The Best Foods to Support Exercise — and the Worst!

Are you one of those who exercises so you can “eat whatever you want?” How often have you done the quick math of justification, “I can splurge on this cheeseburger because I walked a lot this morning”? Or worse, “… because I’m going to go to the gym this evening.” I know. I’ve done it too. But sadly, it just doesn’t work that way. Even looking at just the caloric numbers, the amount of calories you take in through a fast-food burger, fries, and soda is likely way more than you’ll burn off even doing a high-intensity workout. And if you’re like me, I prefer light cardio and low impact exercises these days, so trying to “buy off” that unhealthy splurge with a workout just isn’t going to add up.

Even if it did though, calories in vs calories out is just not an effective measurement tool. Eating the “wrong” kind of calories can sabotage your fat loss, strength building, or mobility efforts, while paying attention to eating the “right” kind can actually support your exercise, helping you to recover faster, reduce soreness, and build muscle.

So, while you aren’t DOOMED when you eat the occasional drive through dinner, if your diet is primarily processed junk and convenience foods, the possibility of you getting fit and healthy, even with rigorous exercise sessions, is rather slim (bad pun intended, sorry not sorry).

So if you’re resolving to get back to a healthy exercise schedule this year, please don’t undo your hard work by eating the foods that will sabotage your efforts. If you want to get fit, more flexible, more energetic, or stronger, you have to combine diet AND exercise into a healthier way of living.

055Ever wonder why you’re so hungry after exercising? After any level of strength-training activity, our bodies begin to seek nutritional support. Exercise depletes our muscle glycogen and breaks down the muscle structure a bit. The breakdown is not bad however — it is actually the start of the body’s process of rebuilding stronger, more flexible muscle tissue.

And like any remodeling process, rebuilding muscle requires good building blocks of support to produce great results. So this is where post-workout nutrition really comes into play.

Balancing the amount of protein and carbs in your post-workout meals kind of depends on how your body actually feels —it will let you know how much of each you need. For instance, if the activity is not very intense, too many nutrients too fast can cause fat gain after the muscles take what they need.

So what are some good foods to have on hand when you’re exercising to satisfy cravings and help you get the best results?

Foods to Support You Through Exercise

046Cherries or Tart Cherry Juice

When your muscles need to repair and recover, tart cherries or tart cherry juice is a great go-to. Cherries have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenol compounds, that help reduce pain and accelerate recovery post-exercise. Make sure your cherry juice isn’t sweetened though!

Turmeric Protein Shake

“Golden milk” makes a wonderful post-workout drink if you add in some plant-based vanilla protein which helps the muscles repair and replaces amino acids. Turmeric is full of the antioxidant curcumin, which can decrease muscle soreness and damage, and reduce inflammation.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are the perfect complex carbohydrate. The starchiness of sweet potatoes is a great way to restore glycogen levels, plus, you get some extra fiber and nutrients like beta-carotene and vitamin C.

23269719Eggs and Brown Rice

Leucine is an important amino acid required for muscle recovery, as it aids in muscle protein synthesis. And fortunately, it’s fairly easy to get — egg whites are an ideal source. If you add a whole-grain carb like brown rice, you replenish glycogen and get probiotic-supporting fiber from the whole grains.


It’s obvious I know, but it is super important to stay adequately hydrated before, during, and after working out or recreational activity. Adding some Paula’s Purple Rice to your water will only boost the nutrition you take in 😉

So now let’s talk about the flip side of the coin.

Foods That Sabotage Your Exercise

Certain Protein Drinks

But… you just recommended protein shakes!! Yes, and a quality protein drink made with whole food ingredients can definitely benefit you in several ways. Protein powders can balance hormones, help with weight loss, support detox and digestion, boost the immune system, and so on.

But here’s what you DON’T want in a protein powder:

  • Casein and WPC
    Whey protein concentrate and caseinate are high in lactose, which can cause bloating, flatulence, and gastrointestinal distress in some people.
  • Gluten
    Gluten sensitivities can trigger inflammation in some people and contribute to health problems like hormonal imbalances, skin conditions, fatigue, mood swings, and headaches.
  • Dextrin/Glucose
    These can raise glycemic load much quicker than sugars from whole foods (which have fiber to balance them), and this can increase fat storage. They can also cause gastrointestinal upset in some people.
  • Artificial sweeteners
    Sucralose, splenda (955), aspartamine, equal, NutraSweet (951), or saccharin (954) all have some negative side effects including headaches, migraines, gastric distress, depression, and weight gain.
  • Skim milk powders/milk solids
    Skim milk powders and milk solids are often used as a cheap bulking agent in lower quality powders. High in lactose sugars, they can cause bloating, constipation, and loose stools. This type of protein is poorly absorbed into the body, which makes it harder for you to gain its benefits.
  • Soy protein
    Most soy proteins come from genetically-modified sources with high pesticide use, and contain the chemical compound phyto-oestrogen, which may cause hormonal disturbances and suppressed thyroid function in some people. Until we know the long-term effects of consuming these crops, I’d prefer to avoid consuming them regularly.
  • Vegetable oils and fats
    Frequently added to weight loss and protein supplements to increase the richness of flavor, these fats are often derived from hydrogenated sources containing trans fats, which are known to have a harmful impact on cholesterol.
  • Thickeners and gums
    Thickeners and gums such as the common ingredient xanthan gum, are manufactured from soy or corn and can cause bloating and gas.
  • Fillers
    Fillers are often added to bulk up the protein and save money for the manufacturer. These are usually listed as coconut flour or psyllium and they can cause gastric distress in women susceptible to digestive issues, such as constipation or bloating.

Cereal Bars

Read the ingredients on your cereal bars. Many of them are so full of added sugars and processed carbs, you may as well just eat a candy bar. Try to find cereal bars that are 150 calories or less, made with not much more than six (pronounceable) ingredients like fruits and nuts, not “propylene glycol” (even if you can pronounce it). Enriched flour is also a no, because it’s had all the healthy bran removed.

Soy Milk

Really, just go for unsweetened soy milk, but still check the ingredients and nutrition labels. Often soy milk will contain added cane sugar, which makes it six times more sugary than unsweetened varieties.

Yogurt Raisins

The “yogurt” that coats these raisins is usually given its texture with palm oils, which are high in saturated fats, not to mention the high sugar content of the raisins themselves. A handful of fresh grapes would be a better choice.

Your Turn

What are your favorite pre- or post-activity foods and snacks? What have you found that works best for you or makes you feel bad? Share with me in the comments!



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