Eating and Exercise: How to Find the Right Mix

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Figuring out what to eat and drink before, during and after exercise can give your brain a real workout.

Do you reach for carbohydrates or protein? Should you sip a sports drink or stick with water? And what about those energy bars? Can they really rev up your workout?

"There are a number of exercise myths out there right now," says Leslie Bonci, director of sports medicine nutrition for the University of Pittsburgh.

Take the widely held notion that it's best to exercise on an empty stomach. "A lot of people think, 'The food will make me sick or slow me down when I work out,' " says registered dietitian Nancy Clark, author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook" (Human Kinetics, 2003). "But just as you put gas in your car before you take a ride, it's good to put food in your body to have stamina and endurance."

Exercising when you're hungry also isn't likely to boost fat burning -- another widespread misconception. "When you're hungry, it means that your blood glucose [sugar] levels are starting to get low," notes Jeffrey Potteiger, chairman of exercise science at Miami University of Ohio.

If you try to be active when you're running on empty, you'll undercut your workout. Besides, doing this can also cause fatigue and worse effects, including dizziness and even fainting. Since you can't exercise as hard when your stomach is crying out for food, you also burn fewer calories. And because your body must marshal resources to keep you fueled, "you may even wind up burning a little muscle, too," Bonci notes, further undermining your efforts.

For the best workout results, sports nutritionists say, eat well throughout the day so that your body is well nourished. Then have a mini-meal of about 200 to 300 calories about 60 to 90 minutes before you exercise.

Some easy pre-workout options include a bowl of whole-grain cereal with skim milk; graham crackers and peanut butter; low-fat yogurt and a banana; a granola bar and a decaf latte; or string cheese and an apple. Those snacks cover the nutritional bases by providing lean protein, complex carbohydrates and a little healthy fat.

If you don't have time to eat a mini-meal, try to grab a lighter snack about 30 minutes before you exercise. "A small piece of fruit is something very light to give your body a little bit of fuel," Bonci says. And if there's even less time, have a tablespoon of honey or a little Jell-O. "You want a simple carbohydrate that your body doesn't have to wait to digest," she says. These foods can also fuel those who work out before breakfast.

Contrary to popular opinion, there's no need to load up on protein -- even if you're trying to build muscle or drop a few pounds. People think that "carbs are fattening," Clark says. "The truth is that excess calories are fattening. Carbs are actually the best fuel for their muscles."

It's also important to refuel after working out -- something a lot of people skip because exercise briefly suppresses your appetite. "You've just worked out, you're warm and sweaty, and you can't think of eating," Bonci says. But that's the prime time to help the body begin to recover. "Have some grapes or a Popsicle," Bonci says, noting that either "is easy to get down and very refreshing."

Bonci, who counsels U.S. Olympic athletes on nutrition and is the dietitian for both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Penguins professional sports teams, also advises eating 100 to 200 calories within 15 to 30 minutes to continue recovery and "seal the deal" of exercising. Some options include a banana, a handful of Cheerios or half of a granola bar.

As for boosting protein to help repair muscles after a workout, you don't need much, just about 12 to 15 grams or about the amount found in a cup of low-fat chocolate milk. "It's not as sexy as having protein powder, but it works," Bonci says. "And it's a whole lot cheaper."

Sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, are other options. They are designed to replace the sodium, potassium and other electrolytes lost through perspiration, especially for those who exercise intensively for at least 60 minutes. But avoid the urge to drink them like water, because they pack a lot of calories.

"This is always one of the things that I get a chuckle at in the gym," Potteiger says. "I see people drinking Gatorade or Powerade on the treadmill. They're undermining what they are trying to do."

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