If you follow a plant-based diet, you may be wondering what you should eat as workout fuel. After all, don’t typical bodybuilders consume plates full of red meat and raw eggs? Is it possible for vegans to get enough protein to build muscle? Of course, they can. It’s entirely possible to get all of the protein your body needs from a plant-based diet. And yes, even if you’re looking to build muscle.1
Rather than focus solely on protein, it’s best to look at the whole picture of macronutrients that you consume. This is true whether you follow a plant-based diet or not. When you do this, you can be sure your body is getting enough of everything it needs. This will include some protein. It will also include carbohydrates, fat, and plenty of water.2
Read on to discover a rundown of each macronutrient you need, what it does for your body, and how much you should eat before you exercise.
What Is The Relationship Between Your Diet And Exercise?
When you look at the big picture of your health, good nutrition and exercise go hand-in-hand. A healthy diet feeds the body to keep it functioning properly. Adequate exercise builds muscle, keeps the body strong, and can help build a better physique. Combining a healthy diet and good exercise habits can give you the best of both worlds.
Not all calories are created equal. If you eat the wrong types of foods before you exercise, your athletic performance may suffer. Your diet directly informs how fast, far, and long you can go.3
If you’re looking to lose weight through exercise, you can’t ignore your diet. Working out is great for fat loss and burning calories. Adding the right foods to your diet can help preserve muscle mass and metabolism during weight loss.4
Eating the right foods before and after exercise may help you gain lean muscle.5
Motivation For A Healthier Lifestyle
When you commit to an exercise routine, don’t be surprised if you find yourself naturally eating healthier. Research shows that a focus on better health in one area may encourage better habits in the other. On the flip side, if you find your exercise motivation is waning, you just may have some luck if you clean up your diet.6
What Should You Eat Before You Exercise?
Consuming the right nutrients before a workout can help give you the energy and strength you need to perform at a high level. Your body runs most efficiently when you consume a balance of healthy:
Each of these three macronutrients has a specific role to play. Let’s take a look at each.
Protein is the building block of your muscles. Eating enough protein before and after a workout can help you maintain your muscle mass and
promote muscle growth. It may also help prevent muscle loss during weight loss.8,9,10
Other benefits of eating protein before exercise might also support:
- Muscle performance
- Muscle mass and growth
- Strength and lean body mass
- Muscle recovery after a workout11,12,13
Good Choices For Protein
- Plant-based protein powder
- Beans and lentils
- Whole grains like quinoa, wild rice, and oats
How Much Protein Is Recommended?
Studies differ, but in general, athletes should get .6 to .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, someone who weighs 130 pounds would need about 78-104 grams of protein a day.14 Talk to your doctor about how much protein you should be getting and the best sources for you.
These days, carbohydrates get a bad rap and are considered “bad” for you. But they’re an essential part of a healthy diet, especially in the context of exercise. Carbs provide most of the energy your body needs to function properly.
There are two main types of carbs:
- Simple – sugars and starches that break down quickly
- Complex – starches and fiber that break down slowly15
Simple carbs are a good source of quick energy. Complex carbs provide energy for a longer period of time.16
In general, complex carbs contain more nutrients and fiber and take longer to digest, making them more filling. That said, simple carbs can be great to eat if you need a quick source of energy and plan to workout within the hour.17,18
Eating carbohydrates before exercise offers many potential benefits.
- They ensure your body has energy to perform well.
- They supply your body with the glycogen it needs during exercise.
- Combining carbs with protein may support muscle growth.19,20,21
Good Choices For Carbohydrates
- Whole-wheat bread
- Steel-cut oats
- Brown rice
- Broccoli, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables
How Many Carbohydrates Are Recommended?
- 45-65 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. This is especially true if you exercise.22 Again, talk to your doctor for specifics.
Fat is a good source of energy for longer and moderate-to-low-intensity workouts. Many endurance athletes, for example, do well with a higher percentage of healthy fats in their diet.23,24
Other benefits of eating healthy fats before exercise include:
- They provide calories and fatty acids to get you moving.
- They may increase endurance for longer workouts.25,26
Remember, not all types of fats are good for you. Saturated fats and trans fats can negatively affect your health and athletic performance. Other types of fats, however, are highly nutritious.27
Good Choices For Healthy Fats
- Nuts and nut butters
- Olive and coconut oil
How Much Fat Is Recommended?
- 20-35% of total energy intake28
While fat is necessary for proper nutrition, eating too much fat before a workout may compromise your performance. Fats slow down digestion, and they can sit in your stomach if you eat them right before exercise.29
Don’t Forget Water
Your body needs water to function. Adequate hydration can sustain and even improve performance. Dehydration may decrease your athletic performance.32,31
Consuming both water and sodium before exercise may help you hold on to fluids and avoid dehydration. Drinking an electrolyte-enhanced beverage, like a sports drink, may have more benefits than water alone.32
When Should You Eat Before Exercise?
A pre-workout snack or meal can be eaten 30 minutes or up to three hours before a workout.33 It is helpful to be intentional about the nutrients you eat before a workout. Nutrient timing may enhance recovery and tissue repair and aid in performance.34
2-3 Hours Before Your Workout
If you have some time before a workout, this is a good opportunity to eat a meal that’s rich in complex carbohydrates and protein. If you plan to eat fat with your pre-workout meal, you should do this at least a few hours before you exercise. Here are some ideas:
- Avocado toast on whole-wheat bread with a side of nuts and mozzarella
- Whole-grain toast with hummus, avocado, and a cup of fruit
- Quinoa salad and roasted vegetables
1-2 Hours Before Your Workout
If you plan to exercise in an hour or two, you may want to eat something closer to a snack than a meal. Eating too close to a workout or eating too big of a meal might cause cramping and discomfort. Eating a smaller portion should give your body time to digest. Here are some ideas:
- Protein shake made with rice skim milk or alternative low-fat milk, plant-based protein powder, and frozen fruit
- Whole-wheat toast with almond butter and jam
- Oatmeal with banana and sliced almonds
30-60 Minutes Before Your Workout
If you want to grab something to eat within 30-60 minutes of your afternoon or morning workout, go with something super small and simple. Choosing a light snack made of simple carbs will give you an energy boost.
- A piece of fruit, like a banana or an apple
- Vegan Greek yogurt with fruit
- A nutrition bar35,36
Consuming the right nutrients after you exercise is important for your recovery. After your workout, your body needs to:
- Rebuild its glycogen stores
- Repair and regrow its muscle protein
The best way to help your body accomplish these goals is to eat carbohydrates and protein after your workout.
Consuming carbs helps to replenish those glycogen stores. Consuming protein gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild proteins. Fat isn’t necessarily bad, but it might be a good idea to limit the fat you eat right after a workout. Fat may slow down the absorption of other nutrients.37,38,39
For optimal post-workout snacks, combine healthy carbs and proteins. Here are a few ideas:
- Pita and hummus
- Chocolate almond milk protein shake with a banana
- Quinoa bowl with fruit and nuts
- Cereal with almond milk
It’s also important to hydrate after a workout.
Protein, carbs, and fats all have a role to play in a healthy diet. When deciding what to eat, think about what type of exercise you are doing, when you are doing it, and for how long. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about your fitness or weight loss goals and how to best reach them. They can help you develop a protein-carb-fat ratio that is right for you.