Eating a well-balanced diet can help you get the calories and nutrients you need to fuel your daily activities, including regular exercise.
When it comes to eating foods to fuel your exercise performance, it’s not as simple as choosing vegetables over doughnuts. You need to eat the right types of food at the right times of the day.
Get off to a good start
Your first meal of the day is an important one.
According to an article published in Harvard Health Letter, eating breakfast regularly has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Starting your day with a healthy meal can help replenish your blood sugar, which your body needs to power your muscles and brain.
Eating a healthy breakfast is especially important on days when exercise is on your agenda. Skipping breakfast can leave you feeling lightheaded or lethargic while you’re working out.
Choosing the right kind of breakfast is crucial. Too many people rely on simple carbohydrates to start their day. A plain white bagel or doughnut won’t keep you feeling full for long.
Oranges“They’re portable. They’re a fruit you can get year-round. And they’re a rich source of vitamin C,” says Leslie Bonci, R.D., “which helps repair muscle tissue.” One orange has all the C a woman needs each day—close to 75 milligrams. Vitamin C is also key for making collagen, a tissue that helps keep bones strong.
HummusComplex carbohydrates, protein, and unsaturated fats—all the right elements to fuel activity—meet in one healthy little 70-calorie, 3-tablespoon package. Plus, hummus is often made with olive oil, which contains oleic acid—a fat that helps cripple the gene responsible for 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers, according to Northwestern University researchers.
Ground Flaxseed“Flaxseed is full of fibers called lignans that promote gut health,” says nutritionist Susan Kleiner, Ph.D. Since flax lignans contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, they keep you regular. “When you’re trying to do an endurance sport, it can be disruptive to have digestive problems,” she notes. A daily dose of 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed tossed in your cereal nets you fiber without fuss.
EggsDon’t skip the yolk. One egg a day supplies 215 milligrams of cholesterol—not enough to push you over the 300-milligram daily cholesterol limit recommended by the American Heart Association. Plus, the yolk is a good source of iron, and it’s loaded with lecithin, critical for brain health, says nutritionist Susan Kleiner, Ph.D. What does brain power have to do with exercise? Try doing a sun salutation without it.
CranberriesThis packable fruit delivers a generous pre- or postworkout blast of carbohydrates (25 grams per ¼ cup). Plus, cranberries have proanthocyanins, compounds that help prevent and fight urinary tract infections. Running to the bathroom every 5 minutes definitely isn’t the kind of workout you need.
Low Fat Cottage CheeseDespite its frumpy image, this diet staple packs 14 grams of protein per half-cup serving, along with 75 milligrams of calcium and 5 grams of carbohydrates. That protein is crucial to healing the microscopic muscle tears that occur during exercise, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, R.D., health education manager at Cleveland’s Fairview Hospital.
Chocolate MilkThere’s way more to milk than just calcium. In fact, it’s a damn near perfect food, giving you a lot of valuable energy while keeping your calorie count low, says nutritionist Susan Kleiner, Ph.D. The chocolate kind is loaded with calcium, vitamins, and minerals just like the plain stuff, but new studies confirm that milk with a touch of cocoa is as powerful as commercial recovery drinks at replenishing and repairing muscles.
Chicken ThighsSkimp on iron and zinc and your energy will flag. Cooking up some juicy chicken thighs or turkey drumsticks is the best way to get more of both. “Dark-meat poultry is significantly lower in fat than red meat yet has all the iron, zinc, and B vitamins that women need in their diets,” says Seattle sports nutritionist Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., author of Power Eating.
Whole Grain CerealLooking for something to nosh before you hit the gym? Raid your cereal stash. The healthiest brands contain endurance-boosting complex carbs and muscle-building protein. Sixty minutes before a workout, fuel up with a 200-calorie snack: ¾ cup of whole-grain cereal with 4 ounces of fat-free milk. “When you eat something before exercising, you have more energy, so you can work out harder and perhaps longer. And you’ll be less likely to overeat afterward,” says Leslie Bonci, R.D.
CarrotsClose your eyes and they almost taste like crunchy candy. Carrots pack complex carbs that provide energy to muscles and potassium to control blood pressure and muscle contractions, says Leslie Bonci, R.D. And a half cup has just 35 calories.
BerriesUSDA researchers recently placed fresh berries on their list of the 20 foods richest in antioxidants. Just a handful of blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries is an excellent source of these potent nutrients, which protect muscles from free radical damage that might be caused by exercise. Shop for berries by the shade of their skin: The deeper the color, the healthier the fruit.
BananasThanks to bananas’ high potassium content, peeling one is a speedy solution to that stitch in your side. While a lack of sodium is the main culprit behind muscle cramps, studies show potassium plays a supporting role: You need it to replace sweat losses and help with fluid absorption. Bananas are also packed with energizing carbohydrates. One medium-size fruit has 400 milligrams of potassium and as many carbs (29 grams) as two slices of whole-wheat bread.
Whole Grain BagelsBagels are one of the best foods to eat before a workout. Never mind Dr. Atkins—carbs deliver a steady flow of energy over time rather than one big burst. “Not the simple ones, because they wind you up and drop you down,” says Jackie Berning, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and counselor to sports teams. “You want complex carbohydrates in their natural package, aka whole grains.” A whole-grain bagel is an ideal pre-sweat-session pick!
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PeanutsNo wonder Mr. Peanut never stops tap-dancing. Female soccer players kicked and sprinted just as well in the final minutes of a game as they did at the start when they added 2 ounces of peanuts a day to their regular diet, says University of Buffalo professor, Peter J. Horvath, Ph.D. The extra fat may help improve endurance by giving muscles energy to burn up front so they can spare muscle glycogen stores later.
PotatoesSweat like a pig? Four shakes of salt (about 1,100 milligrams of sodium) and a small baked potato is the perfect recipe for electrolyte replacement. “The electrolytes, sodium and potassium, help maintain fluid balance in and around cells and make sure muscles contract as they need to,” says Leslie Bonci, R.D.
SalmonGreat for heart health, but here’s an added twist: New studies are suggesting that monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats might help lessen abdominal fat. It’s too soon to understand the link, but “this could be particularly good for women working to tone their core,” says nutritionist Susan Kleiner, Ph.D.
Balance is key
As you settle into an active lifestyle, you’ll probably discover which foods give you the most energy and which have negative effects. The key is learning to listen to your body and balancing what feels right with what’s good for you.
Follow these tips:
- Aim to make breakfast a part of your routine.
- Choose complex carbohydrates, lean protein sources, healthy fats, and a wide variety of fruits and veggies.
- Stock your fridge and gym bag with healthy workout snacks.