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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I'm 33-year-old female, 5'4" and 125 lbs. I've started working out mainly to lose some weight and tone. I was amazed to see the lack of information regarding foods to eat before and after working out. What I did find was often conflicting. How long should you wait after eating before you work out, and how long should you wait after your workout before having a meal? What are the best types of food to eat before and after working out? Also, if I'm hungry late at night, what are some healthier choices to eat shortly before going to bed?

(Article continued below.)

There's actually no lack of information on what to eat around working out — everyone seems to have an opinion. The main problem is that the information conflicts because of conflicting goals. A bodybuilder or someone who is training for a competition is going to have very different dietary needs from someone who is trying to "lose some weight and tone." But there is a basic rule that you should follow, no matter what your goal is: if you want to lose weight you should consume fewer calories than you burn; if you want to gain weight (add muscle mass on top of your current weight), you should consume more calories than you burn. This is a matter of simple math. The details — types of food, how much, and when — are really a matter of common sense.

Think about it: when you eat a heavy meal, your body must concentrate most of its energy on digesting all that food. So would it make sense to eat a heavy meal right before working out? Of course not. At the same time, working out uses energy (calories), and if you are empty of energy you will probably not be able to work out at your optimum level. So you do need to eat something an hour or two before working out. You may think that if you have fat to lose, then you can skip a pre-workout meal and your body will just burn the fat for energy. Unfortunately that is just not the way it works. Your body stores fat as a survival mechanism (this is a throwback to caveman days when life was often a matter of feast or famine), and it is reluctant to let go of those fat stores. Your body will burn muscle before it burns fat, and you definitely don't want that if you're looking for tone! The one possible time when your body will utilize its fat stores is during interval training (exercising intensely for a minute or two, alternated with two to five minutes of recovery exercise, usually for a period of a half hour to 45 minutes). Then you may actually burn fat, but you will still want a pre-workout meal. Why? Otherwise you won't be able to work out hard enough during the intense intervals and you will exhaust yourself way before the end of your workout. Food is fuel, and your body is revved up the most during exercise — it's more important to fuel your exercise sessions than any other part of your day. And it's crucial to fuel up before weight training — you want to improve your muscle to fat mass ratio, and again, starving your body will only encourage it to utilize muscle mass as its fuel. So not eating prior to weight training is really counterproductive.

As far as what to eat before a workout, just make sure it's light and balanced — carbs, protein and a bit of fat. Relatively low in fiber is good too — if it's easily digestible, then your body can better focus on your workout (get your fiber at other times during the day). You really don't need to be scientific about it. Just make sure it's something nourishing — oatmeal, yogurt with a spoonful of crunchy granola, a veggie omelet with a slice of toast, or a turkey sandwich are appropriate choices. Carbs are good here since the body digests them more easily than protein, but low-carb dieters have offered anecdotal information that a light meal that is higher in protein works just as well for them. Keep in mind that you're trying to tone up your body, not win the Ms. Universe contest — you really don't need to be all that strict. Experiment a bit and see what works for you.

It's also important to eat something within 45 minutes to an hour after your workout, and that too should be a balance of carbs and protein. A workout depletes your glycogen stores, and if you don't refuel, your body will once again turn to your muscle mass as an energy source. Working out, especially weight training, causes muscle tears that must be repaired for your exercise sessions to be effective. You need to eat something to expedite the repair. The protein part of your post-workout meal is especially important, since it's protein that your body uses to build and repair muscle. Appropriate post-workout meals include a protein shake made with low fat milk or soymilk, a bean and cheese burrito, or chicken with broccoli and brown rice.

Once again, keep in mind that if you want to lose weight, you need to watch the amount of calories you are consuming. Keep these meals within the calorie intake that will give you the weight loss you are looking for. If it is possible, you should arrange it so that you eat between four and six times a day. If you are restricting calories, all these meals will be small, but since you are eating fairly frequently, it should keep your hunger in check.

If you regularly get hungry in the evening, or if it's just a fond habit, make sure that you have reserved enough calories in your diet plan for a nighttime snack. (Contrary to popular belief, it is okay to eat in the evening, as long as it's included your daily intake of calories and as long as it isn't an overeating trigger for you.) Since you burn the least amount of calories while you're sleeping, you should make a nighttime snack very light (under 100 calories), and a high protein snack is best — a piece of string cheese, or a turkey slice and celery, for example. If you crave something sweet, then a small piece of fruit or a handful of berries would be okay. Just make sure it's something that nourishes you, not a dietary disaster (nutritionally empty, high-calorie snacks like chips, chocolate bars or pastries, for example — these shouldn't even be in your cupboard). And whatever you choose, never, ever eat it in front of the television. Food should always be enjoyed consciously, not eaten when you're zoning out — it almost guarantees you will either have something unhealthy, eat too much, or both.

No matter when you're eating, the main consideration is quantity and quality. Eat the amount of calories that is appropriate for you, and make sure that healthy, mostly unprocessed foods are the bulk of that calorie count. Include a balance of protein, carbs and some fat. It's so simple that it's a wonder so many people stress out about it!

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