what to eat before and after a workout

Your Nutritional Guide to What To Eat Before and After a Workout

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Updated on April 20, 2024

It is no secret that food plays a crucial role in optimising your performance, recovery, and overall well-being. But with so much conflicting information out there, navigating the world of what to eat before and after a workout can feel overwhelming. Whether you are a seasoned athlete or a fitness newbie, understanding what to eat before and after your workout can be a game-changer. 

This article is your one-stop shop for mastering the art of fueling your body for peak performance. We will delve into the science behind pre and post-workout nutrition, demystifying the roles of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. We will also explore different meal and snack options tailored to your workout intensity and timing, from quick pre-workout bites to delicious post-workout recovery meals.

So, ditch the confusion and get ready to unlock the full potential of your workouts with the power of proper nutrition.

What Are Nutrients?

Before we dig deeper into what you should eat before and after a workout, we need to learn a thing or two about nutrients, what they are, how many types of them there are, what function they do, etc.

Simply put, nutrients are substances essential for the growth, development, and maintenance of the human body. They provide energy, facilitate metabolic processes, and support bodily functions. They are divided into several categories based on their functions and chemical composition. 

First of all, we have macronutrients. These nutrients are required in large quantities to provide energy and support bodily functions. The three primary macronutrients are:

  1. Carbohydrates: These are the most essential source of energy for the body and are found in large quantities in bread, pasta, potatoes, and oats.
  1. Proteins: Indispensable for the growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissues and muscles and can be found in meat, poultry, and legumes.
  1. Fats: Provide energy, support cell structure, and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Found in nuts, seeds, eggs, and avocado.

We also have micronutrients. These are required yet in smaller quantities but are equally essential for various physiological functions. Micronutrients are classified into:

  1. Vitamins: Organic compounds that regulate metabolism, support immune function, and act as antioxidants.
  1. Minerals: Inorganic elements necessary for various bodily functions, such as bone formation, nerve function, and fluid balance.

Then, there is water. Despite not providing energy like traditional nutrients, water is often considered a nutrient in its own right due to its vital involvement in numerous physiological processes in the body, including nutrient transport, temperature regulation, and waste removal.

Nutrients are obtained through the diet, and a balanced intake of different nutrients is crucial for maintaining optimal health and preventing nutritional deficiencies or imbalances.

Since we are talking today about workouts and physical effort, we are exclusively going to focus on macronutrients as they provide the maximum energy. For that, we need to understand how they work inside the human body and what they do to fuel it.

How Do Carbohydrates Work?

what to eat before and after a workout

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy. When consumed, they are easily and quickly broken down into glucose thanks to their straightforward chemical structure. Glucose is the simplest form of sugar and the body’s preferred source of energy, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to cells throughout the body, where it is used to fuel various physiological processes.

As this happens, the pancreas releases the insulin hormone, which moderates the glucose level in the bloodstream. It leaves a certain amount in the blood that is enough for the body to function properly, converts any excess glucose into glycogen, and then stores it in the liver and muscles for future use. The liver and all the body muscles collectively can store just a maximum of 600 grams of glycogen.

When energy demands increase, such as during physical activity and if there is not enough glucose to fuel contractions and support endurance, the pancreas releases the glucagon hormone, which heads to the glycogen stores and breaks them back down into glucose, which is then used to provide a steady supply of energy.

This is what happens when carbohydrates are consumed in moderation.

In the case of having a high carbohydrate intake—like when you eat a dozen doughnuts because you feel lonely on a Friday night—the body experiences a glucose rush, which you may experience as extreme thirst and, ironically, increased hunger. The pancreas then releases as much insulin as needed to moderate that excess blood sugar. 

If there is more glucose than what the body needs to function and what can be turned into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles, the body will turn this excess sugar into fat and store it in areas like the belly and hips, and you gain weight.

The opposite is also true.

When the carbohydrate intake is too low or just enough to generate exactly what the body needs of glucose, there will not be any excess glucose, and, therefore, no glycogen gets stored and used for energy. During physical exercise, the body will then turn to the stored fat and burn it to get energy, leading to weight loss.

