Much like gas in a car, food gives our bodies fuel for energy, growth and development. And in keeping with the automobile theme, athletes, like fancy sports cars, need the right fuel for optimal performance.
There are three types of nutrients that provide the body with energy: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Our bodies rely mainly on carbohydrates for fuel, while protein helps to build and repair muscles. So when we are burning lots of energy with intense physical activity, it is important to “pre-fuel” and “re-fuel” with enough carbohydrates and protein. A good rule of thumb is to eat a snack 1-3 hours before exercising and another snack within 15-30 minutes after exercising. If you time it right, your usual meal can count as one (or both) of these fueling opportunities.
Good food choices for everyday physical activities are usually some combination of fruit and whole grains for carbohydrates and dairy, nuts or lean meat for protein.
- Fruit and yogurt smoothie
- An apple or banana with a spoonful of peanut butter
- Trail mix (just a handful, since it has lots of energy, aka calories, in a small package)
- Peanut butter sandwich
- Chocolate milk
- ½ a turkey sandwich
Hydration is an important part of fueling your body during activity. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise, especially if you are sweating a lot. For most people, skip the sports drinks and drink plain old water to save unnecessary calories and sugar. However, if you are sweating a lot, outside in hot temperatures or exercising for more than an hour, sports drinks can help replace electrolytes (mainly sodium and potassium) that are lost through sweat to prevent dehydration and cramping.
One final point to keep in mind if you are trying to lose or maintain weight: Remember to balance your calories in with calories out. For most casual exercisers, you will not be burning enough calories to justify adding 2 extra snacks to your daily intake. Let’s look at the math:
1 medium apple= 95 calories
1 tablespoon peanut butter = 94 calories
1 cup Pineapple Banana Smoothie = 142 calories
Total Calories In = 331 calories
30 minutes of lifting weights = 183 calories burned
20 minutes of jogging = 202 calories burned
Total Calories Out = 385 calories
In this example, an average woman who eats 2 extra snacks per day to fuel her 50 minutes of exercise is only at a 50 calorie deficit (calories in – calories out). If she works out 3 days a week, it would take her almost 6 months to lose just 1 pound!
For casual exercisers looking to lose weight, save the calories and time your usual meals and snacks to fuel your workouts. Aim for a good mix of carbohydrates, protein and fats at each meal (by following MyPlate) and drink plenty of water. If you are working out at more advanced levels, then try out some “pre-fuel” and “re-fuel” snacks to find a good combination that gives you the energy, hydration and nutrients you need to improve your performance.