by Tracy Garrett
Baseball great Babe Ruth excelled on a strict diet of hot dogs and beer.
Basketball star Maurice Cheeks led the 76ers to the 1983 championship, powered by chocolate-chip cookies and Hawaiian Punch.
Women’s half-pipe snowboarder Alexandra Duckworth prepares for every competition by downing two gallons of coffee.
Whether you are a professional athlete or just starting to work out, eating right can fuel your warm-up, energize your activity and maximize your cool down.
Which foods are best? Sorry, but hot dogs, beer, cookies, punch and two gallons of coffee are not on this list. Here are healthier alternatives to fuel up before, during and after physical activity:
- Stock your personal training table with quality carbs, lean protein and fluids. Carbohydrates like breads, oatmeal, pasta, rice, fruits and vegetables provide quick energy and are the main fuel source for working muscles. If you are engaging in moderate to intense physical activity, such as jogging or playing a sport, choose food and beverages that your body will digest quickly. Examples include toast with jelly, pancakes with syrup or juice, all of which are lower in fiber and fat and provide a quick burst of energy.
- Avoid fatty foods such as fried-egg sandwiches or greasy cheeseburgers. These take longer to digest and may leave you feeling like you are carrying a brick in your stomach. The emphasis on protein intake is after a workout.
- Water acts as your body’s cooling system. The best way to hydrate is to drink plenty of fluids with meals, and drink about two cups (16 ounces) of water two hours before exercise.
- Good old H2O should be your “go to” drink during physical activity. But if you’re exercising for more than 60 minutes in hot, humid conditions, sports drinks may help. They provide carbs for instant energy and sodium and potassium for electrolyte replacement. Low-calorie and carbohydrate-free sports drinks are available for those watching their weight or for individuals with diabetes. If you eat anything during physical activity, keep portions small.
- Low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt are flush with carbohydrates and proteins, which can help resynthesize muscle tissue after a good workout.
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- Lean proteins, such as grilled chicken breasts, pork loin or lean cuts of red meat, help build and maintain muscle mass and produce hemoglobin which delivers oxygen throughout the body. The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and tuna also promote heart health and immunity.
- Colorful fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and shorten recovery times after activity or injury. Walnuts are full of more antioxidants than any other nut. Ginger has been shown to ease muscle pain, joint stiffness and swelling.
- Water is the perfect liquid to cool and lubricate your body post-activity.
Food and beverages are the fuels that help us build strength, stamina and speed as well as recover from physical activity. Whatever you put in your mouth, be sure it helps you get the most out of your workout.
About Ask The Experts
Information presented here is general in nature and may not be appropriate for individuals with medical issues that warrant special diets, such as those with diabetes or kidney disease. Ask your doctor if you need a special diet and consider consulting with a registered dietitian to learn about the best food choices for you.
Tracy Garrett is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who works at the Sun Health Center for Health & Wellbeing.
(Originally published July 15, 2015; last updated Jan. 6, 2019.)