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Ask the Diet Doctor: What to Eat Before and After a Workout

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Q: Do I need to eat a different pre- and post-workout snacks depending on the type of exercise I'm doing? What kinds?

A: How you fuel before and after has less to do with the type of exercise and more to do with the intensity and duration of the workout you're doing. At the most basic level, recovery comes down to two components: replenishing energy stores in your muscles (which calls for carbohydrates) and repairing muscular damage (your body uses protein as a stimulus for muscle repair). (Find more of the Best Pre- and Post-Workout Snacks for Every Workout here.) Here’s how to put this into action.

Pre-Workout
How you fuel your body pre-workout depends on how soon you are going to exercise. The closer you eat to hitting the gym or pavement, the faster food digestion needs to be. Eating a banana as you are walking into your spin class isn’t going to do you much good, since your body needs to digest and breakdown that food before it can access the sugars and ship them out to your muscles. Try this instead:

Working out in 60 minutes or sooner: Drink an 8 to 20 ounce sports drink (depending on intensity) and consume a 5g amino acid supplement.

Working out in 60 to 120 minutes: A small, well-rounded meal of whole foods will give the nutrients you need. A great example would be an egg sandwich made with one egg, reduced fat cheese, and a fresh sliced tomato on a wrap or piece of flatbread, or a half cup of Greek yogurt with a small handful of fresh berries and a spoonful of flaxseed meal.

Post-Workout
Refueling after your workout has become a huge trend, but if it's just a walk around the block or a two-mile jog, do you really need two snack bars and a sports drink to refuel, especially if you are eating dinner in 45 minutes? No. It's true that after exercise, your body has a greater affinity for shuttling carbohydrates to your muscles in an effort to replenish depleted energy stores. But this preferential distribution of carbohydrates doesn’t magically allow you to eat as much as you want.

Your post-workout nutrition should be considered in the context of when you are eating your next meal.

Within 2 hours: Choose either a glass of chocolate milk (this provides your protein for repairing muscle, carbohydrates for muscle recovery, and is widely available) or 16 ounce sports drink, and a 5g branched chain amino acid supplement.

Within 60 to 90 minutes: Drink a shake with milk or water and one scoop of protein powder shortly after exercise, followed by a real meal of protein and starchy carbohydrates within 90 minutes.

All the options above are quickly digestible. Liquid nutrition like chocolate milk, sports drink, and protein powder enter your system quickly, allowing you to start the recovery and rebuilding process ASAP.

Try Different Things
It is important to know your body when it comes to creating a personalized fueling strategy. Many people fast before a workout in the morning, as they are under the impression that it leads to an increase in fat loss. Research shows that this is not the case. Exercising on a full or empty stomach has no impact on your weight loss. In fact, I have found that most people workout with greater intensity and effort if they have something to eat beforehand.

Regardless of what you choose for your workout nutrition plan, remember that the amount of food should be proportional to the intensity and duration that you exercise. And don't forget to take into account other calories that you're consuming throughout the day so that your workout meals don't unknowingly drive you into a caloric excess—thus working against any weight loss efforts.

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