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Healthy Heart

Eat Smart

Fuel Your Fitness

Your nutrition choices before, during and after activity can help you stay strong and recover better. Here’s a breakdown of what your body needs to fuel a heart-healthy workout and recovery, courtesy of a Johns Hopkins nutritionist.

mature man drinking from a water bottle
What the Experts Do
Enjoy a Post-Workout Smoothie

Most mornings find Johns Hopkins nutritionist Joshua Nachman, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N., doing a yoga practice. He brings water but doesn’t eat beforehand because he starts so early. Afterward, he makes eggs seasoned with red chili powder or hot pepper, and a smoothie. His recipe: 1½ cups water, 3 or 4 slices fresh pineapple, juice of ½ lime, ½ avocado, 3 to 5 basil leaves, and up to 4 cups of greens, such as spinach or flat-leafed kale, which he says has the best flavor.

Your heart needs exercise—and what you eat before, during and after physical activity can affect your performance and how you feel, says Johns Hopkins nutritionist Joshua Nachman, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N.

To personalize what you eat around exercise, nutritionists consider three things, he says:

1. How much exercise you’ll be getting.

Someone doing high-intensity interval training or weight training would need to eat more than, say, a beginning walker.

2. How well your body regulates blood sugar.

“If you can fast easily, you can go a whole workout without eating, compared to someone who crashes not long after eating, or someone with diabetes,” Nachman says.

3. Your fitness goals.

Someone who wants to lose weight has to be careful not to take in more calories than he or she is burning. “A 500-calorie smoothie after an hour of weight training is fine if you’re trying to build muscle, but not if you’re trying to lose weight,” he says.

Working with a nutritionist can help you customize your eating based on those factors. But some general guidance is smart for anyone who counts exercise as part of a heart-smart plan.

What to Eat Before Exercise

“Hydration is really important,” Nachman says. He prefers coconut water or plain water to sports drinks, which contain more calories and sugar.

Eat only foods that are familiar to you. “Before a workout isn’t a great time to experiment with a new super smoothie, especially if you’re prone to gas and bloating,” he says.

Ideally, choose 30 percent healthy fat, 30 percent protein, and 40 percent complex carbs. Snack examples: Nut butter, cooked greens, juiced fruits and vegetables, or a smoothie.

It’s best to eat 30 minutes to three hours before a workout. If you’ll be exercising soon, have a smaller snack. If your workout is two or three hours away, you can eat a whole meal.

“If you work full-time and exercise in the evening, think about lunchtime-onward as your pre-workout eating time,” Nachman suggests. That will help you think through nutritious choices, rather than grabbing a quick bite of whatever’s handy.

What to Eat During Exercise

Most people don’t need to eat anything while exercising, Nachman says, “unless you’re an endurance athlete doing a multi-hour workout.” If you have poor blood sugar control, sipping coconut water can be useful; you’ll get a little sugar along with hydration and balanced electrolytes (a necessary substance in your blood and body fluids that you lose through sweat).

What to Eat After Exercise

After exercising, aim for balance. “Don’t overemphasize protein, fat or carbohydrates while neglecting the others,” Nachman says. Protein is especially important, but he advises whole foods (lentils, quinoa, fish, beans) over protein powder. Carbs are key too. They don’t have to be grains; fruits and vegetables are mostly carbohydrates. Healthy fats include avocado, fish and olive oil.

Examples of well-balanced post-workout choices include olive oil (a healthy fat) drizzled over quinoa (protein) or trail mix containing nuts like almonds and walnuts, seeds such as pumpkin seeds, coconut flakes, and berries. 

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