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Ask Health Coach Maria: Do I Have to Eat Healthy if I Exercise?

March 7, 2014

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Hi, I’m Maria Marlowe, a Certified Health Coach and author of Detox without the Deprivation. This is my weekly “Ask Health Coach Maria” series, in which I answer frequently asked questions that relate to health and wellness. Have a question? Ask me here. 

I’ll give you the bad news right up front: While working out does wonders for your body, it unfortunately does not give you a free pass at the buffet table. Bad eating habits will not only sabotage your overall health, they’ll sabotage your workout, too! 

I have had many clients come to me who spend hours at the gym each week, frustrated that they’re not as firm, fit, or toned as they’d like to be. When I ask what they’re eating, their responses are usually preceded by, “Oh, but l work it off at the gym.” 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the problem. While yes, a healthy life is all about  balance, that does not mean you can eat nutritionally deficient foods and then simply erase their ill effects by spending an extra 30 minutes on the treadmill. Food affects us on many physiological levels, so worrying only about calorie count misses the big picture. In fact, calorie in/ calorie out science is outdated, and we now know that the quality of our energy sources is more important than the quantity when it comes to health and weight loss.  

What’s more, you don’t necessarily have to go to the gym in order to lose weight—simply changing your eating habits is likely to do the trick (although exercise has tons of other benefits, so this doesn’t mean you should stop working out!). 

Healthy foods provide us with so much more than just fuel; they give us the nutrients we need for our body to perform all of its processes and remain in tip top shape. Junk food is nutritionally bankrupt, leaving your body starving for vitamins and minerals, and no matter how much you exercise, you won’t fill that void. 

So what foods should you eat to help support—not sabotage—your exercise routine? 

You’ve probably heard that eating protein after a workout is good, right? That’s because when you work out, you’re creating micro-tears in your muscles, which your body then works to repair. This repair process, in the hours and days after you leave the gym, is when muscle building occurs. Eating protein after exercise helps your body repair these tears faster and more efficiently, and that means your new muscle develops faster, too. 

Research has shown 10- 20 grams of protein post-workout is ideal for muscle building. Here are some of the best post-workout foods:

  • quinoa salad (1 cup contains 24g protein)
  • 3 bean salad (about 20g protein per ½ cup)
  • two handfuls nuts (about 12g protein)
  • hemp seed smoothie (blend 3 tbsp. hemp seeds with 2 cups water, 2 bananas, and a tablespoon of almond butter for about 13 grams of protein). 

On the flip side, everything you eat before your workout can and will affect both your performance and results. Junk food and highly processed carbs will ultimately zap your energy, and won’t allow you to perform at your peak in the long run. Plus, a junk food-heavy diet is usually accompanied by other health issues, from headaches to moodiness, which can lead to skipped workouts. 

Some of the best pre-workout foods include:

  • Fresh fruit: instant energy and high antioxidants will protect muscles from possible free radical damage caused by exercise.
  • Veggies: provides sustained energy through a long workout – try carrot sticks with guacamole, or beet salad.
  • Smoothies:  pack it with protein (in the way of nuts and seeds) and fruit
  • Oatmeal with sliced banana: provides sustained energy through a long workout 

These should be eaten at least an hour before a workout. Don’t forget to drink your water, too! Dehydration inhibits muscle formation, just the way lack of protein does, and since you’ll be sweating, you need even more than usual!

If you’re working out, chances are that you want to look and feel good. And while exercise will help you do that, your food choices will have an even greater impact in that regard.

I always tell my clients to think of their body like a sports car, and to fuel it with the best energy sources possible. That means eating things like whole, unprocessed vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and high quality meat, if you choose.

Don’t get stuck in the hamster wheel of bad eating habits and endless hours at the gym. Eat more healthfully, and you will likely find the weight comes off effortlessly, with less time on the treadmill!

How has exercise affected your eating habits? Share in the comments below!

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at