We spoke with fitness and nutrition experts to get the lowdown on the best ways to give your body what it needs to succeed in the gym in the form of delicious recipes specifically designed to match your fitness goals.
WHAT TO EAT... Before You Train
These days, the most frequent question you’ll hear on the gym floor is not, “How much can you bench?” but rather “To fast … or not to fast?” That is the question. And the answer is, well, a bit complicated.
The research is split on whether or not intermittent fasting is best for performance training. If your goal is to lose weight, working out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach may be helpful. A 2018 review of 46 studies found that eating before training can boost your endurance while working out; it also found that exercising while in a fasted state causes the release of more free fatty acids into your bloodstream, indicating improved fat burning.
Harley Pasternak, MS, nutrition expert and celebrity trainer, agrees that obsessing about pre-workout nutrition isn’t necessary for your average gym-goer. “You do not need a pre-workout meal unless you’re training for a sport or for performance,” he says. “Focus on three meals and two snacks a day, and then decide where to put your exercise program in your day, not the other way around.” For those who choose to eat before working up a sweat, eat one to two hours ahead of your workout to ensure you have enough time to digest.
Another popular performance booster is caffeine. Some organizations, such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, even recommend caffeine limits for athletes. “Caffeine does seem to be a very well-established ergogenic aid (think stamina increasing), but on an individual level people need to experiment and see what works for them in terms of when and how much to consume,” says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition, a web-based nutrition coaching and certification community.
To test if fasting and/or caffeine improve your performance, try eating a mini meal, such as our easy chia pudding, one hour before your workout. Then, the next time you hit the gym, don’t eat anything beforehand. Keep a record of what you experience, says Scott-Dixon, taking note of anything else that may affect your results, such as your overall stress level or the type of exercise you’re doing, for example.
Thanks to a few highly publicized studies in the 1990s, the lasting belief until recently was that you must – repeat, must – eat within a 30-minute window after your workout in order to reap the benefits of what is called the “anabolic window.” This was supposedly the period of time when your body’s tissues are most “hungry” for the nutrients that help with repair and recovery, namely protein and simple carbohydrates.
That myth has all but been busted, says Scott-Dixon. “The window doesn’t snap shut as quickly as we assumed,” she says. If you’re eating within relatively steady intervals throughout the day, your body should have enough amino acids and glucose ready to help rebuild the muscle tissues that are broken down during exercise.
Of course, if gaining muscle is one of your goals, it won’t hurt to eat a protein-rich snack – like these Lemon Salmon Patties – following your workout, though it doesn’t have to be within 30 minutes of the completion of your gym session.
Pasternak also points out one largely overlooked post-training aspect: hydration. Drinking water or an electrolyte beverage pre- workout plus an additional two to three liters of water throughout the day will keep you well hydrated, he says.
Following a low-carb, high-protein diet is a scientifically proven way to lose weight and keep it off. But what if you’re also working out? Do you then need more carbs on your plate?
The short answer is no, you don’t. You can stick to the same weight- loss eating plan whether you’re working out or not. The basics: Eat an increased amount of protein, cut back on carbohydrate-rich foods and eat a moderate amount of healthy fats. Some athletes even swear their reduced-carb diet (think keto or Paleo) actually delivers an energy boost. Though, as our experts point out, the boost is usually the result of a long-term training regimen that causes the body to favor burning fatty acids (from fat) instead of glucose (from carbohydrate).
Your low-carb diet may also help you burn more calories in the gym. A randomized trial, published in a 2018 edition of The BMJ, found that participants who followed a low-carb diet (carbs made up 20% of their total calorie intake) burned more calories when exercising than participants who ate higher-carb diets. And levels of ghrelin, also known as the “hunger hormone,” dropped dramatically in study participants who followed the low-carb protocol.
