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Nutrition for Exercise

nutrition for exerciseWe’ve all heard the saying “your body is a temple,” but I like to think of my body as a car. You have to give a car fuel to make it go. Give a car junky fuel, and it will go, but it doesn’t run as well as it could. For better performance, you need better fuel. The same is true for your body. This is why it’s important to practice proper nutrition for exercise.

We get energy from eating nutritious foods, staying well-hydrated and getting plenty of rest. These are all things that are important not only for everyday life, but also for exercise and training. Although you don’t have to be strict on your diet, avoid the pitfall of allowing yourself treats because you’re exercising. This mindset can quickly sabotage your plans, especially if weight control is one of your goals.  

What to Eat

The amount of food you need depends on your age, gender, weight, and activity level. You can get an estimate of your calorie needs from a variety of different free online calculators like this one. Keep the following tips in mind when planning your meals:

  • Eat small meals or snacks throughout the day, every 3-4 hours.
  • Make snacks count with foods that have the nutrients your body needs to perform. Think fruits, vegetables, protein, whole grains, or dairy.
  • Never skip breakfast.
  • Follow the recommendations from the USDA’s My Plate, and make sure you are eating enough servings from each food group.
  • Don’t rely on cardio machines at the gym to tell you how many calories you burned. They are notoriously inaccurate and can lead to an inflated sense of accomplishment.


Carbohydrates are a very important part of the diet because they are the preferred source of fuel for our red blood cells, working muscles, and brain. A diet low in carbohydrates can lead to fatigue and impaired performance. Over time, the body may actually break down muscles in search of energy. Aim for a minimum of 150 grams of carbohydrates each day.

Make sure that you choose carbohydrates from the right type of foods. Try to avoid foods with a lot of sugar, especially within an hour of exercise or competition. While sugar seems like a good way to get quick energy, it doesn’t last long; and it will leave you with less energy in the long run. Instead try to focus on complex carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.


Protein is important for building muscle, but eating large amounts (more than you need) will not lead to further benefit. A healthy individual should aim for 15-25% of their consumed calories each day to come from protein. This is 75-125 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet.

While protein supplements have become increasingly popular, they aren’t necessary. Most people can easily get this through regular food. Your body can’t tell the difference between the protein in regular food and the protein in expensive powders, and regular food will provide you with more of the nutrients your body needs.  

Keep in mind that protein doesn’t always mean meat or protein powders. While lean meats, dairy, and eggs are great sources of protein; legumes, grains, and many vegetables can also provide protein.


When we think of fat, we usually think of it as a bad thing, but our bodies do need some. Fat is important for nutrient absorption as well as helping us feel satisfied after eating.  A healthy diet should have about 20-30% of total calories coming from fat. Make sure most of your fats are the heart-healthy kinds found in fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado.


Water is essential for life, and proper hydration can really make a difference in your workout. The body generates up to 20 times more heat when exercising than when at rest, and water helps to cool us off and keep the blood moving efficiently. Even slight dehydration can impair performance.

  • 1% loss of water (1.5 lbs. in a 150 lb. person) results in impaired performance.
  • 2-4% loss will reduce muscular strength and endurance by up to 20-25%.
  • 5% loss can cause heat exhaustion.
  • 7-10% loss can cause heat stroke and death.

The body needs 24-36 hours to fully recover strength and endurance after dehydration, so be sure to always drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, not just during your workout.

Drink plenty of water (sports drinks are only useful if exercising for more than 1 hour) before, during, and after exercising to stay well-hydrated. You may have heard various recommendations for the amount of water you should drink each day, but the truth is the right amount can vary greatly from person to person and situation to situation.

If you want to be sure you are well hydrated, pay attention to your urine. Light-colored or clear urine indicates that you are drinking enough. If your urine is dark, you may need to drink more. You can also check your weight before and after exercise. You will need to drink about 16 ounces of water for every pound lost.

Fuel Your Body

Whether you are exercising for competition, for weight loss, or for general health; proper fueling is crucial for meeting your goals. You can’t skip meals, under eat, or live off of junk food and expect your body to perform at its best. Regardless of what the latest fad diets may say, the best way to fuel your body is through a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. If in doubt, look to the USDA My Plate as a guide for all of your meals. Never forget, “you can’t outrun a bad diet!”

Sarah Wood, the author of this article, is available to speak to groups or hold classes on a variety of health-related topics such as nutrition, physical activity, healthy cooking, stress management, and wellness. To schedule an event or get more information, call 816-279-1691 or email

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About Sarah Wood

Sarah Wood is a registered dietitian with a Master's Degree in Applied Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. When taking time for herself, she runs, travels, and creates art.

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