You might be wondering why it’s taking you forever to reach your fitness goals when you’re working out like a beast and cutting back significantly on your calorie intake. Maybe you’ve been going straight to the gym in the morning without having breakfast, or perhaps you’ve been skipping dinner after your evening run. You might think that you’re saving yourself some calories and putting yourself on the fast track to reaching your goals, but these moves may in fact be sabotaging your efforts.

best food for exercise

It seems counterintuitive but eating is part of any fitness journey—even if you want to drop a few pounds. It’s all about eating the right food for exercise at the right time.

The Role of Food in Fitness

Just as a car won’t run without fuel, your body won’t perform properly without food. Before you put yourself through a hardcore training session, make sure your body is all gassed up with the right macronutrients, particularly carbohydrates and some protein.

Your body needs the carbs because it converts this macronutrient into glucose and stores it in your muscles as glycogen, which gives you energy when you work out. Meanwhile, you need protein, the building blocks of muscle, especially when you’re strength training: Lifting weights puts a lot of stress on your muscles and the protein you consume can help repair any damage.

When you don’t eat before a workout, you may feel dizzy or lethargic, especially if your blood sugar is low. But food is just as important after a workout. A snack or meal helps replace the calories you’ve burned through and helps your muscles recover more quickly.

Consistently skipping meals after exercising in the hopes that you’ll get leaner faster may backfire on you; you’ll feel more tired and it will take your body longer to recover, which means you may not be able to work out at max capacity. It may also slow down your metabolism.

What to Eat Pre-Workout

As mentioned earlier, the magical combo pre-workout is carbs plus protein. You’ll want to consume simple carbs and lean proteins as these are easier to digest (so forget that greasy burger). You can have a light snack about half an hour to an hour before you hit the gym or a full meal two to three hours before.

Some of the best energy food for exercise are:

Toast with peanut butter. This is a perfect example of the winning combination of carbs and protein. Your body will burn through the bread while making use of the protein in the nut butter.

Fruit with nut butter. Not a big bread eater? Have a banana or apple slices with some nut butter instead.

Oatmeal with fruit. This makes a great breakfast pre-workout. Eat about half a cup of oatmeal with your favorite fruit—just don’t overdo it with the fiber as you may have some tummy issues halfway through your training session.

Greek yogurt with trail mix. Greek yogurt has less sugar and more protein than regular yogurt, plus it contains highly beneficial probiotics. Trail mix likewise offers a healthy mix of protein and carbs.

What to Eat Post-Workout

It’s important to eat immediately after a workout, when glycogen stores are at their lowest. If you’re not hungry, have a snack then eat a full meal later on. Waiting too long to eat after you exercise affects your metabolism and decreases your body’s ability to repair itself.

You should also have a healthy mix of carbs and protein after your workout. Some examples of what you can consume:

Chocolate milk. This yummy beverage can go toe to toe with other recovery drinks. Studies have shown that chocolate milk appears to help replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscles. Take note that this post-workout drink is more suitable for high-intensity athletes; if you just went out on a leisurely walk, then it’s better to opt for something that isn’t quite as high in carbs.

Brown rice, chicken breast, and vegetables. Ready for a full meal? Go for complex carbs like brown rice paired with lean proteins like chicken breast, tofu, or omega-3-rich fish, then add a serving of veggies for a nutrient boost.

Whole-wheat toast and eggs. Again, the perfect combo of carbs and protein—plus you can make room for much-needed fiber now that you won’t have to think about bathroom issues cropping up mid-workout.

Additional Guidelines for Food and Exercise

A few more tips to keep in mind when it comes to food and exercise:

Avoid anything greasy. Of the three macronutrients, fat is what you have the least use for during a workout. It takes longer for your body to digest it, may make you feel sluggish and heavy, and may give you some tummy troubles. Try to steer clear of it prior to your workout.

Drink up! Stay hydrated by downing about 2 to 3 cups of water before you exercise, about half a cup to 1 cup every 15 minutes to 20 minutes while you exercise, and about 2 to 3 cups for every pound lost after exercise (you’ll need to weigh yourself before and after your workout).

Listen to your body. While there are general guidelines to follow, each body has its own quirks and responds differently to food. It may take some trial and error to help you figure out the optimum timing and the best energy food for exercise for you.