6 of the Best Foods to Eat When You're Exercising More, According to Dietitians
As you ramp up your workouts—either in intensity, length or frequency—it's important to remember to adjust your eats accordingly. Just like we need to refill our car's gas tank as the engine uses fuel, we must replenish our energy stores after exercise.
"Your body uses calories from food to fuel your workouts. It's a common misconception that the body only uses stored fat for energy when we do not consume enough from food. We actually use both muscle and fat as a fuel source, especially during higher-intensity exercise," explains Ashley Reaver, M.S., RD, an Oakland, California-based registered dietitian and the creator of the Lower Cholesterol Longer Life Method. "Consuming adequate energy, in particular through carbohydrates, will spare muscle from being used as a fuel source. Muscle can be broken down to glucose, our muscle's main fuel source, during high-intensity exercise; stored fat cannot."
After workouts, the body attempts to replenish its glycogen stores and repair the muscle fibers that broke down (to hopefully grow back stronger). Consuming the proper nutrients post-workout can:
- Boost muscle growth and limit muscle protein breakdown
- Restore glycogen so you can crush your next workout
- Speed up and support recovery
How to Tweak Your Diet When You're Working Out More
If you're already consuming a well-balanced diet and are easing into your fitness routine, your menu might not necessarily need to change, notes Natalie Rizzo, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian and owner of Greenletes in New York City.
"It really depends on the exercise. For example, a 60-minute yoga class may not warrant extra calories, but a 60-minute run usually equates to eating more," Rizzo says. "In general, endurance activity burns more calories per minute, and it's important to replace those calories in order to fuel and recover properly and not lose weight unintentionally. I know many people want to lose weight from exercise, but working out in a calorie deficit negatively impacts performance."
Two macronutrients in particular are vital for those who exercise to keep top of mind, notes Danielle Musto, M.S., RD, a Hoboken, New Jersey-based private practice registered dietitian for Happy Strong Healthy. Carbohydrates help to replenish those glycogen stores that were depleted for energy during physical activity, and protein provides your body with amino acids that are needed to repair and build muscle fibers.
"In order to efficiently recover and help your body prepare for your next workout, consume carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods within an hour post-workout, and throughout the day," Musto says.
Hydration is also important: "If you're working out in hot weather or engaging in prolonged, intense physical activity, you may lose excess fluids during your workout and risk dehydration. While hydrating with water is beneficial, you may want to consider using an electrolyte powder or sports drink to replenish necessary electrolytes, such as sodium which is lost in your sweat," Musto adds. (ICYMI, here's how much water you should drink, by the numbers. And an electrolyte powder to try: Beam Organics Elevate Hydration Variety Pack; buy it: $28.49 for 10, Amazon.)
Most people who exercise should aim to increase carbohydrates on more active days, Reaver says. Fat intake and protein intake can remain closer to the same each day.
"Protein intake should be increased for individuals engaging in high-intensity cardio, like running, biking or team sports, and strength training, in order to aid in muscle repair. In order to determine the increased calorie need, it's important to gauge the type and duration of activity," Reaver says.
The general recommendations are that for one hour of activity, carbohydrates should increase at least 30 to 60 grams, which is an extra 120 to 160 calories (at minimum). The ideal post-workout meal or snack should include a 3-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein.
If you notice you feel hangry during rest days or throughout the training cycle for your event (or, you know, your training for life—for carrying in groceries and keeping up with your kiddos), it may be partially due to a delayed response in appetite. Many people feel it's harder to eat immediately post-workout, but try to eat something within at least two hours of your sweat sesh, according to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Keep in mind that these are all estimates, though. "Everyone is so different, in terms of their size, age, gender and activity level. Someone who is 120 pounds may burn half the amount of calories as someone who is 200 pounds," Rizzo says. So she suggests working with a sports dietitian if you're really serious about your workout routine and goals, so you're fueling for activity and recovery—and aren't starving yourself (or your muscles).
