Five Best Foods to Fuel Your Workout
By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
Before we begin, there’s one thing you need to know: The best food to eat before a workout depends on when you’re going to eat it.
Let’s say you’re an early morning riser who goes to the gym on the way to work. You don’t have enough time between leaving home and arriving at the gym to really digest a full breakfast, so your pre-workout snack is going to have to be really light. On the other hand, if you’re working out in the middle of the afternoon, your workout is going to be fueled by your choices at lunch and you’ll have a couple of hours to digest your food before hitting the gym. That means a very different “pre-workout” meal than the one you might choose if you were scrounging around the kitchen at 5:30 AM on the way to the track.

So the rule of thumb is this: the shorter the time to the workout, the less you should eat. This makes sense. It takes time to digest food, so you don’t want to scarf down a huge breakfast right before getting on the treadmill. Those planning to run the marathon on Sunday usually eat a huge dinner on Saturday night. But those planning to go for a three-mile jog at 5:30 AM may be fine with just an orange eaten about 20 minutes before gym time.
My Five Favorite Snacks
With that in mind, I’ve prepared a list of my five favorite “all around” pre-workout snacks. These work just fine whether you’re an early morning exerciser and need something light, or if you’re about to head out for a workout in the late afternoon and are just looking for a little extra energy to combat the “3 p.m. crash.”
“With a Smear”: This is one of my favorite snacks, period. I take some hearts of celery and fill in the groove with some organic almond butter or peanut butter. This snack really travels well in Tupperware, and makes a terrific pre-workout snack. Why? The celery has fiber and nutrients (including calcium and vitamin A) and a ridiculously low 6 calories per medium stalk. The nut butter has protein and fat. The overall calories are low and this really fills you up without slowing you down. Great “slow-release” energy for a terrific workout.
“The Double A”: An apple with almonds. The apple is the perfect food for a pre-workout snack. Its sugar load is very moderate, it contains valuable pectin fiber, which slows the entrance of that sugar into the bloodstream, and it’s a nutritional powerhouse containing vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Combine it with about a dozen almonds, which add some fat and protein, further slows the entrance of the sugar into the bloodstream for sustained energy, and keeps hunger away.
“Whey to go”: Whey protein is my favorite kind of protein powder. Not only is it extremely high quality, bioavailable protein, but also it supports the immune system by providing the body with the building blocks for glutathione, arguably the body’s most important antioxidant. And studies indicate that whey protein may boost weight-loss efforts. According to one French study, consuming whey before exercise supports fat burning and may help with gaining or maintaining lean body mass. I suggest a whey protein shake made with either water alone or with frozen berries. The berries add fiber, nutrients, some extra carbohydrates, and make for a more delicious drink.
“Berry Cheesy”: Here’s a little tidbit of info for you that you might enjoy: In my latest book, “The 150 Healthiest Foods on the Planet” (due out January 2007), I asked 16 of the best known experts in the country to contribute their personal “top ten” list of favorite healthy foods. Berries–especially blueberries–made the list of more experts than any other food. Berries are loaded with phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber, and are low in sugar. Mix a bowl of berries with a piece of string cheese for the perfect pre-workout snack. The string cheese has 8 grams of protein, some fat to keep hunger at bay, and only about 80 calories. Plus it’s an excellent source of calcium.
“TG/Too Good”: The initials of this snack stand for turkey and grapes. It’s a perfectly matched trifecta of protein, carbs and low-calories to take the edge off your hunger and prime your exercise pump. Four small slices of deli packaged turkey contain only 87 calories but give you more than 14 grams of protein, plus some of the cancer-fighting mineral selenium to boot. A cup of grapes adds some carbs to the mix together with all the health-giving phytochemicals grapes are known for. Suggestion: Go for fresh turkey whenever possible as the packaged kind is high in sodium, and go for red or purple grapes as they have a higher antioxidant content.
Obviously, there are other choices besides my five favorites. In a pinch, I’ll use a protein bar, though you’ll want to watch the sugar content and look out for the presence of trans-fatty acids. One of my favorites is Atkins Advantage, though there are others you may like as well. Also, hard-boiled eggs are another great source for portable protein. They combine nicely with a little fruit (like an apple).
Remember: what you eat after the workout is even more important than what you eat before it. That’s when your muscles are hungry and your depleted glycogen (muscle sugar) stores need replacing. The “golden hour” after the workout is the time when those muscles soak up nutrients most effectively. Choose what you eat after the workout with just as much care as you choose that pre-workout snack!
Dr. Jonny Bowden is a former certified personal trainer, life coach and popular speaker at seminars. His newest release “The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth”(Fairwinds) will be available Jan. 2007. Look for Dr. Jonny Bowden’s latest CD sets include “Change Your Body, Change Your Life: Diet Boot Camp”; “23 Ways to Improve Your Life” and “9 Essential Steps To Weight Loss” in our on line storesoon!