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How Dietitians Recommend Fueling Your Workout

July 13, 2017 by Ginger Hultin MS RDN

What motivates you to workout? I hear a lot of encouragement in gyms from trainers and see posts and goals at various gyms to “lose my dad-bod”, “lose 20#”, “get a 6-pack”. I used to work as a trainer at a gym and we were encouraged to sell supplements to our clients. This is actually how I landed in the field of nutrition; the fact that gyms sometimes DO push their trainers to sell a certain amount of products. I hope everyone reaches their goals and finds an enjoyable exercise plan that is sustainable long term to get them there. As a dietitian, I focus on how to help my clients fuel their workout so they can reach their goals. Following a restrictive diet or relying on supplements certainly does not provide your body the energy it needs to do your workouts and not getting adequate nutrition might even prevent you from reaching your goals long term. So I’m sharing how dietitians recommend fueling your workout for to give your body everything it needs to reach your goals.

How Dietitians Recommend Fueling Your Workout

Fueling Your Body: The Basics

There are three macronutrients including carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Macronutrients are the three types of chemical substances that our bodies can break down into fuel (so they are pretty important for being physically active…and everyone). Carbohydrates tend to get a bad reputation when it comes to fitness and weight loss. They are often the food that people avoid on low carbohydrate diets like paleo and ketogenic. But carbohydrates are actually our bodies’ preferred source of fuel and the only thing our brains can metabolize (unless in ketosis). Foods that contain carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Whole grains are a great source of the B vitamins which are important for energy – so you should definitely eat a bowl of quinoa instead of getting a B12 shot (unless you are B12 deficient). Fats are important because they provide padding for organs, makeup our cell’s membrane, and help us absorb essential fat-soluble nutrients. When thinking about fats, eat heart healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Protein is most popular for fitness as the little amino acids help build muscle. Protein foods are typically thought of as animal-based products, but you can actually meet all your protein needs with plant-based foods and there are tons of added health benefits. 

It’s All About the Timing

How dietitians recommend fueling your workout has to a lot with timing of your macronutrients. If you haven’t eaten 3 hours before a workout, you should definitely eat a pre-workout snack. Without glucose (which is what our bodies’ break carbohydrates down into) in your bloodstream, your body will start to pull energy from your muscles and that can actually mean muscle loss. You will also probably feel fatigued during your workouts without any energy available. Think about having a carbohydrate based snack with a little bit of protein. Typically you want to avoid eating too much protein or fat before working out because they take our bodies longer to metabolize (that’s also why they keep you fuller longer). If you eat gobs of peanut butter right before working out you will probably have a side ache or upset stomach from being unable to digest.

After a workout, try to get a snack within 30-60 minutes of your workout ending. You might have heard of aiming for a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio to help muscle recovery. Carbohydrates are recommended to replenish your glycogen stores. Glycogen is converted glucose for storage in your muscles and you use up a lot of your glycogen while you are exercising. You want to replete the stores to avoid breaking down muscles mass. The protein is added to your post workout snack for muscle recovery and repair. Many people think more protein means more muscle. The reality, our bodies can only metabolize a certain amount of protein at one time, any excess will get converted into fat. So be mindful of your protein portions and if you are a meat-eater a portion is 3.5 ounces or about the size of a deck of cards.

How Dietitians Recommend Fueling Your Workout

What Dietitians Recommend Eating

Talk to almost any dietitian and how dietitians recommend fueling your workout will be with REAL whole foods. Not the supplements, protein powders, and bars (except for a few…keep reading to see what I recommend). I recommend getting a combination of unprocessed foods so your body has the essential nutrients it needs from carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Here’s a list of my go-to foods that I often recommend to clients and use myself:

Bananas – no added sugar (only natural!) Fiber and carbohydrate; rich in nutrients

Yogurt – can have upwards of 20 grams of protein. Choose a low-fat, low-sugar variety like Siggis

Nut butters – protein and unsaturated fat plus vitamins and minerals to support your workout.

Berries – antioxidants, water content, and complex carbohydrate

Eggs – rich in protein (7 grams per egg!), fat and nutrients, 1-2 eggs are a great snack

Hummus – balanced with complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fat, hummus is a perfect fuel

Pre-Workout Recommendations

If you haven’t eaten in the last three hours, have a pre-workout snack about 30 minutes before your workout. Try:

  • ½ cup 2% plain yogurt with berries
  • ½ cup trail-mix: dried fruit and nuts
  • Small apple with ½ tablespoon peanut or almond butter

Post-Workout Recommendations

Having a snack within a half-hour after your workout can help support muscle repair. Try a snack that combines carbohydrates and protein.

  • ¼ cup hummus spread + whole grain crackers
  • Larabar, KINDbar, Rx bar, sports bar <200 calories
  • Rice cake + 2 tablespoons peanut/almond butter
  • 2 hard boiled eggs + ½ cup fruit

I’ve also got a lot of simple recipes on the ChampagneNutrition blog that are perfect for pre- or post-workouts. Cran-Almond Energy Bars, Coconut Cherry Energy Balls,  Oatmeal Raisin Energy Bites, or Green Iced Tea Breakfast Power Smoothie are simple and perfect to take along to your next workout.

Don’t forget hydration!

While I can’t tell a given person how much water they need exactly (it depends on so many factors!) I can suggest the following as a guideline of where to start:

  • Drink at least 16 ounces post-workout because water is lost through sweat and exhalation.
  • Arrive hydrates; dehydration can reduce athletic performance.
  • For the level of exercise most people are doing, there is generally no need for sports drink replacements. You get enough sodium and electrolytes from food.

I like to keep it simple, healthy and sane – dietitian style – when it comes to fueling your workouts. Of course, if you’re an athlete, you’ll need a special program but for the rest of us at OrangeTheory, CrossFit, Barre and all the rest, we’ll likely be just fine if we stay hydrated with water and fuel properly with whole, balanced foods.

What do you think? How do you fuel your workouts?



  1. Adrienne McGuire on September 1, 2017 at 10:49 am

    Thanks for these awesome suggestions. I too am way more concerned with fueling my body for health than for weight loss or “gainz” – haha. I typically eat a banana and yogurt before a workout – sometimes I add a whole grain muffin (small) or 1 Tbs of nut butter. Your suggestions will help me to mix up what I eat so I don’t get bored and/or lazy which ends badly with a sugar crash at the gym.

  2. Whitney E, R.D. on September 17, 2018 at 6:15 am

    You have some really awesome tips and tricks here. Wonderful snack ideas for fueling before a workout! That is awesome you’re going to be speaking at OrangeTheory. Great article and I hope you have an amazing time 🙂

  3. Katey Davidson on September 18, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you for making this simple and easy to understand!

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Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO

Integrative nutrition specialist helping clients navigate complex health conditions to reduce inflammation and feel better.

Thanks for visiting! If you're struggling with a cancer diagnosis, autoimmune condition, gut health problems, or even a medical mystery, nutrition can make a HUGE difference in your day-to-day life. I run a virtual, concierge private practice where I partner with my clients over time to help them improve their health through nutrition. Be sure to visit the blog for easy, plant-based, anti-inflammatory recipes and our "Resources" page for a variety of self-paced programs, books, e-books, and nutrition podcast episodes.

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