Exercising and healthy eating is important. But to exercise properly and efficiently, you must supply your body with the right foods. Eating healthy foods before and after workouts ensures you have optimal energy for your workout. In addition, eating healthily after workouts ensures your body gets the right nutrients for recovery and muscle growth. As we mentioned in a past article, eating healthily positively impacts how your children, and their children look, and particularly determines your child’s fate during pregnancy.
We dive into the role of healthy eating before and after exercise, and well as during pregnancy, below.
Pre-Exercise Healthy Eating
Start your day off with the right foods. Eating a healthy breakfast is a must. Contrary to popular belief, your body does need carbs, especially before exercise. Just not the processed, vegetable oil-filled kind of carbs that dominate the American diet. Carbohydrates are necessary because carbs are generally converted by the body and used as energy quicker than fats (ketones). But, carbs are the least efficient, as they only offer about 4 calories of energy per gram. Fats, on other hand, are notoriously slow to digest. But, fats are more efficient per unit than carbs, as fats offer about 9 calories of energy per gram.
So, while ketones can be used as energy, they aren’t absorbed as quickly as carbohydrates. Thus, for any high performance athlete or person doing high intensity training, carbohydrates are a must.
For the slow-paced, long-distance runner, a meal with equal fat and carbohydrate proportions would make the most sense. A study published by the National Institute of Health found that “higher levels of fat in the diet, up to 40%, increase endurance running time without adverse effects on plasma cortisol, IFN-gamma, and lipid peroxide levels” (1).
Check out our 7 Day Healthy Eating Plan for breakfast/pre-workout ideas. The article supports the Health & Life Diet, which emphasizes leafy vegetables (only with enough time to digest pre exercise!), whole fats, unprocessed grains, and organic fruits.
Importantly, which foods you select pre-exercise depends on the time you have between eating and exercising. If you’re looking to eat something right before exercising, make sure to avoid fiber-heavy foods with long breakdown times (think leafy greens). Choose foods that are easily digestible, like greek yogurt with fruit.
The Research on Eating Healthy and Exercising
Research supports the benefits of these foods for physical performance. For instance, a recent article published by Saint Louis University in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition highlights nutritional choices and their impact on exercise.
Specifically,”investigators found that participants ran a 5K six percent faster after eating a Mediterranean diet than after eating a Western diet. Researchers found no difference between the two diets in performance in anaerobic exercise tests” (2).
The researchers described the Mediterranean diet as including “whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and whole grains, and avoids red and processed meats, dairy, trans and saturated fats and refined sugars” (3).
By contrast, the researchers explain, “the Western diet is characterized by low intake of fruit, vegetables and unrefined or minimally processed oils and high intakes of trans and saturated fats, dairy, refined sugars, refined and highly processed vegetable oils, sodium and processed foods” (4).
This “Western diet” sounds awfully familiar to the foods we recommend avoiding as part of the Health & Life Diet, doesn’t it? It may depart from our diet in terms of restricting red meat, but we’d suspect the processed meat does significantly more damage to your health than just red meat. It’s well known that red meat has played a large part in our diet through human evolution, and is thought to provide nutritional benefits as part of a organic, varied diet (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26643369)
Study Details and Commentary on Exercising and Healthy Eating
In the study, the study participants (seven women, four men) ran five kilometers on a treadmill on two separate occasions. The first occasion was after four days on a Mediterranean diet and the second occasion after four days on a Western diet, with a period of nine to 16 days separating the two tests.
The lead researchers ” found the 5K run time was six percent faster after the Mediterranean diet than the Western diet despite similar heart rates and ratings of perceived exertion” (5).
While the study’s sample size was small and many confounding factors exist, the study’s observed relationship between exercise and quality of diet remains important. While it’s not clear which foods as part of the Mediterranean diet were most influential in peak physical performance, eating a Mediterranean diet full of those foods eliminates this problem (since you’re obviously eating all of the mentioned foods!).
Other studies support the benefit of a Mediterranean diet in physical performance outcomes, including weight loss.
Consider this 2016 study, for instance, which evaluated a Mediterranean diet against a low-fat diets, among other “comparator” diets. The study researchers concluded that the “Mediterranean diet resulted in greater weight loss than the low-fat diet at ≥12 months (range of mean values: −4.1 to −10.1 kg vs 2.9 to −5.0 kg)” (6).
Look for Healthy Foods with Anti-Inflammatory + Antioxidant Properties
The head researcher of the Saint Louis University study , Edward Weiss, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and dietetics at SLU, explains the supposed benefits behind these foods. As Weiss describes, the diet is “well-established as having numerous health benefits. He and his team hypothesized that the diet’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, more alkaline pH and dietary nitrates might lead to improved exercise performance.
