What to eat when you’re exercising (Part I)

On a recent summer evening, a dozen people gathered in the Bond Wellness Center conference room to hear nutritionist Donna Poe talk about healthy food choices to get the most benefit out of exercise. The runners, hikers, swimmers, cyclists, and yoga enthusiasts were all ears and learned some surprising facts. We include here Donna’s advice on WHAT to eat.  Next week here on FitNotesNH, we’ll tell you what Donna said about WHEN to eat.


Whatever your chosen sport—whether you exercise moderately or are training for competition—the basic guidelines are the same. Essential for optimal training and performance are the correct timing of meals, enough fluids, and the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.

What is your goal? What is your routine? What is the intensity of your workout? If you are pushing your body to work full force, your needs will be different than if you are exercising at a slower pace. The length of time you exercise is also important: you will need more energy for a four-hour bicycle ride than you will for a 30-minute walk.

After the age of 30, our bodies don’t require as many calories, but do need the same amount of protein and vitamins. “Make the most of wholesome food,” Donna said. “Eat ‘close to the ground.’ Our bodies are designed to obtain nutrients from plant-based, whole foods.”

Most people do not need vitamin and mineral supplements. “If you are not eating well to begin with, the vitamins are not going to do you any good. Avoid mega-doses. Just aim for 100 percent of the recommended amounts and get those from food first.”

The United States Drug Administration (USDA) recently replaced the familiar Food Pyramid with My Plate.”

“Imagine a plate divided into sections,” Donna said. “Vegetables and fruits make up half the plate, and grains and proteins make up the other half. Your dairy needs are represented by a glass at the side of the plate.”

The Specifics: Carbohydrates

What’s the best fuel for working muscles? “Carbohydrates. They are an immediate source of energy. Carbs are stored in muscles as glycogen.” Donna explained. “The first place your body goes for energy is glycogen, which is drawn from your muscles. You need to get carbs so that your muscles can turn it into glycogen.”

Include carbs in all your meals and snacks. If you don’t get enough carbohydrates, you may feel as if you’ve hit a brick wall. “Preventing this from happening is as simple as eating a piece of fruit before exercise,” Donna said.

Fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt are all good sources of carbohydrates, as are whole grain breads and pastas, rice, quinoa and barley. Although “quick” carbs such as fruit juices, soda or candy will give you an immediate energy boost, your blood sugar will plummet just as quickly as it rises, with no lasting benefit.

“Slow” carbs—grains, fruits, and vegetables—contain fiber and last longer in your system. Any plant food has fiber. The more fiber, the longer the energy boost. Broccoli, melons, and rice cakes are good choices for fiber-based carbohydrates. The more fiber, the more sustainable the benefit. One caution: “Too much fiber can be a negative, particularly if you are eating a lot of it before an endurance event,” Donna said.


Proteins are also essential. “Proteins repair and build muscles, and make red and white blood cells which deliver oxygen to muscles and help fight infections. Our bodies also use proteins to make the enzymes and hormones which help regulate metabolism,” Donna said. “Spacing protein throughout the day is much better than trying to get it all at once,” she added. “Although it is absorbed more slowly, it lasts longer in your system.”

Fish, chicken, pork, eggs, beans, and nuts are all good sources of protein, as are yogurt and milk.  How much protein do you need? A 150-pound person who regularly exercises will need 60 – 90 grams of protein daily. This same person will need up to 120 grams if she is an endurance runner or cyclist.

“A serving of eggs, cheese, or milk contains 10 grams of protein,” Donna said. “Greek yogurt—yogurt with the whey drained from it—is an excellent source of protein, with 13 to 14 grams, versus only 7 or 8 in regular yogurt.”

A three-ounce serving of salmon contains 21 grams of protein. Plant-based protein—found in nuts, beans, and grains such as oatmeal—are also good sources. “If you need more protein in your diet add an egg, a cup of yogurt or nuts,” Donna said. “Nut butters—ground nuts without added salt or sugar—are also excellent.

“Space-out your protein consumption throughout the day. Try a snack of carrots or an apple, whole-wheat crackers and hummus.”

Hoping to bulk up or worried that you might? “It’s a misconception that protein will make your muscles larger,” Donna said. “Resistance exercise does this. You need to get enough protein.”

Don’t get too much, though. A high-protein, low-carb diet can stress the heart and liver, and dehydrates you. Protein also turns to fat if you are getting too much.


Our bodies also need small amounts of heart-healthy fats. “Keep fat to 20 to 25 percent of your calories,” Donna said. “Fat helps absorb vitamins and phytochemicals and helps keep your brain and nervous system healthy.” High-fat food before an intense workout or endurance event is not recommended.

Avocado is the only fruit that contains fat. Canola, peanut or olive oils, nuts and olives also contain fats. “Be careful to watch the sodium content, especially if you have high blood pressure,” Donna said. Other good sources are fatty fish—salmon, herring, anchovies, and sardines—which contain Omega 3s.

Next week here on FitNotesNH, we’ll tell you what Donna said about WHEN to eat.

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