The advantages of working out are many — improved health, increased endorphins, and the ability to eat guilt-free. After all, so much increased output calls for increased input, right?
Therein lies the charming paradox of healthful living. From the outside, you think it will be accompanied by a long, restrictive period of hunger pangs. But when you're in the thick of things, it’s a constant snack-fest. In addition to the usual three square meals, you’re able (and encouraged!) to eat before and after your workout.
When your body has to power through specific physical tasks, having the right food at the right time can make a big difference. And we don’t mean just powders or supplements, we mean real food.
Yes, food is fuel, with all the energy and nutritious building blocks needed by our bodies. But food is also delicious and something you should look forward to and enjoy.
Below is a roundup of some of the best-tasting snack options that can help you make the most of your workout — whether eaten before or after.
The Best Pre-Workout Snacks
Pre-workout snacks usually require the most preparation and planning, and are therefore the easiest ones to skip. (You’re just proud to squeeze in that 6 a.m. workout, now you need a precisely timed snack beforehand?)
However, not having enough sustenance can leave you too lethargic to workout properly. Or worse, make you dizzy, lightheaded, and more likely to get injured.
The ideal snack time window is 30-90 minutes before your workout. Any shorter may lead to tummy troubles, as exercise brings more blood to your muscles and leaves less for digestion. Any longer, and you’ve already spent all the calories.
Look for pre-workout food that provides a fair amount of energy-fueling carbs and a small amount of muscle-building protein. (Fat and fiber, while good for you, stay in your stomach and take awhile to digest — not something you want during a workout.)
Of course, the perfect healthy snack depends on the person and their workout. A good rule of thumb is the longer, harder, or sooner the workout, the higher the ratio of carbs. Experiment with how your body tolerates food and stick with what works best for you.
The following are some good pre-workout snack ideas to help you get started.
Oatmeal With Milk, Nut Butter, and Fruit
This old-fashioned, morning staple doubles as the perfect pre-workout snack. Oats are a low-glycemic carb that provide slow-releasing energy (without the crash) and sit well in the stomach. Plus, if you stir in some milk, nut butter, or protein powder, and top with slices of fresh fruit, it makes for a complete, pre-workout meal.
A Natural Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich
It was great growing up, and it’s great for working out. PB&J is a classic filling that brings together the right amount of carbs and protein in an easy-to-make, easy-to-eat sandwich. Feel free to come up with your own variations — use rye bread, almond butter, sliced bananas, etc. The salty-sweet combinations are endless.
Greek Yogurt With Berries
Take one cup of Greek yogurt (the plain, full fat variety) and one cup of berries. Put them together in a bowl. Voilà, the perfect mix of carbs (from the fruit), protein (from the yogurt), and loads of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Dried Fruit and Nuts
This is one of the most convenient pre-workout snacks. Stick with a 2:1 fruit to nut ratio, make your mix in bulk, and toss some ready snack packs into your gym bag. Or, you can just pick one up at a coffee shop or convenience store.
Having some salt in your system may even enhance your performance (especially during high-intensity sweat sessions) as it replaces the sodium lost through sweat. However, salty snacks aren't advised for daily consumption. And if you have high blood pressure, pick an unsalted variety and make sure the other meals in your day are low sodium.
Toast With Toppings
Multigrain, sprouted, rye, sourdough, gluten-free, and more. Sliced bread — or toast — is the perfect vessel for your topping of choice. Go for low-fiber, low-protein (i.e., gluten-free bread with sliced bananas and honey) if you have under an hour before your workout, or for something more satiating (i.e., whole grain, pumpkin seed bread with smoked salmon and dill) if you have more time.
A Fresh Fruit Smoothie
As beneficial as it may be to savor a sit-down meal, early exercisers may not be able to stomach something quite so heavy first thing in the morning. A nutritious, calorie-packed smoothie is the perfect solution. Just make sure to sip one made with actual fresh fruit, leafy vegetables, and some milk or nut butter as a source of protein.