How Do Proteins Work?

what to eat before and after a workout

Proteins are large molecules made of chains of amino acids. In order for the body to utilise dietary proteins, they must first be broken down into their constituent amino acids through the process of digestion.

Protein digestion happens in two places. It is initiated and partially done in the stomach and then completed in the small intestine. Through the release and use of several super-hard-to-pronounce enzymes, the protein molecules are ultimately broken down into amino acids and then moved to the bloodstream.

Once absorbed into the bloodstream, amino acids are transported to various tissues and organs throughout the body, where they are used for a variety of purposes. In cells, amino acids are assembled into specific sequences according to the instructions encoded in our DNA to synthesise proteins back again.

Those newly synthesised proteins are essential for growth, muscle repair, and maintenance of tissues, as well as for the synthesis of enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and other important molecules.

If the body has an excess of amino acids—like when you eat a triple cheeseburger and eight crunchy chicken nuggets on a Friday night to make up for a drastic workweek—that are not needed for protein synthesis, they can be converted either into glucose and used as a source of energy or into fatty acids and stored as fat in adipose tissue.

How Do Fats Work?

what to eat before and after a workout

The digestion of fats begins in the mouth, where some digestive enzymes found in the saliva initiate their breakdown. In the stomach, the process of breaking down fats continues, yet on a minimal level, due to the acidic environment.

The majority of fat digestion pretty much occurs in the small intestine. When fats enter the small intestine, a fluid called bile is released from the gallbladder to aid in breaking them down into smaller droplets. With the help of enzymes released by the pancreas, those small droplets are further chopped into fatty acids and glycerol, a chemical that is the fatty acids’ building block.

Next, the fatty acids and glycerol are absorbed by cells lining the small intestine. Within these cells, every three fatty acids combine with one glycerol molecule to form a chemical called triglyceride. Triglycerides, along with cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins, are then packaged all together into large molecules called chylomicrons.

The thing is, chylomicrons are too large to enter the bloodstream directly from the small intestine. So, they enter the lymphatic vessels as those eventually drain into the bloodstream. Once they reach the bloodstream, chylomicrons circulate through the body, delivering dietary fats to various tissues and organs for energy production, storage, or other metabolic processes.

While not many know that, fats are a concentrated source of energy. In fact, they can provide more than twice the number of calories per gram if compared to carbohydrates and proteins.

Yet, the reason why carbohydrates usually take more credit as an energy source is that they are more favoured by the body, especially during moderate to high-intensity activities that require fast energy production, such as sprinting or weightlifting. That is mainly because carbohydrates are more readily and quickly metabolised than fats.

On the other hand, during low-intensity activities where not much energy is needed, such as while walking, lightly jogging, leisurely cycling, or lying on the couch and watching the Kung Fu Panda franchise for the fifth time, the body primarily uses fats for energy, where oxygen is readily available to help break down fatty acids stored in the body to provide sustained energy over a prolonged period.

This very fact of using fats as a source of energy is actually what the ketogenic diet is all about. Despite its obvious drawbacks, keto restricts carbohydrates but emphasises consuming high amounts of healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, different nuts, seeds, oils, and fatty fish, to provide the majority of calories and serve as the primary fuel source for the body.

What To Eat Before and After a Workout

Understanding how macronutrients are digested and what they are primarily used for sets the tone for further understanding which foods to eat before and after a workout, which are inherently tied to the purpose of the workout in the first place. 

We can fairly say that there are four types of people who exercise on a regular basis: those who seek weight loss, bodybuilders, people who want to maintain a healthy fitness level, and lastly, individuals with special cases aiming to improve their conditions and overall health. Each group of those should eat differently from the others to reach their target.

That being said, please keep in mind that no two individuals are physically similar, and everybody’s nutritional needs may vary based on factors such as age, gender, body composition, activity level, and overall health status.

So, before making any significant changes to your diet or exercise routine, it is key to consult with an experienced healthcare professional or nutritionist, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or dietary restrictions. The following suggestions for healthy foods to eat before and after a workout are general recommendations and may not be suitable for everyone. 