"Otherwise, listen to your hunger and fullness cues. If you're hungry after exercise, eat something! If [you] aren't hungry and stop eating enough, there's a good chance you start losing weight. When that happens, you might be at higher risk for injuries, losing your period or experiencing performance issues," Rizzo adds.
6 of the Best Foods to Eat More of When You Up Your Exercise, According to Dietitians
"Oatmeal is one of my go-to recovery meals because it has carbs and protein and is a great vehicle for add-ons, like fruits and nuts," Rizzo says. "Plus, it's hearty and filling, which will prevent you from feeling hungry later in the day."
Fuel up with ½ cup dry oats, cooked in water, for 148 calories, 27 grams carbs and 5 grams protein, then dress it up with your desired toppings and mix-ins. (Psst ... we're dishing about the right way to prepare oatmeal, plus 5 tips for making It better.)
Any kind of berries—blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries—are rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants. "Some inflammation after exercise is normal; it's the body's system of healing. But we still want to mitigate that inflammation to decrease pain and swelling, so eating high-antioxidant foods, like berries, is a good way to do so," Rizzo says.
Since antioxidant-strong fruits and vegetables can aid in the recovery process and decrease muscle soreness, shoot for five servings of any fruits and vegetables each day, Reaver recommends, including at least one serving of berries.
"If your stomach can handle it, eating any sort of bean after a workout provides that combination of carbs and protein that the body needs," Rizzo says. If it's mealtime within an hour or two of her workout, one of Rizzo's favorite meals is rice and beans. (Here are 17 ways to follow her lead!)
A 1-cup serving of pinto beans, for example, offers 245 calories, 45 grams carbs and 15 grams protein.
Along with being one of the healthiest nuts to nosh on, "almonds are a great recovery food because 1 ounce has 6 grams of protein. Plus, one healthy handful of almonds, about 23 almonds or 1 ounce, provides 20% of your daily magnesium, a mineral which aids in the production of energy in the body and supports muscle function," Rizzo explains.
Plus any source of healthy fat—almonds offer 14 grams per serving—is helpful to manage hunger levels. So if you find your workouts make you hungry enough to raid the vending machine, pack a portion (in something like Simply Green Snack Bags; buy it: $6.99 for two, Target) to fuel up in a balanced and recovery-supportive way.
Each 1-ounce serving of almonds offers 164 calories, 6 grams carbs and 6 grams protein.
5. Greek yogurt
While many sources of protein are solid for muscle growth, milk protein ranks among the best. As few as 9 grams of milk protein can begin to spur on protein synthesis in muscles and, as a result, benefit recovery, suggests research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Versatile Greek yogurt is a quick, affordable and probiotic-packed option. Kefir, cottage cheese and ricotta cheese are also solid options.
A 7-ounce container of plain Greek yogurt supplies 150 calories, 20 grams protein and 8 grams carbs.
6. Chocolate milk
If food doesn't appeal post-workout, sip smartly to help rebuild and recover. As we mentioned, fueling with plenty of carbs (aim for triple the carb grams for each protein gram) has been proven to be the best way to regenerate glycogen stores. Compared to water and electrolyte recovery drinks, research proves that chocolate milk is helpful for speeding up recovery, per a research review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Soy milk is a good alternative for those who don't do dairy.)
An easy-to-tote 1-cup serving of chocolate milk offers a nearly perfect combo: 210 calories, 27 grams carbs and 8 grams protein.
The Bottom Line
Prioritize protein and carbs, plus some healthy fats, to enhance post-workout recovery—and your future fitness gains.
"There are very few supplements that research shows supports increased athletic performance. Save your money on expensive pre-workout and performance enhancers. Instead, spend your money on whole foods, eating enough calories and scoring your antioxidants," Reaver says.
While these are among the best foods to eat more of when you exercise, if you remember nothing else, the dietitians suggest that you trust your gut.