you get your pre- and post-workout fix, the fitness and food industries have come up with countless pre-packaged foods that you can buy at the gym. While these food products are convenient, they’re also expensive and may contain a lot of unhealthful sugars. While you can and should look for healthful varieties of these pre-packaged foods and drinks for convenience, you may want to consider going au natural in many of your pre- and post-workout meals. Below, some easy-to-follow guidelines for eating before and after your workouts, plus 10 simple, natural snack and meal ideas to help you get started.
Five Great Pre-Workout Foods
If you’ve had a balanced meal within the last three hours that contains a good mix of high-quality carbohydrates and protein, you probably don’t need to eat anything before hitting the gym. But if it’s been longer than three hours since your last meal, or if you’re working out first thing in the morning, it’s important to have a small snack about an hour before exercising. Your pre-workout meal should be light (low in calories, fat, fiber, and sugar) and should be mostly easily digested complex carbohydrates with some protein. Below, some easy examples of pre-workout foods you may not have considered. Mix them together or eat them a la carte:
- Dried veggies: Dried vegetables are easy to digest and filled with carbohydrates. The California-based company Just Tomatoes sells Just Veggies that are, well, just that: crunchy bits of freeze-dried or dehydrated carrot, corn, peas, bell pepper, and tomato. With no preservatives, no flavorings, and no colorings, but lots of yummy taste, they’re an excellent carb-rich, pre-workout snack.
- Whole-grain fig bars: A tasty, all-natural alternative to sugar-packed energy bars, whole-grain fig bars can be found at many organic and health food stores. These bars are rich in carbohydrates and are easy to digest. Figs are low in fat but contain natural fruit sugars that will power your workout. They’re also a rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, and potassium. If you can’t find the organic variety, try Nabisco’s whole-grain Fig Newtons; the whole-wheat flour gives the cookies more flavor and texture than their less nutritous white-flour cousins.
- Trail mix: Tried-and-true trail mix (any combo of dried fruit and nuts) is a great choice for sustaining energy, with a great combination of complex carbohydrates and protein. However, this stuff’s so tasty you're likely to munch through much more than you need, so just be sure to keep your pre-workout snack to around a half a cup.
- Whole-grain English muffin with nut butter: The muffin supplies complex carbs; spread it with a healthful nut butter (such as peanut butter, almond butter, or cashew butter) for protein and healthy monounsaturated fats. Skip the Skippy and look for natural nut butters made of ground nuts, a little salt, and nothing else.
- A piece of fruit: As boring as it might sound, nothing beats a good old-fashioned piece of fruit to snack on before pumping iron. Stick with the standard banana, orange or apple, or venture out with a kiwi, mango, papaya, or whatever. All fruit is good fruit, so you can’t go wrong.
Don't forget that it's just as important to eat smart after the burn has subsided and you’ve toweled off the sweat. In fact, for about an hour after your workout there's a window of opportunity when your muscles are literally starving for nutrients. The meal you eat at this time is particularly important for building muscle and replenishing energy sources, because the first 60 minutes following your workout represent an anabolic window in which you have the potential to build more muscle tissue if you provide your body with ample nutrients. To achieve this growth, your muscle glycogen levels need to be replenished, and high-quality protein will stimulate muscle-protein synthesis. But what should you eat? Try to eat a balanced combo meal containing a four-to-one ratio of complex carbohydrates to protein, plus some good fats. Check out some these post-workout meals you can whip up in anywhere from five seconds to 15 minutes:
- Vegetable omelet with a side of berries: Eggs and egg whites are a great source of protein. (Eggs yolks are high in cholesterol, so be sure to limit your intake to around four a week. You can substitute two egg whites for each egg yolk in any recipes that call for eggs.) Throw in lots veggies (fresh and frozen work) in your omelet and serve with a side of antioxidant-rich berries. Yum!
- Sushi with edamame: Sushi is almost as common in grocery stores these days as produce and pizza, and it makes an ideal snack after hitting the gym. Pick tuna and salmon as the fatty fish pack the nutritional power of not only protein and vitamins and minerals, but also Omega-3 fatty acids. And the rice, especially if it’s brown rice, provides a good source of carbohydrates. Add a side of edamame—parboiled fresh soybeans still in the pod—for some good-for-you fiber, vitamins A and C, and protein. Special note: Check with your doctor to make sure you can eat sushi; raw fish carries some risk of intestinal parasites.
- Hummus with whole-wheat pita and veggies: Hummus is chickpeas blended with garlic, olive oil, and tahini (sesame paste) into a thick spread that's perfect for scooping with veggies or spreading on whole-wheat pita. Easy to prepare and high in protein, hummus makes an outstanding snack and travels exceptionally well, making it a great post-workout meal on the run.
- Salmon, sweet potato, and a salad: The salmon for protein and omega-3s, the sweet potato for a cornucopia of vitamins and minerals and carbs, and the green salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar, taste great and meet all of your body’s post-workout nutrition needs.
- Stir-fry chicken and veggies: Skinless, boneless chicken breast diced and sautéed with fresh veggies and olive oil is a great source of high-quality protein and carbs, as well as vitamins and minerals. Serve with some brown rice for fiber and you're good to go.
About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.