It’s easy to grab a quick snack when we feel we’re running out of energy but it can hinder, rather than help, our energy levels, and performance. Here we bring you some of the best smart snack options and advice on how to tailor them to your needs.
Exercising on a full stomach is generally not a great idea. Doing Yoga just after a meal would be a direct self-sabotage. Not only is it uncomfortable but you can end up feeling sick, not digesting your food well, and feeling tired. On the other hand, if you feel weak because you haven’t eaten for hours, it’s not ideal to go ahead and burn a lot more energy. The key is to fuel your performance with the right kind of energy and not too much.
Your own emergency energy stock
Your muscles store a quick source of energy – glycogen – that will fuel any kind of exercise for about 90 minutes before you start ‘hitting the wall’. So theoretically, you don’t need a snack but if you’ve been running around, stressed or perhaps didn’t have enough sleep, you’d better have something to give you a boost.
Snacks and drinks – pre-exercise
Whether you’re getting ready for a gym session, yoga or a run, you need something light. It should be carbohydrate-based or carbs with some protein, but low in fat. Fat takes longer to digest so it’s not your pre-workout friend.
- Smoothie – easy to digest and full of healthy energy; freshly made is always best
- Piece of fruit – bananas, oranges, apples are the best kind of smart snacks – choose your favorite
- Energy bar – made from dried fruit and some nuts
- Oat cookie and a few dried apricots
- Small serving of muesli/granola with plant yogurt
- A few dates – or you can simply blend them with water for a sweet energy drink (requires a high-speed blender for a non-chunky experience)
- Beetroot juice – a glass of beetroot juice increases nitric oxide in your blood which helps to dilate your blood vessels, improving blood flow to the muscles. It means your muscles work more efficiently and their contraction is stronger. However, if you are a well-trained Athlete, you may not experience as big an improvement as an amateur (1). Also, if your diet already contains plenty of vegetables, which increase your nitric oxide levels as well, drinking beetroot juice won’t offer much more advantage.
- Caffeine – 15-60 minutes before your workout, it can boost your stamina and energy
- Pre-workout supplements – these are usually drinks (powders) that contain ingredients such as caffeine, creatine, nitric oxide donors, amino acids, vitamins, etc., all meant to stimulate your body to produce more energy, improve blood flow and power output. But it’s also big business and no two pre-workouts are the same so their ingredients vary wildly. Some may be beneficial – caffeine, creatine, taurine, vitamins – and others pointless and even potentially dangerous – artificial sweeteners and colorants, l-carnitine, deer antler velvet. Research shows that pre-workout supplements may or may not offer a slight advantage (2) but there isn’t enough data to draw conclusions on their long-term effects, partly because they vary so much.
All you really need is a healthy diet in general, and a little carb smart snack before exercise, maybe a cup of coffee. Pre-workouts can drain your wallet fast so good old food is still the best. However, if you’re keen on powdered supplements, always check the ingredients thoroughly and make sure the company offers some kind of quality assurance.
Snacks and drinks – during exercise
Water is your best Yoga or workout friend during 60-min sessions. If training continues for longer and is of a higher intensity (making you sweat), have an isotonic drink – a drink that contains some sugars and mineral salts to replenish energy and minerals lost through sweating. You can easily make your own:
- DIY isotonic drink nr. 1: Combine 300 ml water with 200 ml fresh/cold-pressed fruit juice, and a small pinch of salt (optional: ginger, mint leaves, lemon juice, a teaspoon of brown sugar)
- DIY isotonic drink nr. 2: Add a spoonful of maple syrup, and a tiny pinch of salt to half a litre of water
Endurance Athletes need some extra carbs to provide energy during long training – 30-60g of carbs per hour. That can be one of the following:
- A banana
- A small bunch of grapes
- Mashed sweet potato with raisins and cinnamon
- A small handful of raisins or dates
- Plant-based energy bar
- Rice or corn cakes covered with dark chocolate
- Diluted fruit smoothie
Snacks and drinks – post-exercise
When you’re physically active, your muscle glycogen stores get used up and your muscle fibres suffer microdamage. That’s why it’s important to nourish your body after a workout – to help it recover in the best possible way. You need some carbohydrates to replenish glycogen, and protein for muscle repair.
To achieve optimal muscle repair and growth, it’s recommended that you consume 0.14–0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.3–0.5 grams/kg) after a workout. That would be 20-40 grams for most people and it’s best within 45 minutes after exercise (3).
When it comes to carbs, you need about 0.45g carbs per pound of bodyweight (or 1 g/kg) to refuel your glycogen stores. This is important mostly for Athletes who exercise daily and vigorously. If you train less often or less hard, you don’t have to worry about the exact amount.
Finally, it may be worth adding a creatine supplement to your post-workout smart snack. You may have been recommended to take it before training but studies show it’s actually more effective post-workout (4, 5). It helps your muscles work better and encourages muscle growth.
Here are some examples of post-workout smart snacks:
- Plant protein shake and a banana
- Oatmeal with protein powder and fruit
- Wholemeal pitta bread, hummus and tomato
- Rice or corn cakes with peanut butter
- Wholegrain toast with nut butter and fruit
- Creatine mixed into a smoothie or a shake
- A handful of nuts and dried fruit
- Baked beans and toast
Exercise unrelated smart snacks
Eating enough is important and can seriously bolster your health. Even when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to choose the right snacks, rather than skip them. So depending on what your goal is, snack accordingly:
- Wholemeal bread and nut butter, veggies
- Smoothie with nuts/seeds/nut butter and oats
- Trail mix – dried fruit and nut mix, or a handful of nuts
- Wholegrain tortilla wrap with hummus and beans, or salsa and smoked tofu
- Oat snack bar – sweetened with dried fruit rather than sugar
- Protein bar and some fruit
- Plant yogurt with fruit
- Fruit slices with nut butter
- Roasted chickpeas/garbanzo or edamame
- Rye crackers with hummus/bean dip and veggies
- Dried fruit and nuts
- Fresh fruit smoothie
- Fruit and vegetables – fresh, in a salad, or blended in a smoothie
- Rye crackers, low-fat spread and veggies
- Vegetable soup
- Miso soup
- Unsweetened dried fruit
- Low-fat plant yogurt
Find what suits you
Ultimately, you have to find your favorites and what works for you. If you feel adventurous and have a little bit of free time, you can make your own snack bars or energy balls by combining dried fruit, nuts, oats and spices (cinnamon, ginger, cacao) or superfood powders. Making a smoothie for the day ahead is also a super healthy habit, and so is keeping a jar of nut butter at hand and dipping veggie sticks or fruit slices in it.
When you don’t have time for snacks, make sure you eat more at main meals. If you’d like to add a piece of fruit to main meals because you haven’t managed to eat it beforehand, eat it right before the meal. It’s because you digest fruit faster so eating it in this order makes your stomach happier.
How about bedtime snacks? Many of us don’t manage to eat enough during the day or simply feel like eating more at night. You shouldn’t eat a full-blown meal right before bed but a snack or protein shake an hour before sleep is ok. And it’s certainly better than waking up at 1am and raiding the fridge!
We all have different routines and schedules, so whilst someone may feel it’s best for them to eat between 7 am and 7 pm, you may have a different rhythm and that’s ok. Eating the right stuff and enough (or not too much) is what matters and the timing of it all is up to you.