What to eat before working out is an important consideration for many active folks, but what not to eat is just as key for an awesome exercise sesh. Exercise requires a large volume of blood to be pumped to working muscles. Consequently, blood flow to the stomach is reduced during exercise. For this reason, you don’t want your stomach to work harder than it has to because that may lead to tummy troubles. While some athletes may have an “iron stomach” and can get away with eating some of these pre-workout no-no’s, in general most folks should avoid these nine foods before exercise.
Think: black bean burgers, three-bean soup and veggie-bean burritos. Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat …. y’all know what happens next. Athletes on high-fiber vegetarian diets may have GI tracts that are adjusted to a load of beans, but many would have difficulty with a pre-workout fiber bomb. (Fun fact: 1 cup of beans contains 16 grams of fiber, about half of a day’s worth!) An even bigger culprit for stomach upset? The indigestible carbohydrate raffinose, which beans are a rich source of.
We’re talking bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. While these vegetables are very healthy and contain potent anti-cancer properties, their sulfur-containing compounds can cause gas in some people. (Think: rotten egg smell.) These veggies are also high in raffinose, making eating a bowl of cruciferous veggies before a workout a digestive double whammy.
If you’re sensitive or intolerant to a certain food, it’s important to avoid it before working out. Lactose-intolerant athletes should steer clear of lactose-heavy dairy products like milk and soft cheeses, as they could lead to intestinal cramping. Hard cheeses, yogurt, kefir and lactose-free milk are delicious dairy options for those who need a low-lactose diet.
Before you hit the gym, avoid greasy fried foods like burgers, fries and pizza, as they have saturated fats that stay in the digestive system longer and are harder to digest. These foods can lead to bloating, cramping and diarrhea.
Sodas, fizzy waters and beer cause the stomach to expand with gas — producing discomfort, indigestion and flatulence. No one wants this trio during yoga class.
Hydration is key, but alcohol doesn’t count toward that daily goal. Not only do alcoholic beverages have diuretic properties, they are dehydrating, and they suppress fat oxidation, making it harder to achieve body composition goals. And, of course, exercising under the influence can lead to injury.
While juice does contain carbs and fluids (important pre-workout requirements), downing a cup of juice immediately before a workout might not be the smartest idea. Fruit juice is high in fructose, a sugar that doesn’t digest as quickly and could cause stomach cramps, especially for those with irritable bowel syndrome or fructose sensitivities. Juices like orange or tart cherry are great foods for active people, as they provide essential vitamins and minerals needed for recovery, but it’s best to consume them as part of a meal or smoothie an hour or more before exercise and/or after a workout to rehydrate and refuel.
Pastries, doughnuts, scones and ice cream are all on the “no” list. Desserts are high in fats like oils, shortening, cream and butter — not what you want in your body when you’re trying to perform at your best.
While some people may be able to work out after eating an extra-hot bowl of pad Thai, spicy foods stimulate the digestive system and may cause heartburn, which is not what you want during a workout. Before working out (especially pre-competition), it’s best to avoid spicy foods for up to 24 hours before to give the GI tract a rest. Choose bland, easy-to-digest foods before a workout.
FUEL UP WITH THESE 5 FOODS INSTEAD
Running out the door for a workout? Stick to simple carbohydrates, which are easily digested. Some good options are a slice of toast with jam, a small apple or banana, a small box of raisins or a few swigs of a sports drink. If you’ve got at least 1–2 hours before a workout, here are some more satisfying options to consider:
- Oatmeal with fresh berries and nut butter
- Turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread
- Bagel with banana and peanut butter
- Rice bowl with (non-cruciferous) veggies, chicken or salmon
- Yogurt or smoothie bowl
Originally published September 2017, updated with additional reporting
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