What are these anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects? We suspect they are, at least partly, from the healthy fats in the Mediterranean diet foods. Particularly, in the nuts and olive oil, which have high levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
On the contrary, the pro-inflammation effects of the Western diet are likely from the “highly processed vegetable oils.. and processed foods”, which have high levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. These damaging vegetable oils lead to the formation of oxidized and distorted fats. These two groups of deadly fats generate free radicals, which are huge players in various inflammatory diseases.
Post-Exercise Healthy Eating
Consuming the right foods after a workout is important to guarantee your gains are locked in, your energy levels stabilize, and your body has the right nutrients to recovery quickly. The focus of a post-workout meal should be protein.
Eating plenty of protein post-workout is important to replenish your body and help your muscles recover and grow. As you know, exercising breaks down your existing muscle tissue. Thus, consuming an adequate amount of protein after a workout gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins, and well as build new muscle tissue.
If you’re looking for specific numbers of nutrients, here what we’ve found:
Dr. Witard of the Physiology, Exercise and Nutrition Research Group at the University of Stirling recently released his updated guidelines for protein intake in athletes. Witard advised “to facilitate the remodeling of our muscle proteins — which are turning over rapidly due to their high training volumes — track and field athletes should aim for protein intakes of around 1.6 grams per kilogram of body mass each day if their goal is to increase muscle mass” (7).
Use this as a reference. If you are exercising regularly with high training volumes then this protein intake is appropriate. But, if you’re not training at a similar level to these athletes, reduce your optimal protein intake (1.0-1.3 grams per kilogram of body mass).
Exercising and Healthy Eating During Pregnancy
Topics like healthy eating and exercising can’t be discussed without mentioning the role of healthy eating and exercising during pregnancy.
Exercising and eating healthily are crucial during pregnancy. In fact, staying active during pregnancy reduces the likelihood of obesity in your children.
According to Jun Seok Son, a doctoral student at the Washington State University, “offspring born to mice that exercised during pregnancy were less likely to gain weight after consuming a high-fat diet later in life. Although previous studies have shown that exercise by obese females benefits their offspring, this is the first research to demonstrate that the same is true when non-obese females exercise” (8).
As Son elaborates, “The mice in the exercise group not only gained less weight on the high-fat diet but also showed fewer symptoms of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and fatty liver disease” (9).
Another study highlighted the role of maternal diet in fetal weight outcomes. The 2016 study was published in the International Journal of Obesity. It tested the hypothesis that poor maternal diet quality during pregnancy would increase neonatal adiposity (percent fat mass in baby) at birth by increasing the fat mass (FM) component of the baby’s body composition (11).
The study found just that. According to the researchers, “Poor diet quality during pregnancy increases neonatal adiposity independent of maternal prepregnancy BMI and total caloric intake. This further implicates maternal diet as a potentially important exposure for fetal adiposity.
Healthy Eating During Pregnancy Should be Obvious
We wouldn’t be addressing healthy eating during pregnancy if we didn’t think it was such a problem. But it is. Your body needs additional nutrients and minerals during pregnancy to meet the needs of the developing fetus.
In a study published in the Journal of Family and Reproductive Health, the results highlighted just that. The study evaluated the importance of “observing healthy habits by pregnant women that influences different aspects of mother and fetus health, we assessed the change in dietary behavior, and cigarette smoking after distributing the guidelines among 485 prenatal care patients.
The study (11) that examined pregnant women’s dietary patterns showed that only 7% of their subjects meet guidelines for vegetables & 13% for fruit and the mean consumption for fruit & vegetable during the day were only 2 servings. The ideal recommended amount for fruit and vegetable is > 7 servings per day based on ADA & ACOG” (12).
Exercising and Healthy Eating: Concluding Thoughts
Developing healthy eating habits before and after exercise, and during pregnancy, is critical. While exercising in its own produces many benefits, eating properly enhances those benefits.
Points to remember going forward:
- think of carbs as fast energy- they’re fast-acting, but easily depleted (less efficient fuel source)
- think of fats as slow, endurance energy- they’re slow-acting (relative to carbs), but last longer as energy sources
- emphasize carbs (and fat if appropriate) pre-workout, and protein post-workout
- eat healthily, avoid alcohol, and don’t smoke during pregnancy
Hopefully, this article gives you the motivation to eat healthier and instill healthy eating habits. Beginning the process of healthy eating is never easy but as you practice it more and more, it becomes easier and easier (the decisions become automatic). Soon enough eating junk food won’t even be a consideration. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below!
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