Eating for Exercise
Learn how to properly time meals and workouts to build lean muscle and burn more calories.
By Kristen Stewart
Medically reviewed by Christine Wilmsen Craig, MD
We all know food is fuel, so it only makes sense that a proper fill-up is critical to a rewarding workout. Even if you’re looking to lose weight, skimping on calories before exercise is not the path to success. Not only will it result in a lack of energy, but more muscle mass will actually be lost than created.
“Basic exercise does not burn all that many calories,” says William D. Hart, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health sciences at Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla. “You cannot get rid of the three pieces of pumpkin pie at the gym tomorrow. But exercise adds muscle, so that over time your body naturally burns more calories per day.”
For a healthy diet, Hart recommends following the United States Department of Agriculture My Pyramid guidelines, emphasizing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while avoiding fried and fatty foods.
As for exercise, it’s critical to combine weight training with high-intensity interval work during aerobic activities such as walking or jogging on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine.
Pre-Workout Meal Plan
While it’s important to eat something before exercising, be careful to allow enough time for digestion. A good blood supply is required to process food, so conflicts can occur when the same blood is needed to bring nutrients to muscles during a workout. “Your goal is to make sure that the meal is essentially gone when you start the exercise,” says Hart. “A good rule of thumb would be eating no closer than one and a half to two hours ahead of time.”
Keep in mind that the amount of fat in the meal and the intensity of the exercise can also affect digestion time. The more fat, the longer it takes to be digested and the more time should be allowed. How taxing the workout is can change the amount of blood needed for the muscles. If the exercise is mild, eating closer to the start time is acceptable.
As to the type of food, Thomas A. Fox, an exercise physiologist and author of The System for Health and Weight Loss, recommends fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread. An ideal pre-workout meal consists of protein — 10 to 35 percent, carbohydrates — 45 to 65 percent, and fat — 20 to 35 percent.
And what about those who exercise in the morning vs. the evening? The timing really shouldn’t affect the diet. Many people have a preference for foods appropriate to the time of day, but as long as the right amount and type of calories are ingested, the specific selection is not important.
Post-Workout Meal Plan
If the exercise has been intense, it’s crucial to eat within an hour of the end of the workout in order to refuel the body’s cells. “A decent-sized meal within that 60-minute post-workout period will greatly increase the ability to recover and help build lean muscle tissue,” says Jonathan Mulholland, DC, a chiropractor, exercise scientist, and consultant for the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. An ideal ratio is 4:1 carbohydrates to protein, with an easy option being a glass of chocolate skim milk.
For mild workouts, a light snack is sufficient to tide you over until the next meal. Another good idea is eating less but more frequently, since consuming more than can be digested and burned at one time translates to the extra food turning into fat.
Finally, no matter when or how vigorous the exercise, be sure to always eat breakfast. A variety of studies have shown people who ate the most in the morning are generally thinner and consumed fewer calories the rest of the day. Turns out, Mom was right all along.