1. When Exercising for Weight Loss

what to eat before and after a workout

One effective way to lose weight by exercising is practically by eating nothing prior to and after your workout. In other words, it is good to work out while doing intermittent fasting, better if on a 16:8 plan, for maximum weight loss.

Yet, it is important to note that exercising in a fast state may not be suitable for everyone. Some individuals may experience decreased energy levels or performance, especially if they are not accustomed to exercising without eating first. Additionally, those with certain medical conditions, like eating disorders or maybe diabetes, should consult with a healthcare professional before engaging in intermittent fasting or exercising in a fasted state.

The idea behind intermittent fasting is super simple. When we stop eating, the body exhausts its available glucose, the glycogen stores are depleted, and because there is no food intake, the body turns to the stored fats to burn them for energy, and so aids in weight loss.

Exercising while fasting, especially if for 16 or more hours, forces the body to increase reliance on fat as a primary fuel source and, therefore, accelerates fat burn. Additionally, fasting may stimulate the production of hormones like adrenaline and growth hormone, which can further promote fat metabolism.

When it is time to break your fast, you must do this with protein and never with carbohydrates. Come to think of it. If you eat carbs, you are going to spike your blood sugar, triggering the release of insulin to regulate it. Hopefully, you recall from above, too much glucose eventually means fat storage, and you go back to square one.

While protein still provokes the release of insulin, it does this to a lesser extent compared to carbohydrates. The insulin response to protein is also typically more gradual and less pronounced compared to carbohydrates. So, what it does is help shuttle amino acids into cells for various purposes, including muscle repair and growth.

Even if you consume more protein than your body needs for these functions, the excess amino acids are broken down and converted into energy. The body does not have a direct mechanism for storing excess protein as it does for carbohydrates and fats.

However, while fats do not spike glucose like carbohydrates, you can combine a small amount of them in your after-workout, breaking-fast meal. Such an amount will be digested and used for energy and not stored in the body.

High-protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yoghurt, and plant-based sources like legumes, tofu, and quinoa. Some post-workout meal suggestions are:

  1. Grilled chicken breast salad
  2. Tuna and avocado lettuce wraps
  3. Salmon and avocado bowl
  4. Egg white omelette with spinach and mushrooms
  5. Turkey and cheese
  6. Shrimp stir-fry with vegetables
  7. Grilled tofu salad
  8. Beef or chicken skewers with zucchini noodles
  9. Greek yoghurt with nuts

The amount of protein needed for optimal muscle repair and growth can vary based on factors such as individual goals, body weight, and the type and intensity of exercise. Generally, consuming between 20 and 30 grams of protein within the post-exercise window is recommended.

That does not necessarily mean, however, that carbohydrates should be avoided altogether. Even those targeting weight loss and doing intermittent fasting can consume carbohydrates moderately within their eating window. Yet, it is better if they do so after a few hours from breaking their fast.

Ultimately, the best approach to intermittent fasting and exercise depends on individual preferences, goals, and overall health status. It is pivotal to listen to your body, stay hydrated, and fuel your workouts appropriately based on your needs and preferences.

2. When Exercising for Building Muscles

what to eat before and after a workout

At least two hours before a workout, bodybuilders should typically aim for a meal or snack that provides sustained energy and helps maximise performance. A combination of carbohydrates and protein is often recommended. Carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are crucial for providing energy during the workout, while protein assists muscle repair and growth. Lean protein sources, including chicken, fish, or tofu, can be beneficial.

Some specific options include:

  1. Whole grain toast with peanut butter
  2. Greek yoghurt with fruit
  3. Oatmeal with Greek yoghurt and berries
  4. Brown rice with grilled chicken or tofu

The anabolic window refers to a period of 30 minutes to an hour immediately following a workout when the body is believed to be most receptive to nutrient intake. As the focus is on replenishing glycogen stores and providing protein for muscle recovery, bodybuilders should opt for fast-digesting protein sources and consume as much as two grams of protein for each kilo they weigh within the anabolic window.