The Best Post-Workout Snacks
Whew, you’re done with your workout! You sweat, you struggled, and now, you’re hungry. This is perfect, as your body has used its muscles, and depleted its stores of glycogen, electrolytes, and fluids.
Get something in your system as soon as possible, within 15-20 minutes after cool down. Once this time frame passes, your body will have a harder time repairing itself and achieving your fitness goals. It may also lead to low blood sugar, fatigue, and possible sickness if you skip it too often.
It’s easy to think you can eat anything as a post-workout meal. But to maximize your workout benefits, you need the right mix of nutrients. Post-workout, look for complex carbs that can replenish your energy and glycogen stores. (You don’t need simple low fiber snacks for quick digestion anymore, as you did before working out.)
Next, add in some complete proteins to recover and rebuild your tired muscles. Aim for about 10-20 grams, though more may be needed after longer weight training sessions. Finally, a little bit of healthy fat will help round off your macronutrients and keep you satisfied until your next meal.
Here are some preferred snacks that cater to all your post-workout needs.
Whole Wheat Pita With Turkey, Cheese, and Veggies
This brings together everything you need — protein, carbs, and fat — in a neat little post-workout package. Turkey is a great lean protein full of amino acids, cheese provides calcium and fat (feta or cheddar cheese are good choices), and veggies add in more nutritious vitamins. Put these all in a whole grain pita, and you’re good to go.
Hard-Boiled Eggs With Hummus
Eggs and chickpeas are naturally perfect sources of protein, carbs, and fat (more so, with the addition of olive oil in the hummus). Boil and peel two eggs ahead of time, pack a container of hummus, and simply dip the eggs for a tasty high-protein snack.
Low Fat Chocolate Milk
Another childhood favorite that’s good for grown-ups too. It turns out that even compared to water, sports drinks, or just plain milk, low-fat chocolate milk provides the perfect post-workout ratio of carbs to protein, plus enough sodium to help with hydration. (Sorry, skim milk, almond milk, or other plant-based milks won't do.)
Still, as this drink is chock-full of carbs, it’s better to have a glass only after a particularly intense workout. For example, low-fat chocolate milk would be a great snack for endurance cyclists or runners, but probably not for those who just wrapped up a yin yoga session.
Dried Beef Snacks
Beef is a good high-protein snack. And when in its dried form, it’s a convenient snack to carry around and consume, as well. One serving has about 14-16 grams of protein, a healthy amount of zinc and iron, and enough calories and salt to replenish what was lost through exercise.
Fortunately, today’s small-batch brands have also done away with all the added sugar and artificial ingredients of older, commercial brands. Many high-quality dried beef jerky and beef biltong use only all-natural, grass-fed beef, which also makes them one of the best low-carb snack ideas for those on a keto diet. Simply throw a few into your gym bag for a savory, post-workout snack.
Cottage Cheese With Fresh Fruit
If you’re looking for something creamy and a little sweet, this is a satisfying snack recommended by nutritionists and health buffs alike. Cottage cheese is a healthy low carb, low calorie way to get your protein in (as well as calcium and vitamin D), while fruit adds even more vitamins, nutrients, and fresh flavor.
Sweet Potato With Almond Butter or Tahini
Sweet potatoes have long been prepared like their white potato kin — deep-fried, salted, and served as fries. This colorful tuber, however, has so much more potential.
It’s rich in complex carbs, high-fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin A, manganese, and potassium. But what makes sweet potatoes even better post-workout is their high levels of copper, a nutrient that maintains healthy muscle tissue and replenishes energy levels. Bake the sweet potato in the oven until soft, then slice and spread with some almond butter or tahini, and sprinkle with some chia seeds for some added protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Does a Body Good
Being healthy doesn't only happen when you’re at the gym. You should also dedicate some time to consider what and when you eat. Consuming the right food before and after a workout can help you perform and recover much better, and these snacks are great opportunities to get in your much-needed nutrition for the day.