If you are rolling out of bed into your gym clothes, and then out the door for an early morning workout, you’ll want to reach for something quickly digestible (like a banana) or purely liquid (like coffee). “Coffee is a proven ergogenic aid (performance enhancer) and it’s not dehydrating like most people believe,” says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist, registered dietitian, and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. According to Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for Athletes, by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, caffeine increases alertness, acts as a central nervous system stimulant, helps with mental sharpness, and decreases perceived exertion. While coffee alone gives you a boost, Clark says it’s important to eat something before a workout. “Five minutes before your work out, take a swig of orange juice or eat a banana otherwise your body will go into breakdown mode. Eating something will give you more energy and you’ll have a better workout.” If you are craving caffeine post-workout, go for a latte. “A latte gives you the combination of carbohydrate and protein” says Sarah Currie, registered dietician and co-owner of Physical Equilibrium. “If you are avoiding dairy, ask for almond or coconut milk.”
The ultimate comfort breakfast food is an ideal carbohydrate-rich pre-workout choice. It’s full of fiber (which helps you feel full), low in fat, and high in slow-digesting, blood sugar-friendly carbohydrates. Oatmeal’s soluble fiber—beta glucan—has been proven to lower LDL cholesterol. “If you want to burn fat, you need a hard workout, and you need some carbs to get you through the class,” says Currie. While oatmeal alone is ideal fuel for the average gym class, if you are working out for a longer period of time, Clark suggests adding some protein. “Swirl some peanut butter in your oatmeal.” Check out these delicious oatmeal recipes.
Eggs are an excellent recovery food and an ideal choice for a snack after a hard workout. They are high in protein (about six grams per egg) and low in fat (about 75 calories). They also make you feel full and can assist with weight loss. Studies have shown that eating eggs for breakfast may help curb your appetite and reduce the amount of calories you consume for the next 24 hours. “After a workout, have eggs with some form of carb such as eggs and grits, eggs and toast, eggs and potatoes, but not eggs and bacon,” says Clark.
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Slightly tarter than traditional yogurt, Greek (strained) yogurt contains less sugar, more carbs, and is packed with protein (12 to 17 grams per serving depending on the brand), making it an ideal pre- and post-workout snack. If you plan to eat yogurt before you workout, Clark suggests finding one that you can tolerate well and then add some sugar, in the form of berries or sliced bananas. “Sugar fuels the muscles, so if yogurt has sugar, it will energize you,” says Clark. Plain yogurt is good after you workout because it delivers the protein needed for building muscle. “Any muscle breakdown that occurs after a workout needs to be repaired,” says Currie. “You can replace the carbs you just used to get the glycogen back in your body for the next workout.” When choosing a yogurt, Currie suggests staying away from the sugary fruit-at-the bottom types. Try these recipes for Greek yogurt.
Nuts and nut butter
Studies show that people who eat nuts live longer and healthier lives with lower risk of developing chronic problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research has also shown that people who snack on nuts are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. “To lose weight you need to feel satiated,” says Currie. “So fill up on nuts, but not too much.” Nuts and nut butters contain carbs, protein, and healthy (unsaturated) fat, a combination that helps you get through a tough workout. “Fat offers sustained energy,” says Clark. “It gets stored in the muscle and helps with stamina—so it’s a great pre-workout snack to have before a long run, hike, or bike ride.” To make it through a long workout, you need stamina, says Currie. An English muffin with peanut butter, a bagel with peanut butter and banana, or a piece of Ezekiel toast with almond butter or peanut butter are all good choices.
Bananas are an ideal pre-workout snack because they are easily digestible and packed with carbohydrates and potassium, which helps prevent muscle cramping. “If you want to burn fat, you need a hard workout, and you need some carbs to get you through the class,” says Currie. “Slice a banana into some plain yogurt, and you have the carbs along with the protein that you need to build muscle.”
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A handful of berries is a great option for a pre-workout snack, especially when you are in a hurry. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries—whatever your preference, they’ll provide a quick energy boost and are rich in antioxidants which help fight off workout-induced stressors. Berries provide slow-digesting complex carbs to help get you through the workout and are also full of water, which helps with hydration. “Before you exercise you need food that settles well, that is soluble, and doesn’t talk back to you,” says Clark. Berries are also a rich source for anthocyanins and other flavonoids that may boost memory function. Add berries to your steel-cut oatmeal or yogurt or mix them in with some nuts and dried fruit for a grab-and-go snack.
Low-fat cottage cheese
Low-fat cottage cheese is low in calories and high in protein and calcium. It also has been proven to help with weight management. Pre-exercise, cottage cheese sprinkled with berries or bananas delivers the right mix of protein and carbs needed to get you through your workout. It also makes a great post-workout snack. “If you are really watching your carbs, opt for cottage cheese and top it off with pistachios,” says Curries. “You will feel full and satiated without the carbs.”
Low-fat chocolate milk
While sports drinks and smoothies are popular post-workout drinks, you can simplify your life with chocolate milk: It provides the ideal balance of carbohydrates and protein to help you recover after exercise. After a workout, it is best to consume foods that are high in carbohydrate and protein (about 15 to 25 grams) to help replace energy (glycogen) stores and repair muscle tissue, explains Kelly Pritchett, board-certified specialist in Sports Dietetics and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Low-fat chocolate milk also replaces fluids and electrolytes lost during exercise, so it helps with re-hydration.” If you are not a fan of chocolate, try a smoothie with fresh fruit and yogurt, such as one of these irresistibly delicious smoothie recipes.
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Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A, an important nutrient that is linked to anti-aging benefits, cancer prevention, and eye health. The sweet potato’s combination of being high in dietary fiber, low in calories, and flush with water also make it a great post-workout snack for weight loss. If you work out mid-day or after work, try adding sweet potatoes to your lunch or dinner, explains Clark. “When trying to lose weight, the goal is to surround your workout with food,” she says. “Cut back on eating late at night so you lose weight when you are sleeping.”