10 Healthy Foods That Can Ruin Your Workout
There’s nothing worse than working up the motivation and carving out time for a workout, only to have your energy level crash mid-set. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep, or maybe your mind is still on your work day. But another possibility is that the food you’re eating before you hit the gym or go for a run is responsible for your mid-workout slump.
If you know anything about fitness or taking care of your body, you know to avoid certain foods, especially if the gym is in your near future. You stay away from french fries and other greasy foods, and you drink more water than soda. Even if you’re following all the conventional wisdom, there might be a few healthy foods that are still tripping you up. Many foods that are good for weight loss, or health in general, still have the power to weaken your workout.
They say everything is good in moderation — but these foods should be consumed after your workout, not in the few hours before. In fact, most of these foods are recommended parts of your diet, but generally shouldn’t be eaten in the two hours leading up to your gym time. Here’s 10 foods to avoid — and a few tips on the foods you should be eating instead.
Salad is supposed to be good any time, right? Not so much. If you’re eating salad the right way (as in, more vegetables than creamy dressing and croutons) then you’re setting yourself up for an uncomfortable workout. “A salad is healthy, but not the best choice before a workout,” Erica Giovinazzo, registered dietician and a coach at Brick CrossFit in New York, tells Stack. “All those veggies are high in fiber, and fiber slows down digestion. This could lead to bloating and gas during your workout.” This is especially noticeable if you’re doing a lot of running or biking, Manuel Villacorta, registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, tells U.S. News & World Report.
For the exact same reason, crudité (the fancy name for a veggie plate) is also off the table, registered dietician Mary Hartley tells Shape. Nutritious vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and peppers are high in indigestible carbs that cause that balloon-like feeling in your gut. For your sake, and those around you, eat these well in advance (we’re talking several hours) or after your workout.
Flaxseeds are labeled as a superfood, but they won’t help you much if they’re a pre-gym staple. One of the reasons they’re so good for you otherwise is exactly why they’re bad for a workout: They’re very high in fiber, just like raw vegetables. In the same way, flaxseeds will likely cause bloating and gas during your workout, Stella Metsovas, a clinical nutritionist and diet expert, tells Shape. “You definitely want to limit the amount of fiber you take in two hours before and after exercising. In addition to flaxseeds, stay away from fiber supplements, bran, and high-fiber breads and opt for a mixture of protein and carbohydrates instead right before your workout,” Metsovas says.
However, don’t avoid flaxseeds and oil completely, as you’d be ignoring a healthy source of fats. Several nutrition experts recommend incorporating a few tablespoons of the oil in your diet (separated from exercise).
3. Green bananas
Bananas are often a snack food of choice before hitting the gym because of their potassium content and because they’re a healthy source of carbohydrates. But if you plan to eat one before you exercise, make sure it’s a yellow ripe one, and not one that looks like it’s just been picked from the tree.
The reason is because unripe green bananas have a high starch content, which is more difficult to digest, FitAddict writes. Hartley tells Shape that unripe fruit, much like vegetables, can cause bloating. Instead, ripe bananas (perhaps with a few brown spots) that don’t have any green at the stem are your best option. By this time, the ripening process has converted most of that starch into sugars that are absorbed more easily and used by your body as workout fuel.
4. The wrong pastas
Pasta is a great source of carbohydrates that your body desperately needs in order to sustain an energetic workout. Just be careful of which types you’re eating — specifically which sauces go on top. Pastas eaten plain or with a tomato-based sauce are the most likely to settle well and be used efficiently by your body during a workout, Katherine Beals, nutrition clinic director at the University of Utah, tells U.S. News & World Report. “I can’t tell you the number of people who want to eat pasta [before exercise] and they’ll eat a fettuccini alfredo that’s really rich, or Indian food, and, boy, do they pay for it,” Beals says. If you’re susceptible to heartburn, keep spicy foods (even in pasta sauces) to a minimum.
Hummus, especially when made from home when you’re controlling the oil content and other ingredients, is an extremely healthy snack. But try to avoid it before exercising, because those ground-up chickpeas aren’t going to do you any favors.
“Bean-based foods (such as hummus) are high in indigestible carbohydrates that may cause uncomfortable gas and bloating,” Hartley tells Shape. Plus, you’re likely to use the hummus as a dip for raw vegetables or high-sodium snacks anyway, which are also on our list of things to avoid pre-workout. Health Magazine and Men’s Fitness puts beans (and all legumes) in the same category as broccoli: Just stay away.
