Fuel Your Fitness: How To Pick the Best Exercise Food

In the twenty-first century, there is an increased focus on self-care through physical and mental well-being. That emphasis on a healthy mindset and fitness only seems to intensify around the holiday season with many people looking for ways to offset the many sessions of overeating that often accompany that time of year.

But where does one even begin? Should you devote your time to developing a new diet for weight loss? Or should you expend energy starting a new exercise routine?

These questions present a false choice. Establishing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be viewed as an either/or problem between diet and exercise; rather, it should be followed as a both/and solution because of the relationship between food and fitness.

Food gives you energy and you need energy to exercise. When you exercise, you burn off that energy. After you exercise, your body requires food to restore that energy. It is all interconnected. Thus, you must know how to pick the best foods for exercise.

When determining the best foods for working out, you need to follow the four As: Amount, Attitude, Allergies, and Alignment.

Woman in workout clothing eats a salad in kitchen

1. Amount

Many factors influence the choice of the proper portions of food to eat when exercising. Your height, weight, age, sex, and metabolism are just a few considerations when deciding on the appropriate amount of food to eat.

How Much Food Should I Eat When Working Out?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To determine your daily protein intake, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. Thus, a 38-year-old man, weighing 200 pounds should consume at least 72 grams of protein daily before exercising.

Also, the type of workout you perform is a major factor in the types and amounts of food you eat. The foods you would eat before and after you run a 10k or a half-marathon should be different than the ones you would eat before and after a 30-minute yoga session.

The type of exercise and the intensity and duration of that session will inform you of the amount of energy you should expect to expend at that time. This knowledge should help you determine the best foods for that specific workout.

2. Attitude

Positive self-care not only involves proper physical fitness but also healthy mental and spiritual well-being. Therefore, when choosing the best diet to pair with your exercise, do not compromise your deeply held values and beliefs. Doing so can cause you to have a crisis of identity, which could lead to unwanted guilt, stress, or anxiety—all of which are adversaries to healthy living.

Do not betray your convictions to marry your diet and fitness goals. For example, there are many protein sources for vegetarians and vegans that don’t require the consumption of meat. If your religion or faith has clearly defined dietary permissions and restrictions–such as a kosher diet or halal foods–you can still find many nutritious options for exercise that will not violate your beliefs.

Vegan/Vegetarian Foods to Consider When Working Out

Vegetarians do not eat any animal flesh such as meat, poultry, or fish. Vegans are slightly stricter vegetarians who also avoid consuming dairy, eggs, and other ingredients derived from animals.

Some vegetarian and vegan food options from which to choose when working out are as follows: beans, lentils, tofu, nutritional yeast, quinoa, soy milk and cheese, chia seeds, fruits and vegetables, wild rice, and oatmeal.

Kosher Foods to Consider When Working Out

In Hebrew, “kosher” means “fit” or “proper.” When applied to dietary traditions, it refers to any food that is deemed fit or proper to eat according to Jewish law. Kosher food laws dictate how foods are processed and prepared to make them fit for eating. Kosher diets uphold high standards of cleanliness and humane treatment of animals.

Plants are inspected to ensure they are free of insects and larvae. Also, kosher foods are handled with special care to ensure the meals prepared are of the utmost quality. The goal is to reduce and eliminate the possibility of negative side effects from eating and to make food as clean as possible for eating.

For those adhering to a kosher diet and maintaining an active life of exercise, consider selecting the following foods: unprocessed fruits and vegetables (all fruit and vegetables must be inspected to make sure they don’t contain any insects or larvae), grains and unprocessed bread, certain types of fish (must have fins and scales such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, and halibut), milk (made with dairy from a kosher animal), cheese (made with dairy from a kosher animal), butter (made with dairy from a kosher animal), and yogurt (made with dairy from a kosher animal).

Man meal preps various foods into containers

Halal Foods to Consider When Working Out

In Arabic, “halal” means “lawful” or “permitted.” When applied to dietary customs, it refers to any food products, food ingredients, food contact material, cosmetics, and medicines that are suitable for anyone who practices Islam. Most Muslims, when referencing “halal,” are talking about meat and poultry dishes, and if the animals are slaughtered according to Islamic dietary laws.

For physically active Muslims and others adhering to a halal diet, the following are some permissible foods to consider when working out: any fruits, vegetables, and grains, except those that cause intoxication; any beef, poultry, and lamb products slaughtered according to Islamic dietary laws; any animal-derived products that come from Zabiha animals; any vegetable ingredients, except those that may lead to intoxication; and seafood.

3. Allergies

Common sense says to avoid eating foods to which you are allergic. However, the choices for food and nutrition for workouts can often be muddled with products that have hidden ingredients or are from unclear origins.

One way to avoid any unwanted items or surprise allergens is to prepare your own meals using whole foods and fresh ingredients. The more proactive you are in your meal prep before and after a workout session, the greater the likelihood that you will avoid adverse reactions from what you consume.

When preparing your food for working out, you should adhere to these safe food handling practices: clean, separate, cook, and chill. Clean and separate are always mandatory; cook and chill are mandatory when applicable.


Always wash your hands before handling any food. Use warm water and regular soap. Handwashing should last for 20 to 30 seconds. Hum through the ABCs or the Jeopardy! theme to ensure you’ve washed long enough.

Make sure the tools you use for preparing your workout snacks and meals (e.g., cutting boards, knives, pans, and spatulas) are also clean and dry.


Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs should always be kept separate from each other and other ingredients. Avoid using containers, plates, utensils, or cutting boards that have touched raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs for other ingredients, unless they have been thoroughly washed in hot soapy water.