Fitness goals aside, eating both healthy fats and proteins helps you feel more satisfied from meals, making it easier for you to avoid hunger-related snacking and overeating. That’s not the only bonus. As Pasternak points out, “Some studies have shown that [eating more] essential fatty acids, such as omega 3-s and omega-6s, can actually contribute to [faster] fat metabolism.” This fresh salad, for example, boasts healthy fats from oils, nuts and avocado, as well as protein from the chicken.
You’ve heard of “carb loading,” a practice many endurance athletes employ before participating in long-distance events. This means packing in plates of pasta, rice, cereals and other sources of carbohydrate in the days leading up to the big race to fuel up for the long haul. But if you’re not a marathoner, it’s unlikely you’ll need to take on such an intense plan. In fact, if you’re only hitting the gym for an hour a few times a week, you’ll want nutrition that will give you a boost but also keep you light on your toes and feeling good in your gut.
A bit of carbohydrate goes a long way, say our experts. “Most people do better with some amount of carbohydrate in their diet, especially before and after exercise,” Scott-Dixon says. And, as with protein, a consistent, moderate intake of carbs throughout the day should be enough to keep you going through spin class. Again, some athletes – and, keep in mind, these are high-level, balls-to-the- wall types of athletes – perform better, endurance-wise, when they eat fewer carbs.
If you’re looking to fuel up for a long run or intense workout day, eating a high-fiber recipe, such as this quinoa-based salad, a few hours before you go (giving yourself time to digest it) will provide a comfortable, consistent stream of energy.
Though a post-workout meal may not be necessary for the average person, those looking to gain muscle mass will profit from adding high-quality, lean protein to their diet.
Don’t get too hung up on when to eat protein throughout the day, says Jason Ewoldt, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic. Rather, it’s your total daily protein intake that really counts. He says most experts and institutions suggest that you eat 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to build muscle. For a 160-pound woman, for example, that means roughly 100 to 145 grams of protein per day.
But don’t automatically reach for your shaker bottle to meet your protein needs. Though protein powders deliver rapidly absorbed protein, whole-food sources come with a host of other benefits, including vitamins and minerals that help with the repair and growth of muscle tissues. “With protein, I tell people to get it from as many sources as possible,” Scott-Dixon says.
What exactly do we mean by power? Well, a simple, unofficial definition of power is “speed plus resistance.” Eating certain carbohydrates, it turns out, will help when you want to do training that incorporates explosive movements, since glucose (the breakdown component of carbohydrate) is the fuel your muscles and organs prefer when operating at high intensities. Since power moves are quick and intense, your body will need some fast-release carbohydrate to help you muscle through, though not as much as you might for endurance training.
To stay agile, focus on carb sources that won’t weigh you down. For example, choose carbohydrate foods with fiber instead of those with added sugars. “Sweet potatoes are a voluminous food that help fill you up with a good quantity of fiber and micronutrients without overloading on calories,” says Pasternak. Scott-Dixon agrees, noting that any type of tuber (sweet potatoes, taro, yams, turnips or parsnips, for example) will provide your body what it needs in a power situation. “Any of these choices will replenish glycogen (the storage form of glucose), give you energy and help in recovery,” she says.
An oft-touted piece of weight-loss advice is to stop eating at least an hour before you go to sleep, otherwise the food will be immediately stored as fat. As with most aspects of the human body, however, it’s not that simple.
“I think the biggest misconception is that when you eat before bed, you are not using those calories, so those calories turn to fat,” Ewoldt explains, adding that when it comes to fitness training there actually may be a benefit to having a snack or small meal before you hit the hay. Fasted early-morning exercisers, meaning those who don’t eat breakfast before hitting the gym, can experiment with adding a small pre-bedtime meal to ensure they have some energy available for their dawn workout.
If you choose to eat at this time with the purpose of fueling up for a morning sesh, reach for fiber- and protein-rich foods to quell late-night digestion grumbles. Scott-Dixon recommends eating foods with casein, a protein found in milk and dairy products, for those times when you want to quash hunger for long periods of time, as you would before bed; some cottage cheese with berries or yogurt topped with nuts would fit the bill.
Written by Rachel Debling for Clean Eating Magazine and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.