Your Kitchen and the Gym: What to Eat to Maximize Your Workout
Credit: Eric Gevaert | Dreamstime

If you want to succeed in the gym, it might be best to start and end your workout in the kitchen.

Scheduling meals and snacks around your fitness schedule can make a big difference in how you feel during a workout, and how much you benefit from it afterward.

"Nutrient timing is very important," said Dr. Shawn Arent, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Rutgers University. "You can't get the most out of working out without [paying attention to your] diet,"Arent said.

"You don't need a specific diet for regular exercise," as long as you're eating healthily, said Dr. Ben Zhou, director of the Health and Physical Fitness Testing Center at California State University Dominguez Hills. But even when eating healthy food, it's important to keep an eye on portion size, especially for those with specific fitness goals, he said.

Before your workout

It's best to eat a large meal at least a few hours before going to workout, Arent said. Ideally,such meals should combine lean protein and plenty of carbohydrates. Depending on the time of day, meals might include rice, pasta, chicken, fish, peanut butter and other healthy foods.

Arent said he also encourages people to have a smaller, high-carbohydrate snack or sports drink for energy within an hour or so of hitting the gym.

"You absolutely need to eat before you go to the gym," he told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The need to eat is especially important before extended aerobic exercise. "They need a continuous supply during long races," Zhou said.

Carbohydrates are digested and absorbed quickly compared with other nutrients, which makes them ideal to eat prior to or even during workouts, to keep energy levels high, Arent said. Proteins and fats, while necessary for nutrition, are a bad idea to eat shortly before any workout, because they take longer to digest. Exerting yourself while you have food sitting in your stomach can interfere with blood flow to the digestive tract, and can lead to stomach cramps and a heavy, lethargic feeling that impedes efficient exercise.

After your workout

Post-workout meals play as important a role as what you eat beforehand. "The more immediately after working out you eat, the better,"Arent said.

Getting food into the body helps it recover from exertion. After strenuous exercise, the carbohydrates stored in the muscles and liver may be used up, and the protein making up the muscles is partially broken down.Those nutrients need to be replaced.

The total amount of food someone should eat can vary widely based on their size, goals and exercise routine. The key is to find a balance so that you take in enough nutrients to replace energy and build muscle, but no tso much that your body converts the extra to unwanted fat, Arent said.

But this simple advice can be more difficult than it sounds. "People may not want to eat immediately because they are tired," Zhou said.

Further, it's the nutritional content, not the form of the food that matters, Arent and Zhou both said. Food in liquid form, such as a smoothie or fruit juice, is often easier to take in for people tired from exercise.

Unfortunately, these options rarely have any natural protein, which plays a vital part in increasing muscle mass. One option for getting more protein is to use protein powder supplements. While they work fine in delivering protein to the body,they shouldn't be treated as a replacement for proper meals, Arent said.

It doesn't take a lot of concentrated protein to get the benefits, and overdoing it carries the same penalties as overeating anything else, Arent said. "Too much, and you will increase weight," Zhou said, adding that the powder can also spoil the taste of the beverage.

Pass it on: Eating healthfully before and after your workout maximizes the benefits of exercise, experts say.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, sister site to LiveScience. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily on Twitter @MyHealth_MHND