What to Eat Before a Workout—and 10 Other Times You Need Energy the Most

Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times can not only make you fatter, hungrier, and grumpier, but it can sabotage your memory, creativity, anxiety, energy, and more. We got nutrition experts to share exactly how we should fuel up for our toughest everyday life challenges.

By Sharon Feiereisen

During a long day of shopping (for endurance)
Alena-Haurylik/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Steel-cut oatmeal, egg whites, fruit, and nuts.

Why: Starting off any long day with a good breakfast is key. “Try steel-cut oatmeal for long-acting, low-glycemic carbs, and some egg whites or a protein shake for protein,” suggests David Greuner, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon and director of NYC Surgical Associates. “Adding a fruit in the morning will also give you sustained energy for the day.” Endovascular surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates Christopher Hollingsworth, MD, adds that multiple small meals (versus three large meals) is also key. “A large meal can really slow you down and make you feel fatigued during a long day out running errands. Take along a bag of almonds and snack frequently for quick hits of energy.”  Here are more healthy snacks you don’t have to feel guilty about.

After staying up late to wrap presents (for alertness, to recover from a sleepless night)
Martin-Rettenberger/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: In the morning, drink 16 ounces of water; eat a hard-boiled or scrambled egg, a piece of fruit, and a half-cup of oatmeal. Continue to eat fiber-rich carbohydrates and protein at each meal. For lunch, try a chicken breast and steamed broccoli with a black bean and quinoa salad. For dinner: salmon, steamed veggies, and brown rice. Coffee or green tea will provide the caffeine the body craves after a sleepless night.

Why: “Dehydration makes fatigue even worse, so starting your day with water will counteract that,” say The Nutrition Twins, Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure and co-founders of the 21-Day Body Reboot. “You want to fuel with a mix of complex carbs, protein, and fiber for sustained energy—so an egg (one of the most absorbable forms of protein and a good source of energy-boosting B vitamins), fruit (carbohydrates and fiber), and oatmeal (carbs and fiber) for breakfast makes the perfect protein, fiber, carbohydrate combo.” The fiber-packed oatmeal appears to offer an extra advantage and may make you more alert during the day, say the twins, citing a study showing that people who ate high-fiber cereal in the morning reduced fatigue by 10 percent, possibly because the fiber keeps blood sugar levels stable, helping to keep energy levels on even keel for a longer time. Here are more reasons to fill up on fiber, a superstar nutrient.

Before a big meeting (to stay calm)
oumjeab/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Tea with a little bit of milk

Why: “Green, black, and oolong tea contain the amino acid theanine, which passes the blood brain barrier to bring on a mental calmness and ease anxiety while creating alertness, making it the perfect tonic before an important meeting,” say The Nutrition Twins. “Additionally, the little boost of caffeine in the tea will give a mental edge without being too much to cause anxiety. Add a splash of milk to the tea and the calcium in the milk will help to relax the muscles as well.” Check out the amazing health benefits of tea.

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During a day of travel (to re-set your body clock for a different time zone)
Anna_Pustynnikova/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Small protein-rich snacks

Why: When traveling across different time zones, it’s best to pass on the heavy, high-sodium foods and opt for lighter, protein-rich meals to keep your energy up. “Foods like nuts, almond butter with crackers, cheese, yogurt, and so forth will keep you nourished until you are back on a normal meal schedule,” says Dr. Greuner. “Don’t fall prey to processed airport food that will leave you feeling run-down and sluggish. Make sure the food and drinks that you are eating before a long flight are low sugar, slow burn carbs, and moderate protein. I’ll typically bring hummus packs and grain crackers, vegetables that won’t perish easily, homemade trail mix, and a protein bar to hold me over until my next meal.” Dr. Greuner also underscores the need to drink enough water to stay hydrated. “Make sure to drink enough to help combat harsh cabin air, which is notorious for drying up the mucus membranes in the ears, nose, and mouth, leaving you vulnerable to infection.” Here’s what flying on an airplane does to your body.

Before a big family dinner (to avoid weight gain)
parasolia/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Pistachios

Why: Before a big family meal, when life gets hectic, pistachios are an ideal fuel due to their combination of fiber, protein, and healthy fats to keep you feeling satisfied longer. “When you get to the meal, the edge is taken off so you won’t feel the need to dive into every food that comes your way,” say the Nutrition Twins. “Also, often the stress before a family gathering causes people to want to snack and crunch on something, and in-shell pistachios are the perfect snack.” Pistachios can help you fool yourself full because, according to research, the leftover shells may provide a visual cue of how much you’ve eaten, helping you to curb your intake—an idea known in nutrition circles as the Pistachio Principle.

