We Ask A Dietitian: What’s The Best Way To Eat Surrounding a Workout?

April 15, 2020 - 7 minutes read

When it comes to the topic of nutrition and exercise, we tend to hear the same questions time and time again from our clients. While many dietary choices are and should be made on a personal level, we reached out to dietitian Kelly Spec, owner and founder of Spectrum Nutrition, to shed some insight into the general best practices on how to properly fuel yourself around exercise.

I have a really hard time eating breakfast. Do I have to force myself?  

“I would want to find out what it is that you don’t like. Is it too early? Do you dislike breakfast food options? No time?” asks Spec. “You will eventually have the first meal of the day, and ideally that would be within 1-2 hours of waking, but I wouldn’t force yourself into something you can’t stick with.”

Ok, if I do have breakfast, what should I eat when my workout is in the morning?

“If you have about 1-2 hours between breakfast and your workout, go ahead and have a full meal that is comprised of a high quality starch and enough protein from a protein food” suggests Spec. “Examples could include toast and eggs, greek yogurt with oats, etc.”

With less time between your meal and a workout, Spec suggests opting for a lighter snack, followed by a full breakfast following your bout of exercise.

And what about the rest of the day? What and when should I eat surrounding a workout?

“Ideally, what you’re eating wouldn’t change simply because you’re having a workout, so my recommendation would be to stick with your usual meals and snacks but try and time them around your workouts” Spec tells us. “For example, if you usually have a snack in the afternoon and you’re going to exercise at 4pm, I would try and time that snack for a little before your workout, say around 3:30pm.”

As for specifics, Spec suggests the following guidelines for eating before and after you exercise:

Eating before exercise
“After a regular meal, give yourself 1-2 hours to digest before you start your workout” Spec recommends. “Eating beforehand makes exercise a whole lot easier so if you don’t have time for a meal, try to intake a snack of around 100 calories between 10-30 minutes prior to activity”. As for the type of snack, Spec suggests taking in some kind of a starchy food that will break down quickly, such as a banana or a piece of toast.

Eating after exercise
“After a workout, you can eat immediately if you feel like it” Spec tells us. “Again, I would try and time your usual meals and snacks to coincide with the timing of your workouts so that you’re not too hungry before you begin or waiting too long after you’re done”. Spec also explains the importance of being aware of what your meals are made up of to ensure that you’re eating a well-rounded diet. “Make sure your meals are comprised of all three macro-nutrition components: vegetables (half of your plate & at least 2 kinds), starch (quarter of your plate) and protein (quarter of your plate)”.

Are shakes a good option for substitute meals?

“Shakes are not necessarily good or bad, it all depends on what you’re putting in them” says Spec. “You could use a protein shake as the protein part of your meal if that’s easier for you or you can use it as one of your snacks, although it’s not necessary before or after a workout.”

Do I need protein powders and supplements when I work out regularly?

“Protein powders and supplements are probably not necessary for most exercisers as you will get everything you need nutritionally from just eating the right foods throughout the day” says Spec. “You could just as easily produce the same results of these powders by eating chicken with dinner or greek yogurt for breakfast.”

Spec also reminds us that it’s not simply intaking protein that builds muscle, but rather a combination of getting the right amount of protein into your body and putting those nutrients to use through actual strength training. “Just drinking protein powder is another way for you to include protein into a meal or snack, but it won’t increase your muscle mass without resistance training.”

So what about weight loss? What do I need to focus on most if I want to lose weight?

While weight loss is a very individualized process, Spec suggests the following pieces of advice to help you get started:

Keep your blood sugars steady
Blood sugar (aka ‘glucose’) is our main source of energy and tells our body how hungry or energetic we feel at any given time. We feel our best when our blood sugar is balanced and it’s within this state that weight loss can occur. So what’s the easiest way to stabilize blood sugar? Make sure to eat fat, protein, fiber, and greens at every meal.

Look for longevity of the strategy
If you’re always flip-flopping from one diet to the next or starting programs that are too regimented for your lifestyle, you’re never going to see real, sustainable results. Find a strategy that works for your life and stick with it for the long-term. Weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint.

Make sure nothing is ‘off limits’
You need to learn to manage your eating, not create a set of strict rules that you have no hope of following. Create a set of guidelines that you can actually see yourself following then make a commitment to stay within that framework at least 80% of the time.