Mary Ellen Phipps

Mary Ellen Phipps

Mary Ellen Phipps, the founder of Milk & Honey Nutrition, is a diabetes dietitian (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) renowned for combining her knowledge of diabetes and culinary expertise into easy-to-follow recipes and articles!

What to eat before and after a workout

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 What to eat before and after a workout

Guest post by Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, founder of

 What to eat before a workout Kelly Jones

Kelly Jones is a media and consulting dietitian based in greater Philadelphia. As a board certified specialist in sports dietetics, her expertise lies in performance nutrition for collegiate and professional athletes as well as busy, active women. As a new mom who loves fitness, she offers recipes and tips to fuel an active lifestyle. Learn more at or follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.

As a sports dietitian, the most common questions I get revolve around pre and post-workout intake. Should you eat? When should you eat? How much should you eat? What should you be eating?

There’s a lot of misinformation about nutrition out there, so when it comes to fitness nutrition, it’s important to understand why I give certain recommendations. Here I’ll briefly cover how we fuel activity, why everyone’s needs for exercise vary, and main goals of food intake before and after. Then, I’ll provide actual suggestions for what to eat!

How Do We Fuel Activity?

If you’re engaging in a high intensity and short duration movement (lifting heavy weights, sprinting, exhaustive spurts during group exercise classes) you’re using mainly carbohydrate for fuel. The higher the intensity, the more your muscles prefer carbs since they’re the most efficient energy for quick, powerful movement. However, you can’t stay at super high intensity levels for more than 1-2 minutes. So, to keep moving, you’re body won’t rely on just carbs.

That’s where fat comes in. For moderate intensity activities that most people engage in, the body uses a good mix of carbohydrate and fat to fuel muscles. (Note: If you’re exercising over an hour, you’ll need more carbohydrate during exercise. Fluids should also be considered more at this point. These topics won’t be covered in this post.) I didn’t mention protein yet, as it’s more a structural nutrient necessary for recovery, not a significant source of energy. Even if you’re not eating adequate amounts of carbohydrate, protein will only provide 1-2% of the energy used for exercise. But, as I’m sure you know, it is important for recovery.

 what to eat before and after a workout Kelly Jones

Energy Needs for Activity Vary

It’s SO important that you don’t mimic exactly what someone else is eating, even if their activity seems similar to yours. Listening to your body is key, so use trial and error to determine what works best for you.

The following are reasons energy needs for activity vary, and why I don’t advocate for trying to hit specific calorie goals before and after exercise:

  • Fitness level, type of activity and tolerance to that activity

  • Body type and body composition

  • True intensity (versus perceived), duration, frequency of exercise

  • Gender, age, and genetics

 what to eat before and after a workout Kelly Jones

Pre-workout Goals

  1. Adequate carbohydrate to fuel activity: If you’ve had a normal meal within 2-3 hours of exercise, your workout won’t be over an hour, and hunger is nowhere in site, you may be fine without a snack. Still, it’s best to plan so that you’re eating something 45 minutes – 2 hours before exercise. Since everyone is different, if your schedule works to have a full meal a few hours ahead, top off energy stores with something small. The suggestions below are great 45 min-2 hours before exercise with a few meant for when you have less time.

  2. Adequate Food to Prevent Hunger: If you find yourself hungry during exercise or starving afterwards, you aren’t eating enough before. Try something new or more food than usual.

  3. Low-moderate fat, fiber and protein: All of these should be eaten at all meals and snacks during the day, but since excess can slow digestion for most people, it’s best to keep intake lower a couple hours before your sweat session.

 what to eat before and after a workout Kelly Jones

Post-workout Goals

  1. Adequate quality protein to repair: Animal proteins are considered “high quality” based on the fact that they give you enough of the essential building blocks for muscle repair. Eggs, milk, and fish are go-to’s based on this and other nutrients provided. Soy protein also falls into the high quality category. If you’re reaching for plant proteins, pair a couple of sources. For example, whole grain bread with peanut butter provides protein from a whole grain and legume, building a high quality protein. Pro tip: don’t think too much about this unless you grab just a handful of nuts after exercise, and just see the list below for pairing ideas.

  2. Adequate carbohydrate to refuel and recover: After exercise, your muscle carb stores are down. Don’t want to wait until your next pre-workout snack to put them back in! Your brain’s preferred fuel is carbohydrate too, and you don’t want to compromise it’s function because you didn’t fuel well after activity. Some research also shows protein is better used for recovery when consumed with carbs. See this You Tube video for more info.

  3. Adequate fluid & electrolytes: I said I wouldn’t cover fluid, but here’s an exception. If you’re dehydrated, you won’t be able to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues later and you’ll compromise recovery.

  4. Timely intake: Research shows eating within 2 hours of exercise supports proper recovery. Still, this may be too long for many people as it only considers muscle recovery, not eating patterns the rest of the day. I recommend a snack is eaten within an hour of activity, with a meal eaten within the next 3 hours (listen to your body in terms of when). You may not feel too hungry after exercise, but muscles are depleted and blood sugar is now a bigger source of energy. As that dips, it increases the chance of overeating later and having a harder time listening to your fullness cues, since you’re overcompensating for what you didn’t have earlier.

 what to eat before and after a workout Kelly Jones

Pre-Workout Snack Ideas (45 minutes- 2 hours before)

  • banana and nut butter

  • oats & fruit

  • applesauce & almonds

  • brown rice cake & nut butter

  • wheat pita & hummus

  • sprouted grain bread & fruit preserve

  • small sweet potato & nut butter

  • wheat toaster waffle w/ fruit

  • avocado toast (or other toppings)

  • homemade energy bites or bars

  • whole food energy bar (Bobo’s Oat Bites, Health Warrior Chia Bars, Clif nut butter filled bar, clif kids zbar, Larabar, 88 acres bars, KIND granola)

If exercising within 30-45 minutes of eating:

  • dates, raisins, dried mango, etc

  • orange or other citrus

  • 6 oz. real juice

  • fruit smoothie

  • honey packet (if 15 min prior)

Post-Workout Snack Ideas

  • Low-fat milk or soymilk w/ fruit

  • Berry & greens smoothie (made with protein rich milk or yogurt)

  • HB eggs with hummus & pita

  • sliced turkey and pineapple

  • half turkey sandwich w/ hummus

  • sprouted grain bread & PB

  • small sweet potato & chicken tenderloin

  • canned tuna or salmon w/ avocado on wheat

  • turkey or salmon jerky with fruit

  • dried fruit & low fat cheese

  • plain yogurt with fruit

  • cottage cheese and fruit

  • roasted edamame and dried fruit

  • Bars: RxBar, Oatmega, Aloha, Square, Perfect Bar, Garden of Life protein, Clif Builder

What to do From Here

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with info, evaluate how you currently fuel for exercise versus the above recommendations and pick one thing to work on. If you’re ready to start trying some new snacks, choose 1-2 from the list you think you’ll like! Then, determine if it’s enough, too much, at the right time, and tweak from there. Remember, your nutrition should be unique to you, and it sometimes takes a little while to determine what options help you feel best. Also remember that every day won’t be the same; you’ll need more or less food day to day. Reach out with general questions!

   what to eat before and after a workout kelly jones

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