Eating Healthy for Energy: Recipes and Tips
Eat like an athlete for optimal performance—whether you’re running a marathon or just want more stamina for everyday life
It happens to all of us: You promise yourself you’re going straight from the office to the gym, but come quitting time, you’re too exhausted to lace up your sports shoes. Heck, you barely have the energy to make yourself a snack. But chances are a snack is exactly what you need. “Food is fuel,” says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., and if you want to have energy for peak performance in athletic events—or for daily life workouts like your job or chasing a toddler—you have to fill up your tank with quality “gasoline.”
You’re probably wondering how the eating habits of super-jocks could work for you. Clark maintains that whether you’re packing in the nutrients for a fitness event, trying to maintain or amp up your energy for normal daily life, or trying to lose pounds and inches, you still need to eat right. Her advice is to “fuel by day and diet by night.” Taper your caloric intake as the day progresses—beginning with a big breakfast and ending with a small dinner—to rev up your metabolism and give yourself enough energy for the day’s tasks. Don’t waste calories on a giant dinner or dessert.
When it comes to what kind of fuel to put in, Clark and the athletes agree: For overall energy and health, eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fitness buffs should fuel up on complex carbohydrates before exercise (and add additional simple or complex carbs during exercise for longer, more intense sessions—anything over about an hour). After exercise, refuel your glycogen stores with more carbs, and add high-quality lean protein to repair muscles. To lose weight, these rules apply, but the first rule of losing pounds (while maintaining energy) remains that you burn off more calories than you take in. For specific high-energy foods favored by the pros, read on.
In addition to providing valuable nutrients, including potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6, bananas are a good source of carbohydrates. Duggan counts the fruit among his favorites when he’s training (along with peanut butter and honey), because they’re “simple, high-energy, and easy to digest.” A plain banana makes the perfect preworkout snack. For something more substantial, mix one into a smoothie, spread one with nut butter, or use overripe bananas to make a quick bread.
Milk and Yogurt
Swimmer Dara Torres insists she doesn’t just sport a milk mustache when it comes to advertising campaigns. “I drink organic chocolate milk after every workout,” she says. “At the end of a workout you’re exhausted so that really helps my recovery and it gives me fuel.” Clark concurs, explaining that milk and milk products like yogurt are an excellent source of both carbohydrates and protein, plus calcium to help build strong bones. If you’re training hard like Torres, the extra simple carbs from the sugar in chocolate milk (or hot chocolate in cold weather) can help boost energy before exercise and replenish glycogen stores in your muscles after a serious session. Though Duggan thinks ice cream is the best recovery food (“fat, sugar, and protein in a tasty little package”), average Joe and Jane athletes should generally stick to low-fat or skim milk products for easier digestion and to limit saturated fat.
Peanuts, Peanut Butter, and other Nuts and Nut Butters
When asked what he’d choose if he could only eat one food for energy, Duggan replied peanut butter. Clark confirms that peanuts and other nuts are an athlete’s best friend: Because they provide “fuel and sustained energy,” they’re a great sports food and actually one of the “best diet foods around.” Nuts and nut butters are good recovery foods because they have a combination of protein and carbs, while their healthy, heart-protecting fats keep you going over the long haul. Runners, however, might want to limit nuts before exercise, since that same carb-protein-healthy-fat combo makes nuts slow to digest and can cause indigestion during intense, jostling exercise.
Oats and Oatmeal
Oatmeal is a popular choice for athletes because it is digested slowly (yet “comfortably”) and gives sustained energy, says Clark . A packet of instant oatmeal or, if you have time, slow-cooked steel-cut oats are good choices—for more substance, pump oatmeal up with dried or fresh fruit, milk, and nuts. Johnson eats a lot of granola, while Duggan likes to fuel up for training and races with oatmeal loaded with fruit and nuts, or muesli with fruit and yogurt. “It’s all pretty simple and easy to digest but still tasty,” he explains.
Meat in Moderation
Here’s Duggan’s top advice for anyone aspiring to be in the best shape possible: “Lay off the meat. You really don’t need a whole lot of it. Try not making a giant piece of meat the centerpiece of every meal.” Clark agrees, and suggests meals should generally consist of a good, healthy carb (i.e., potatoes, not potato chips), plenty of veggies, and a little bit of protein. Some of her top picks are Asian stir-fries served over rice; pasta and meatballs with a big salad; and a small piece of fish with a sweet potato and a green vegetable such as spinach cooked in heart-healthy olive oil.
“During training I seem to always stick to eating plenty of salad, chicken, and fish (sushi is my favorite),” says Johnson. The gymnast is doing the right thing by augmenting her salad with some lean protein for sustained energy and muscle repair. Toss in some carbs, too, for a high-energy meal. “Make it into a sports salad by adding beans, corn, beets, and toasted croutons,” Clark suggests.
“Assuming they don’t gas-propel you,” as Clark puts it, beans are a great source of both protein and carbs in a heart-healthy and inexpensive package. Toss them into salads, soups, stews, chilis, and pasta dishes, or serve with quick-cooking brown rice and jarred salsa for a superfast supper. One of Clark ‘s favorite snacks is hummus and pita because it combines legumes, healthy fats, and carbs into one very portable package.
Oranges and Other Vitamin C Stars
When you exercise, your muscles receive tiny tears—the vitamin C in oranges and many other fruits helps repair them. (You can search our sister site Nutrition Data for foods highest in vitamin C.) “I love oranges, all berries, and pineapples,” says Torres, who makes a recovery shake with a meal replacement powder (she likes Living Fuel), fruit, and milk. For an all-natural version, Clark suggests a smoothie with yogurt, orange juice, bananas, and strawberries. Johnson revs up for training with a piece of chicken and some fruit.
People sometimes shy away from dried fruit because it can pack a lot of calories, but its portability, nutrient density, and easy-to-access carbs make it a healthy choice for longer workouts such as hiking and biking. Clark suggests adding it to trail mix, granola bars, and oatmeal.
While too much fat can weigh you down, a modest amount of healthy fat—think olive oil, fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds—protects your heart and provides sustained energy. In fact, says Clark , studies have shown that professional athletes perform better when they have a slightly higher fat intake—fat is actually stored within the muscles and is tapped for fuel during endurance events. “I need to start the day with some fat and protein to keep me satiated,” says cyclist Duggan.
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