June 14, 2012 at 9:45 am EST | by Kevin M. Norris
Fuel for the journey

When my clients tell me during workouts they’re dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous, I always ask what they ate and when.

The causes of these symptoms during exercise is almost always food- and fluid-related. To get the most out of a workout you must be fueled and ready to go. But is it most effective to eat before or after a workout? The short answer is both. Knowing when the best time to eat and what types of food to eat is essential to an effective workout.

Your body is a fine-tuned machine and it needs fuel to operate and not just any type of fuel. You need the right type of gas and at the right time, otherwise you will either putter along or stall or worse, you may have to replace your transmission. And equally important to the right fuel sources are water and fluids, which are akin to your body’s radiator, regulating your core temperature and cooling abilities. Eating and fluid intake must go hand in hand with exercise. You are eating to exercise, not exercising to eat.

While most credentialed and qualified nutritionists or registered dieticians can give you a structured eating plan, this might prove to be either too complex or too time consuming for most people if it involves writing down your food.

While it’s always good to confer with your health care provider, the basic principles are simple and apply to anyone without dietary restrictions, food allergies, eating disorders or obesity.

Before you work out, eat something low fat, low in calories and foods that contain fluids. No fancy foods or food experiments here. A banana and yogurt always works well.

Avoid consuming a heavy meal at least 90 minutes before working out. Two hours is more optimal and for large meals, three is best.

Avoid eating while you are working out unless you exercise for more than 90 minutes.

Always stay hydrated and if you are thirsty, you are likely on your way to dehydration. Also, as another test you should have a light urine color. You may also weigh yourself before and after your workout and replace lost weight with two cups of fluid with each pound lost. Sports drinks can be beneficial especially in hot humid weather and I will address them in another column. You should drink about a half cup to one cup of water every 15-20 minutes during exercise.

Post workout meals should be consumed within 30 minutes of your workout and be a combination of lean protein and complex carbohydrates. Nuts (almonds and walnuts are the most nutritional) are recommended.  Low fat string cheese, peanut butter without sugar or a light meal with meat, starch and partially cooked (not mutilated) vegetable are healthy choices. And remember your whole grains.

Other popular and often misunderstood eating strategies worth mentioning are meal replacement plans or MRPs and in particular protein shakes and of course the ever popular, but often dismissed today, carbo loading. There can be a place for these tools, but these options are usually reserved for sport specificity or long endurance events and races. For the general exercise population there seems to be a misguided allure to them, but they are not a necessity under normal exercise circumstances. Simply remember real food is your best fuel source. Any substitutions, particularly synthetic, should be secondary and many nutrition bars are disguised sugar and chemical-laden candy bars. Yeah, I know the non-regulated supplementation industry, supremely referred to as neutraceuticals are going to have my head for this statement. But I say go natural as much as possible.

Finally, if weight maintenance, loss or gain is your goal, remember to be aware of your overall caloric consumption. The basic equation is one pound equals 3,500 calories. Hence to lose a pound or gain a pound, you will need either a 3,500 expenditure/deficit or an additional 3,500 in caloric consumption. And remember to regulate your portion sizes and eat smaller incremental meals throughout they day with your meals or snacks consuming lighter quantities as the day progresses.

  • I read an article some time ago that stated low fat milk as a better hydrator and muscle-building fluid than sports drinks. I’ve tried this and I found a much faster recovery and no muscle pain. I’d like to see research on this.

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