FitAddict writes that dairy products can lead to being more sluggish and sleepy during a workout, basically destroying your chances of pushing yourself to do an extra rep or run that final 10 minutes.
“Most athletes I work with have issues consuming dairy two hours before and after exercise,” Metsovas tells Shape. “I’d advise limiting the use of dairy if you feel lethargic, acidic, or experience excessive burping.”
7. Protein bars
Yes, protein is one of the things you definitely want to eat before a workout. But many protein bars are just as bad for you as a candy bar, Shape writes. Several options on the market have too many calories and not enough actual protein to fuel you up. If your bar has more than 200 calories, it might be a sign to look for an alternative or forgo the bars altogether.
“If your bar has less than 10g of protein, it could cause a drop in your blood sugar, leading you to feel more tired during your workout,” Rania Batayneh, a certified nutritionist and eating strategist, tells Shape. “To stay energized, look for a bar (that’s under 200 calories) with a protein to sugar ratio of 1:1.”
Men’s Fitness writes that the bars should also be high-carb. Protein burns slower than carbs in your body, so you need a combination of both to actually be helpful.
8. Fatty foods
You should know to stay away from foods that are high in fat like hamburgers, cheesecake, and so on. But there’s many healthy foods that are high in “good fats” that will still weigh down your gym routine. String cheese and almonds are a few examples, U.S. News writes. Fat is turned into energy at a much slower rate than carbs and protein, so it’s tougher to use for fuel if you’ve eaten it within two hours of hitting the treadmill.
Avocados are another high-fat food to avoid, even though they’re otherwise known to help with weight loss, FitAddict recommends. The extra fiber in them also contributes to a higher potential for gassiness.
One last note about nuts: They’re often great for you. But they’re also often roasted with salt, which is sure to mess up your body during a workout even if the high fat content doesn’t. That’s because high levels of sodium disrupt the delicate balance of fluids in your body, leaving you dehydrated. “I’d avoid [high sodium foods] at all costs. Using a little bit of salt in your meals is OK, but stay away from the following foods: beef jerky, salted and roasted nuts, lunch meats, and processed snack foods like chips (you shouldn’t be consuming these foods anyway),” Metsovas tells Shape.
9. Fruit juice
Juice from concentrate is almost never a good idea because of the high levels of sugar. But even fresh-squeezed orange juice will likely leave you tired just when you’re trying to get through the second half of your morning sweat session.
The reason, Batayneh tells Shape, is because juice has a ton of natural sugars, but almost zero fiber to help absorb energy. Even with the added benefits of vitamin C and other nutrients, your body will expend energy from the juice quickly and you’ll suffer a blood sugar crash later — likely about the time you’re trying to summon energy to finish your workout. (Store-bought smoothies are also a bad idea, Shape advises. If you’re going to make your own, make sure you make it with fresh fruits and a scoop of protein powder for the best chances of fuel.)
A whole apple is a better choice before a workout, registered dietician Riska Platt tells the American Heart Association. However, orange juice can be a good post-workout addition to make sure you’re getting enough fluids.
10. Energy gels
You might think that these energy packs are perfect to help you power through a workout, even though you wouldn’t normally eat them outside of that. The only reason to use these is if you’re extremely athletic and getting at least 90 minutes of cardiovascular training each day, Metsovas tells Shape. In other words, your 20 minutes on the treadmill and a few weight sets don’t qualify.
“Taking in all that sugar will disrupt insulin levels and lead you to a dietary-binge later on in the day,” she explains.
Even runners who are in marathon training are told to wait 45 to 60 minutes between gel packs, because otherwise the simple sugars absorbed are too much for your body to handle. The carbs help in marathons, but won’t be necessary if you’re lifting weights or doing a mile or two on a stationary bike.
What you should eat instead
By now, we might have crossed off a few of your go-to snacks or meals before you start your exercise routine. If that’s the case, here are a few reminders of what your body uses the most during a workout. Also keep in mind that everyone is different, so you might be affected by some of these foods, but not all of them. If your body doesn’t seem to react negatively to broccoli, then don’t worry about avoiding it.
No matter what, though, your body needs a good mix of carbs, proteins, and fluids to work out efficiently, registered dietitian and sports nutrition expert Dr. Christine Rosenbloom tells WebMD. Your muscles use the carbs for quick energy, and the protein is used by your blood cells to bring oxygen and nutrients to your muscles.
Your pre-workout meals (and snacks) should be focused on five main things, Rosenbloom says. They should be low in fat, moderate in carbs and protein, low in fiber, high in fluids, and made up of familiar foods that you know your body tolerates well.
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