Some examples of post-workout meals or snacks include:

  1. Grilled chicken breasts with steamed broccoli and quinoa
  2. Salmon fillet served with sweet potato and asparagus
  3. Lean beef stir-fry with mixed vegetables and a small bowl of brown rice
  4. Grilled shrimp skewers served with quinoa and roasted vegetables
  5. Lean ground turkey chilli with kidney beans, bell peppers, and spices
  6. Lentil soup with diced chicken breast and a whole-grain roll
  7. Black bean and vegetable burrito bowl with brown rice, salsa, and avocado

3. When Exercising to Maintain Weight

what to eat before and after a workout

That being said, not all of those who work out on a regular basis, whether at the gym or at home, wish to shed some weight or win Mr. Olympia and become the new Big Ramy. In fact, a large sector of the people who are consistent with their workout routines just want to maintain an ideal weight and muscle mass, sustain a healthy body fat percentage, and, for sure, strengthen their gym friendships.

Because such people approach fitness differently, their before and after workout meals also differ accordingly. 

So, before they work out, anyone who wishes to generally keep a good fitness score without having specific targets should consume carbohydrates around 30 minutes before their exercise to get an energy boost and do well. If this is not available, then a banana, a few dates, or a piece of dark chocolate will do.

If there is plenty of time, then at least two hours prior to the workout, a protein-rich meal will give the body the necessary energy and fuel it.

The thing is, protein takes much longer than carbohydrates to digest. For instance, digesting plant-based protein, such as that in beans, lentils, and tofu, takes between two and three hours. On the other hand, solid protein sources like meat, poultry and fish generally take up to four hours to digest.

So, it is important to take this into consideration, as working out on a full stomach can cause bloating, cramping, and nausea. That is because exercising immediately after eating diverts blood flow from the digestive system toward the muscles for support, which causes indigestion, increases the risk of gastrointestinal issues like acid reflux and heartburn, and indigestion, and leaves the body struggling to efficiently convert food into energy for exercise.

This also eventually leads to decreased performance and endurance.

Within 30 minutes to an hour after exercise—this is the anabolic window we mentioned earlier—it is important to prioritise muscle repair and replenishing glycogen stores by consuming 20-30 grams of protein and maybe a little bit of carbohydrates as well. Some examples of post-workout meals include:

  1. Greek yoghurt with different berries and a sprinkle of granola
  2. Tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread
  3. Egg scramble with veggies and avocado on whole-wheat toast
  4. Salmon with roasted sweet potato and asparagus
  5. Quinoa bowl with chicken, black beans, and roasted vegetables
  6. Lentil soup with a whole-grain roll

4. People With Special Cases

what to eat before and after a workout

People with certain medical conditions may have unique nutritional needs before and after a workout to support their health and manage their condition effectively. 

For instance, diabetic people should choose low-glycemic index carbohydrates that provide steady energy release, such as whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, and legumes, ideally between 30 and 60 minutes before their workout. They can pair them with a lean protein source like chicken, fish, and tofu, yet, again, extend the period between their meal and the exercise.

After they work out, they should aim for a balanced meal or snack that incorporates carbohydrates and protein and avoid high-sugar foods. They also need to monitor blood sugar levels closely after exercise and adjust insulin or medication doses as needed.

Besides diabetes, there are so many other medical conditions that require consuming different things before and after the workout, such as heart diseases, kidney diseases, high blood pressure and all types of digestive disorders. So, it is highly recommended that anyone with any such medical condition consult their physician or a registered dietitian to guide them and avoid any health implications.


The journey toward fitness is as unique as our individuality, and tailoring nutritional choices accordingly ensures a sustainable and enjoyable path to success. By understanding the significance of pre and post-workout nutrition and by making informed choices, you can improve your performance, speed up recovery, and achieve your fitness goals more effectively.

As you lace up your sneakers and reach for your water bottle, remember that what you eat matters, and it has the power to propel you toward a stronger, more vibrant you.

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