Find out why eating the right foods is so important when you’re exercising regularly.

You’re working out, you’re burning calories, so shouldn’t you just be able to eat whatever you want? The answer is no, but you probably already knew that. Eating a variety of whole foods that provide the right mix of nutrients is what helps you to build and maintain muscle, improve endurance, and recover faster after workouts.

“The foods you eat will determine how much energy you have during an exercise session and throughout the day, how well you recover after a session, and how well equipped your immune system is to fight off infections,” says Elsabé Loubser, a registered dietitian at Panorama Dietitians in Cape Town. “Different vitamins, minerals and nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates and fats, all play an important role in your recovery after a session.”

Why nutritional variety matters

Loubser says that when you have less variety in your meals, you miss out on some of these valuable nutrients. “That can leave you feeling slow, tired and heavy during or after a session and you may not see the results you’d hoped for,” she says. “Your recovery might also be slowed and your immune system down, which can lead to frequent illness and, of course, not being able to exercise!”

She recommends having a small carbohydrate-containing snack, e.g., a fruit or a small granola bar, about 30 minutes to an hour before your exercise session. “Make sure to take in enough fluids during the session and follow it with a combination of carbohydrates and protein, like a flavoured milk drink or a balanced meal to get your recovery and muscle growth going,” she says.

Whole foods, not fast food

A balanced diet of whole foods boosts both your workouts and the results they yield. The nutrients from these foods are vital, Loubser explains. “Your body uses them for energy, boosting your immune system, healing wounds, keeping bowel movements regular, and so much more.” Bring variety to your meals by trying out different vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, plant and animal proteins, dairy, starches and starchy vegetables. “And make sure you ‘eat the rainbow’ by including different colours and textures into your meals,” she adds.

Healthy, whole foods are best because they provide more vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients. “Some foods are very refined, such as refined flours, sugars, processed meats, and fast food or takeaways,” Loubser warns. “They’re not as rich in nutrients as their whole-food counterparts.”

How to eat for exercise

One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they skip meals or don’t fuel up enough during the day. “This usually leads to frequent dips in energy and overeating at mealtimes, or even snacking later in the evening,” Loubser says.

Similarly, having larger meals late at night can also cause stomach discomfort and affect your sleep. “This means you’ll start the next day tired, leaving you less motivated to have a good breakfast and meals throughout the day,” she warns. “It can lead to a vicious cycle of continuous fatigue, not eating well and then being less motivated to eat healthy and to exercise.”

She recommends having small and frequent meals throughout the day. “This will give you more lasting energy, improve your sleep quality and make you feel more motivated to be active.”