For any pre-workout or post-workout meals that require cooking, use a food thermometer to check on the internal temperature of your food. This is to ensure that all harmful microorganisms are killed before you consume any contaminants.


For any food you prepare that will not be consumed immediately, store it in an appropriately chilled location. Keep the temperature within your refrigerator below 40°F (4°C). This will help your leftover snacks or pre-cooked portions from spoiling.

Being meticulous about selecting the proper ingredients and ensuring the cleanliness of those chosen items will ensure that you avoid adverse allergic reactions or ailments from your diet when exercising.

Man and women make salad in a kitchen

4. Alignment

While there is consensus about what foods to avoid when working out—abstain from foods that are high in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium—there is no one-size-fits-all rule for making proper choices for diet and exercise.

However, you can make the most of your food choices by aligning your selection with the types of physical activities you will participate in. For example, a 30-minute, high-intensity cardio routine will challenge your body in a much different way than an hour-long weightlifting session. As such, the ingredients you use to fuel and replenish your body before and after those exercises should be different as well.

In general, a combination of the following three types of macronutrients should be ingested for best performance and recovery when working out: carbs, protein, and fats. The proper mix of carbs, proteins, and fats will enhance your performance and sustainability while exercising. It will also aid in replenishing your nutrients and improve your recovery after your workout.

According to research published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

“Energy and macronutrient needs, especially carbohydrate and protein, must be met during times of high physical activity to maintain body weight, replenish glycogen stores, and provide adequate protein to build and repair tissue.”

What to Eat Before a Workout

Fueling your body with the right nutrition before exercise is imperative to obtaining peak performance when working out. Each food type plays a specific role before a workout. A 3:1:1 ratio of grams of carbohydrates to proteins to fats is generally accepted as suitable portions to eat before exercising. However, the ratio in which you need to consume them will vary depending on your body type and exercise regimen.


Your muscles use the glucose from carbs for fuel. The body processes and stores glucose in the liver and muscles to produce glycogen.

For short and high-intensity exercise, your glycogen levels are your muscles’ main source of energy. For longer exercises, the degree to which carbs are used depends on several factors, such as intensity, type of training, and body composition.

Carb loading, which can require eating a high-carb diet for one to seven days, is a popular method used to improve your athletic performance for endurance events since it maximalizes the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles.

Some good sources of carbs for a pre-workout snack or meal include oatmeal, fruit, and white rice.

Man makes smoothie in a blender


Eating the right protein before a workout can improve athletic performance and increase muscle protein synthesis. Your protein digestion before exercising can improve muscle mass, strength, lean body mass, muscle recovery, and muscle performance.

Some popular sources of protein include eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, peanuts and peanut butter (as long as you’re not allergic), soy, and seafood.


While carbohydrates are used for short and high-intensity bouts of exercise, fat is the source of fuel for longer and moderate-to-low-intensity exercise. Fats should make up 20 to 35 percent of your energy intake before exercise. That number should increase when performing high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Some preferred pre-workout fatty foods include tuna fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, and coconut.

What to Eat After a Workout

After you exercise, your muscles will be depleted of glycogen. This can lead to health risks unless you replenish your body's glycogen levels by eating more food.

After a competition or workout, focus on restoring the carb and protein levels in your body. This gives your muscles the ability to replenish the glycogen they just expended through exercising and helps your fatigued muscles rebuild and repair with the available protein and amino acids. Try to eat within 45 minutes to an hour of completing your workout.


Consuming carbs after your workout helps you replenish the glycogen you use up during your workouts. The degree and rate to which your body expends energy will be dependent on the intensity and duration of the particular exercise.

For example, endurance sports cause your body to use more glycogen than resistance training. For this reason, if you participate in endurance sports such as swimming or cross-country, you may require more carbs than someone who is weightlifting. Recommended carb intake is greater for endurance athletes than for athletes focused on resistance training.

The secretion of insulin, which promotes glycogen synthesis, is optimized when carbs and protein are consumed at the same time. Therefore, consuming carbs and protein after exercise can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis.

Some preferred post-workout sources of carbs are pasta, rice, rice cakes, cereal, oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and sweet potatoes.

Woman adds protein powder to her bottle while sitting on gym bench


Working out causes the breakdown of muscle protein. Eating a proper amount of protein throughout the day gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins. The newly consumed protein also serves as the foundational building block upon which new muscle tissue is constructed.

One study found that eating protein pre-workout and post-workout has a positive effect on muscle strength, hypertrophy, and body composition changes. If your main objective is to build muscle, eating high-quality protein within the first two hours after a workout will stimulate your body to create the building blocks for new muscle tissue.

Some good sources of protein after working out are tuna salad, grilled chicken with a baked potato, grilled salmon with fresh vegetables, and a protein shake with a banana.


The thought of eating fats after a workout may seem counterproductive. However, while fatty foods may slow down the absorption of some post-workout meals, they are not without their benefits. For example, this study on the effects of milk and exercise showed that fat-rich whole milk and chocolate milk were more effective at promoting muscle growth after exercise than skim milk.

For healthy fats options post-workout, try eating the following: avocado, trail mix, nuts, seeds, and nut butter.

A person meal preps food into multiple containers

Final Takeaways

Food and fitness enjoy a symbiotic relationship: They are two sides of the same coin. To maintain a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, and the right eating habits are mandatory. Understanding how your body responds to different foods and workout regimens will help you to make informed decisions about what foods to eat and when to eat them.

By adhering to the four A’s—Amount, Attitude, Allergies, and Alignment—you will have greater confidence that what you’re eating is enhancing your overall health and wellness.

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