Dr. Greuner adds that you should offer to bring some dishes if you’re not the one hosting. “You can swap pasta for zucchini noodles and include fresh ingredients such as tomatoes and cucumbers,” he says. “Drizzle a bit of balsamic vinegar over vegetables to enhance their natural flavor without using heavy sauces. For BBQ season, use simple herb rubs for spice, or even a bit of salt, pepper, and garlic powder to add a ton of flavor before your meat hits the grill.” Don’t miss the golden rules of healthy grilling.

Before a test (for focus and memory)
PageSeven/ShutterstockWhat to Eat? Flaxseeds

Why: Flaxseeds are great for increasing focus and memory. Dr. Greuner suggests adding them to breakfast foods such as oatmeal, smoothies, or protein shakes. “Flaxseeds are high in fiber and Omega-3s, which help improve concentration by keeping your blood sugar levels stable. Be sure to grind your flaxseeds—in a blender, coffee grinder, or Cuisinart—to make the fiber easier to digest, and to make it more effective at reducing blood sugar levels.” As a bonus, flaxseeds have been shown to help prevent cancer.

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Before running a 10K (for physical speed)
Rasulov/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Oatmeal with a multivitamin, plus a shot of beet juice

Why: Dr. Hollingsworth suggests a light meal with a small portion of complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal—plus a multivitamin or supplement with branched chain amino acids. “Branched chain amino acid supplements have good research showing improved endurance and improved recovery,” he says. He adds that beets have been shown to improve blood flow, with their promotion of nitric oxide release. To reduce inflammation following the race, research points to the benefits of turmeric and circumin; the amino acid taurine, found in energy drinks beef, lamb, dark chicken meat, eggs, most dairy products, seaweed, krill, and brewer’s yeast, can help reduce muscle cramping. Check out the fun runs and 5K races even non-runners will love.

For a brainstorming session (for creativity)
priia-studio/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Wild blueberries

Why: “Wild Blueberries are perfect to have before a brainstorming session as they have been shown to boost memory, concentration, and performance, all of which are major factors when it comes to having a sharp mind and allowing the creative juices to flow,” say The Nutrition Twins. “The healthy brain function comes from anthocyanins, a potent flavonoid antioxidant that’s highly concentrated in the deep blue pigments of wild blueberries.” New research, they say, also suggests that wild blueberries help fight Alzheimer’s, a disease that can significantly cloud creativity, not to mention compromise cognitive function in general. “Wild blueberries have two times the powerful antioxidants of regular blueberries, 72 percent more fiber and 32 percent less sugar.” They’re also very versatile. Eat them on their own, in a yogurt, in a smoothie, with your cereal, or on a high fiber cracker. Here are 30 recipes to make with wild blueberries.

Before a corporate holiday party (for good mood/sociability)
Louella938/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Veggies in hummus or bean dip, or black bean and corn salsa

Why: “The carbohydrates in pulses—chickpeas, dried peas, beans, and lentils—quickly ramp up your body’s feel-good chemical, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that combats pain, decreases appetite, and produces calmness—perfect before mingling with co-workers,” say The Nutrition Twins. “The fiber and protein in the pulses promote a gradual digestion, leading to both long-lasting energy and an ongoing mood boost. Pulses contain folic acid, vitamin B6, and zinc, all of which help in the manufacture of serotonin from the tryptophan found in the food you eat.” Don’t miss the amazing health benefits of fiber. The Twins suggest dipping veggies in hummus, bean dip, or black bean and corn salsa, snacking on honey roasted chickpeas, or enjoying a bowl of lentil soup before the party.

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When attending crowded holiday concerts or events (to avoid getting sick)
Ildi-Papp/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Kefir

Why: To guarantee you’re fortifying your immune system with the necessary probiotics before heading to germ-filled events, The Nutrition Twins suggest Lifeway’s Organic Kefir Cups. “They’re easy to grab on the go before you head to the concert or other crowded event, and they’re delicious, tangy, and protein-packed; their probiotics help to support a healthy gut, where 70-80 percent of the cells in the immune system are located.” To bolster immunity, you want to get at least 7 different strains and 5 billion CFUs (Colony Forming Units) daily; each cup of Lifeway kefir has 12 live and active cultures and 15 to 20 billion beneficial CFU (Greek yogurt falls short with only 1 to 5 strains). Another bonus? If you’re lactose intolerant you can still reap the benefits since the kefir cups are 99 percent lactose-free, thanks to their fermentation process. They’ll also help with bloating!

When shoveling snow (for physical strength)
Elena-Shashkina/ShutterstockWhat To Eat: Ezekiel toast, coconut oil, avocado

Why: According to Keri Glassman, NYC-based RD, MS, CDN, and founder of and The Nutrition School, you want to incorporate carbs into your meal for energy and protein so you stay fuller longer. “I would suggest a slice Ezekiel toast with one tablespoon coconut oil and half a small avocado. If you’re up for baking, Energy-Boosting Peanut Butter Bites are a great recipe idea along these lines, according to Glassman.

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