You Ask, I answer: What to eat when weight training
“There is a lot of conflicting information about what the appropriate diet is for a weight training workout regime. You typically hear low carb/high protein. That is vague. Aren’t beans carbs but also high in protein? Peanut butter = high in fat and sugar, but decent source of protein. Is everything off limits except fish, chicken, and veggies? I hate fish, btw. If the goal is to build muscle and lose fat, then what can I eat?” S.R., North Carolina
Wonderful question! I can totally sympathize with you and your frustration about what to eat to make the most of your strength training workouts. There are a lot of myths floating around there—one of them being that you should eat a high protein, low carbohydrate diet like you mentioned. On the contrary, if you’re weight training (or exercising at all), carbohydrates should actually be the main part of your diet. I also understand your trepidation of eating high calorie foods, such as peanut butter. I think you’ll find, however, that peanut butter (or any nut butter) in particular is a fabulous pre/post workout snack that you can enjoy and not feel guilty. Just be sure it’s the natural kind with NO added sugar.
To build lean muscle mass, you need to take in adequate calories to fuel your body before, during, and after weight training. Not only do you need MORE calories, but you need the right KIND of calories in order to get a toned body. Let me break down the macronutrients for you so you can see what I’m talking about.
Yes, I know, we’re all scared of carbs. But you don’t have to be, and well, you shouldn’t be. You should embrace them! Our predominant source of energy for weight training (approx 60-75% of your meal) should come from high-quality, healthy carbs. Carbs are stored as glycogen in your muscles, giving you energy for short, intense bursts of power. Perfect for weight lifting, right? The harder and longer you work out, the more glycogen you’ll need. Once glycogen stores are depleted, your energy level will drop. This why athletes always need to have high amounts of carbohydrates (think pasta before a marathon). So, there is NO reason to be afraid of your friendly carbohydrate. Just make sure they come in healthy, wholesome forms, like whole wheat bread, grains, fruits, and vegetables for example. (Skip candy—you might get a quick “high” but it will only lead to a bigger crash later)
I once had a personal trainer that told me to eat ridiculous amounts of protein. He would look at my food journal and proclaim, “More protein!” And I’ve heard this from other friends whose trainers tell them the same thing. (No offense whatsoever to personal trainers) It’s just that Americans OVERCONSUME protein by three or four times the needed amount! In reality, only 15% of our workout meal should consist of protein. As you know, your muscles are made up of protein. And while it’s true the strength trainers need to consume more protein than non trainers, we are still eating way too much! And you know me—I’m not a fan of those protein shakes like muscle milk. First of all, it’s filled with crappy additives and chemicals. Your body likes whole foods. And second, it’s just way too much protein, and your body excretes what it doesn’t need.
Ah, the “four” letter word in the health world for many. But fat can be our friend, people! When consumed in small portions, certain fats are GOOD for us. After all, our brain is comprised of mostly fat…so we really need it. Think healthy unsaturated and monounsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil. Fat should make up about 30% of our workout meal. For example, that’s where peanut butter comes in. How about a half a banana with 1-2T of peanut butter, or peanut/almond butter on whole wheat. Eat half the sandwich before the workout, and the other half right after.
Remember to keep drinking and stay hydrated, since water is lost during exercise. It makes a big difference to start your workout sufficiently hydrated, so drink 2 cups of water about 2 hours before working out, and keep drinking throughout the workout (4-8oz approximately every 20 minutes or as needed).
I’m sure you’re going to ask me about fluid and electrolyte replacers, like Gatorade. I’m under the impression that if you’re doing an intense workout longer than an hour, then something like that could work for you. But if you’re just doing a normal workout at the gym (which most of us do), chances are that just plain water will do. Plus, those electrolyte replacers can add a lot of calories and sugar back into your body. For an all natural option, try coconut water. Most gyms carry it now, and it’s delicious.
Here are some examples of some pre- and post-workout snacks. Remember, you want slow-burning complex carbs as the base, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You should try to eat about 15-20 minutes after working out, and keep the snack at about 200 calories. The meal should consist of some protein and carbohydrates to fuel muscle growth and repair, and to replenish glycogen stores.
1. ½ chicken, turkey, low-fat tuna salad or lean roastbeef sandwich on whole wheat
2. Lowfat yogurt with banana (try unsweetened greek yogurt-thick, creamy, and totally satisfying! You can also top your yogurt with nuts, seeds, raisins, etc)
3. Low fat string cheese with 6 whole grain crackers (Try Mary’s Gone Crackers, my favorite!)
4. Hard boiled egg with hummus
5. Smoothie with fruit and skim milk
1. Scrambled eggs (or any other way) over toast
2. Bean burrito with whole wheat wrap, black beans, salsa, low fat cheese (Beans are a near perfect food—healthy carbohydrates and full of protein)
3. Stir fry chicken and veggies with brown rice
4. Whole wheat pasta with chicken and veggies
5. Whole grain cereal or oatmeal with milk and fruit
Once again, avoid SIMPLE SUGARS like candy, especially before your workout. Your blood sugar will soar, leading to a drastic drop in energy. Crash and burn!