You know when it comes to making fitness gains that what you put into your body matters as much as your performance at the gym. Food is fuel, and if you want to optimize your strength, speed, and stamina, then your meal choices are important. “Active individuals need to focus on optimizing carbs and protein before, during, and after exercise,” says Julie Upton, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist based in Northern California.
If you are in a rush, you may reach for a quick option like a packaged bar, but whole foods can be just as speedy. And they certainly help in powering your workout and aid in recovery, thanks to their dynamic nutrients.
Ready to up your fitness-focused meal plan? Here are seven recommendations (and easy meal suggestions) to add to your weekly food lineup.
“Post-exercise, Manuka honey could be part of the repair process to replenish depleted muscle and liver glycogen stores,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, CSSD, LDN sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs. Comvita Manuka Honey, which has a range of raw, Certified UMF, Non-GMO Project Verified choices, is a great option.
The honey may also be beneficial pre-workout, says Bonci, who calls it a quick energy source with minimal volume to prevent digestive distress. “Fructose, which is the primary sugar in honey, helps to stimulate rapid absorption of fluid, carbohydrate and electrolyte absorption in the small intestine and also helps to increase carbohydrate oxidation from carbohydrates consumed during exercise, making it a good options for athletes,” she says. Bonci suggests pairing Manuka honey with peanut butter in a wrap or adding it to yogurt with a banana. If you can’t live without your post-workout smoothie, add a swirl of Manuka honey. Upton also suggests dripping it onto breakfast options like oatmeal. Or you can make your own honey bars and bites to take with you on long training runs or rides.
There are plenty of good reasons to love bananas. For starters, they are delicious and pretty inexpensive. The fruit is a powerhouse of potassium, which helps nerve and muscle function. Bananas are also an excellent source of easily digestible carbs that can fuel your workout without extra sugars. In fact, research from Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab found that, for male cyclists, consuming half a banana every 15 minutes during a time trial was just as effective as gulping down a carbohydrate-matched sports drink in the same time frame.
A little refresher: During exercise, you create micro tears in your muscles, which are then repaired during the recovery to be stronger. According to research in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating protein paired with nutrients in whole food sources can also help with muscle growth. The study revealed that men who did just that within five minutes of a leg workout, by way of three whole eggs (both protein and fat) versus those who ate just egg whites (protein and no fat), experienced greater protein muscle fiber repair and recovery. That’s significant considering this process is key to getting bigger and stronger, study author Nicholas A. Burd, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, previously told Men’s Health. Upton notes that eggs have all nine muscle-building essential amino acids as well 13 other essential nutrients, and they are one of the few sources of choline, a muscle-building nutrient.
Want to reap the body rewards? Post-exercise, eat an egg salad sandwich or egg and potato scramble, she says. These provide the perfect combo of carbs and protein for quicker recovery.
You may think of prunes shriveled up plums that, when eaten, can have a laxative effect, but they have more going for it than that. According to a review of studies, consuming dried plums may not only improve bone strength, but may, in fact, counteract the onset of density loss. And a recent study from San Diego State University’s School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences also found that eating prunes daily has a protective effect on the bones of men.
Bone health isn’t the only benefit, though. Prunes are also a good source of carbohydrates, are non-perishable, and don’t take up a lot of room in the gut during exercise, explains Bonci. She also notes that they work as a pre-workout nosh as well as replenishment during long-duration activity. Her go-to recommendation: cottage cheese with prunes, chopped almonds, and cereal.
“Oats contain soluble fiber so they take longer to digest and can stabilize blood glucose,” says Bonci. They also have a carb-to-protein ratio of 4:1 to help provide sustained, long-term energy. Bonci likes that they are versatile—you can eat them alone, make them sweet or savory, use them as an add-in to smoothies, or sub them as a rice or polenta alternative.
Start your day with a warm bowl of oats and a drizzle of Manuka honey for a touch of sweetness. Upton recommends packing overnight oats in your gym bag for a wholesome recovery meal. “To up the protein, add in a dollop of nut butter or Greek yogurt,” Upton adds.
It can be tempting to skip a meal before your workout, but with an easy option like roasted chickpeas, you won’t want to. According to Bonci, the legume is a great protein add-in prior to a pump session, and works perfectly in a homemade trail mix alongside mini pretzels, dried fruit, and nuts. “The protein pre-exercise helps to prevent muscle loss during exercise and can also help to promote satiety and stabilize blood glucose,” says Bonci.
Chickpeas are high in vitamin B, too, which is also good to amp up before hitting the gym.
If you always experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after heavy lifting days or long runs, adding more anti-inflammatory foods like mangos may help with your recovery, says Upton. In fact, a cup of the sweet, tropical fruit also packs in 100 percent of your daily recommended vitamin C, as well as 35 percent of your recommended vitamin A, both of which are essential nutrients for immune defense. A recent study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research confirms this, reporting that adults who ate mango daily had higher levels of gallic acid and gallotannins in their body, which have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and potential anti-obesity properties, too.
Did we mention the fruit also improves blood sugar regulation? A study found that folks who ate mango had lower blood sugar levels after 12 weeks than they did when they began.
Upton suggests marrying mango salsa with meat, seafood, or poultry to boost the absorption of iron, which helps transport oxygen to muscles. She also loves to mix it into oatmeal and make a mango-chia pudding with ginger. (Talk about a power breakfast.)
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