How to Eat for More Energy, Stronger Muscles, and a Flatter Stomach

Up your eating game with smart foods that streamline your body. (Getty Images)

You might know tons about healthy eating — how soy milk stacks up against almond milk, the nutritional differences between salmon and tuna — but there’s probably plenty more for you to learn about how the body functions on the fuel you choose for it.

You will look and feel your best if you feed your system the right food sources at the right times.

It’s more than just standard energy needs, eliminating processed junk and avoiding trans fat. “It’s not all calories in versus calories out,” says Cynthia Sass, sports nutritionist and author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim. “In reality, it’s not just the numbers that matter but really the quality of the calories, the balance of the calories, and the timing.” Here’s how to up your game to improve your muscle tone, flatten your stomach, aid in digestion, recover from your workouts, and more.

To work out longer: Wait two hours after eating before you exercise.

If you eat a full meal within two hours of the start of your workout, you won’t be able to go as hard or as long, because your body will be trying to work on digestion and training simultaneously. “You divert blood flow away from the GI tract,” says Sass. “This can lead to cramps or sluggishness during exercise.” Sass recommends waiting at least two-and-a-half or three hours after a meal before hitting the gym.

To speed digestion: Split up your meal for a faster fix.

If you like morning workouts, or you’re trying to squeeze a workout in around mealtime, try splitting up your meal. “Eat nutrient-rich carbs like fruit, oatmeal or sweet potato before exercise, and veggies, lean protein, healthy fats and a bit more healthy starch post-exercise,” Sass says. To start, carbs will power you up. “Carbs are generally digested easily, and become a readily-available fuel source when eaten 30 to 60 minutes before exercise,” Sass says. “Protein and fat slow stomach emptying and digestion, so they aren’t the preferred fuel sources during exercise.” They’ll actually slow you down, so skip these until later. In terms of priming metabolism, Sass says she sees best results when her clients eat breakfast within an hour of waking up and eat every three to five hours after that.

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To recover from workouts: Opt for smart protein sources.

Unlike carbs, which are the fuel of your workout, protein is the raw material you can use to recover. “It’s a misconception that protein is the best fuel,” says Sass. “Protein is best for repair and maintenance, with slightly more protein for weight training versus cardio.” Choose smart sources with around 20-30 grams — like Greek yogurt with nuts or lean meats the size of your palm.

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Emily Mitchell, director of sports nutrition for UCLA Athletics, uses this rule: the fewer the legs, the healthier for source. “So, fish has no legs, poultry has two, and beef and pork you’re looking at four legs,” she explains. “It’s an easy way to check yourself.”

To fight inflammation: Choose healthy fats.

Along with lean protein, the other part of the post-workout recovery process is noshing on fatty foods. Before you worry about adding the wrong kind of snack to your diet, understand the source and the reasoning: healthy monounsaturated fats and omega-3s actually help calm healing muscles post-workout. “A lot of people shy away from fats, because they tend to be more calorie-dense foods, but they help reduce inflammation in the body,” Mitchell explains. “Basically, fat is the water that puts out the fire.” That means incorporating healthy-fat foods — with protein, better yet — like fish, avocado, nut butters and eggs into your recovery plan is vital.

To avoid cramping and fatigue: Choose magnesium.

Magnesium helps facilitate more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, as well as helping transport calcium and potassium (which we’ll get to in a second). The mineral is also going to help you lift longer, run harder and avoid cramping. “Magnesium is a good tool for facilitating muscle contraction,” Mitchell says. Keep up on your intake with healthy sources like almonds, spinach, soy milk, black beans and peanut butter.

To hydrate and prime metabolism: Power up with potassium.

Water is essential for all the body’s functions, especially toning muscles. In fact, roughly 80 percent of your muscle is water. If you don’t take in enough fluid to support your workout, you’ll minimize the results. “If you’re dehydrated, it’ll slow down your metabolism,” says Mitchell. “This is why it’s so important to drink water and choose foods that are rich in both water and potassium.” Since sodium is often a culprit in dehydration, potassium is the key mineral to balance out a salt overload. High-water, high-potassium sources include oranges, sweet potatoes, kiwi or milk. Getting your water-and-potassium fix will also ease bloating, so your body feels lighter and your core feels flatter; along with cramping, so you can rev-up your exercise game without a hitch.

To aid in digestion: Try dairy.

If you’ve eaten a heavy meal, and you’re feeling the weight of that dietary decision in your gut, Mitchell suggests trying a surprising source to de-bloat your belly: dairy. It’s a bit of a myth that the food group will bloat you. “The live active cultures in low-fat dairy like yogurt and hard cheese can actually help aid in digestion,” she says. So unless you have lactose intolerance or a stomach issue like IBS, try this for ditching the stomach pouch, so your body can focus energy elsewhere.

To slim and tone the smart way: Avoid the temptation to eat less (and less).

If you’re trying to zap fat as you slim, tone and streamline, Sass says it can be tempting to under-eat to lose weight faster. But creating a massive calorie deficit doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll drop weight and tone up.“Under-eating doesn’t just cause fat loss, but it can also cause the loss of lean tissue, including muscle,” says Sass. “It’ll also slow your metabolism, weaken your immunity, and up your injury risk. You won’t get better results.”

If you’re trying to lose weight, never dip below 1,200 calories per day and keep your goals manageable. The 500 Rule is a good guideline to abide by, aiming to burn 500 more calories per day than you consume, leading to around one pound of true weight loss per week.

“Remember that the phrase, ‘You are what you eat’ is literally true — the foods you eat supply the fuel to help your cells perform their jobs, as well as the building blocks for maintenance and repair,” says Sass. “What you eat can affect not only energy, but your mood, and circulation. When you keep in mind how powerful food is, it can really affect your choices in terms of food quality.”

When you know that bowl of oatmeal with berries and nuts will fire you up for your workout, and keep you primed for powering you through your day, it’ll seems a whole lot more appealing than a processed pastry.

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