When you need an energizing snack, think before you grab. Ask yourself these 5 questions to find your ideal pre- and post-practice mini-meals.
Deciding what to eat before or after practice should be simple enough. But choosing the right snack can often feel like homing in on a moving target. Some days you can breeze through a rigorous yoga session without any snack at all; others, you have a seemingly smart nibble before class but then feel ravenous by the second round of Sun Salutations. What gives?
“The foods you choose can affect your energy level, digestion, hydration, and even how your joints and muscles feel, so it’s important to eat snacks that will help you get the most out of your practice both mentally and physically,” says Kara Lydon, RD, a Boston-based nutritionist and yoga instructor. If you’re stumped about what and when to nosh, ask yourself these five simple questions to learn how best to fuel your Downward-Facing Dogs.
Question 1: When was the last time you ate, and how much did you eat?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to timing snacking around exercise. Some people are comfortable and energetic exercising after a small snack, while others find that any amount of food makes their stomach turn somersaults. That’s why, to steer your snacking, it’s important to listen to your body and pay attention to your meal schedule. But you also can use general guidelines that work for most people. “The ancient yoga texts advise not practicing on a full stomach, and that makes sense physiologically,” says Ilene Cohen, RDN, a nutritionist, yoga teacher, and owner of PranaSpirit Nutrition in New York City. After all, you don’t want food sloshing around in your belly, especially during inversions. “However, it’s fine for most people to eat either a full meal about four hours before class, or a snack up to one or two hours beforehand,” Cohen says. That window gives your body the time it needs to digest, so your muscles can devote their energy to working on poses during your practice.
If you haven’t eaten a meal in a few hours, have a snack about an hour before practice that contains complex carbohydrates from foods like grains and sweet potatoes. These carbs digest slowly, so they provide a prolonged release of glucose, or blood sugar, to fuel your muscles. If you have had a meal in the last few hours, you likely have plenty of fuel on tap, so you can save your snack to replenish after class, especially if you’re prone to indigestion during asana.
Either way, the size of your snack should be the same—150 to 200 calories, which is roughly the amount you’d burn in a 60- to 80-minute yoga class. It should also contain a small amount of protein, which breaks down more gradually than carbs, providing longer-term satiety. Cohen recommends 7 to 14 grams of protein paired with 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates. You can hit the mark with five small crackers and a 1-ounce piece of low-fat string cheese (9 g protein, 18 g carbs, 185 calories) or a small 4-inch pita dipped in 1/4 cup of hummus (7 g protein, 24 g carbs, 179 calories).
Question 2: When will you eat next?
If you snacked an hour or two before practice, it’s not necessary to eat again after—unless you’re hungry. But if you haven’t had a bite since your last meal three or four hours before class, now is the time to refill your tank. “After practice, I recommend roughly 7 to 21 grams of protein to aid with muscle repair,” says Cohen. Here’s why: During practice, muscle fibers are stressed and micro-tears form. Afterward, protein works to rebuild and repair those frayed muscles. Adding in 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates is also key, as it replenishes energy stores that have been exhausted during exercise, ensuring that muscles will be primed for your next activity, says Cohen. Good choices include a cup of shelled edamame (17 g protein, 15 g carbs, 189 calories) or a smoothie blended with 6 ounces of nonfat plain Greek yogurt, half a banana, and a pinch of nutmeg (18 g protein, 2o g carbs, 156 calories).
Question 3: How sensitive is your stomach?
“You know your body best, so it’s important to be mindful of your individual needs, as some foods may work for one person but not another,” says Katie Cavuto, RD, a nutritionist in Philadelphia. “If eating dairy products or whole grains unsettles your stomach during practice, it’s a good idea to avoid these.” Other common stomach up- setters are acidic foods like tomatoes, some fruit juices, and spicy dishes, so steer clear if you know your tummy is sensitive. You can always enjoy these healthy foods later in the day.
Even if you have a stomach of steel, avoid snacks that are too heavy, such as fatty meats like beef jerky, salami, and hotdogs, or greasy foods, such as pizza and French fries. These contain substantial amounts of fat, which can be difficult to digest in large doses, causing cramps and weighing you down. While a little bit of fat—say the 8 grams in a tablespoon of peanut butter—probably won’t bother you, the 2o grams in a couple of pieces of beef jerky could feel like a brick in your stomach.
Meanwhile, other foods for all of us to skip include highly processed ones and refined sugars in treats like cookies, cupcakes, and sugar-sweetened lattes. “These are filled with fast-digesting simple carbohydrates and empty calories, so after their initial burst of energy they can leave you burnt out on your mat,” says Cavuto.
See also 6 Energy-Boosting Foods
Question 4: Are you hydrated?
Fueling for yoga isn’t just about solid foods—you also need fluids to prevent dehydration. Even if you keep a water bottle by your mat, it might not be enough, as by the time you realize you’re thirsty you may already be dehydrated. Instead, think about fluids before class begins. “Hydration pre-yoga is essential to avoid stiffness and cramping,” says Lydon. “But don’t chug a bottle of water right before class or you’ll end up feeling uncomfortable during practice.” Instead, sip 16 ounces of water during the hour before class. Fluid-rich foods can help, too. A 6-ounce container of plain low-fat Greek yogurt with 1 cup berries, or 1/4 cup hummus with a sliced cucumber, can also provide 1o–11 ounces of water, which won’t slosh around in your belly.
After class, don’t forget to rehydrate, especially if you practiced hot yoga. Cavuto recommends drinking at least 20 ounces of water to replace lost fluids. Snacking on fruits and vegetables can also help. The reason? Produce is naturally rich in potassium, a mineral that helps restore and maintain electrolyte balance, thus aiding in preventing dehydration. Trouble is, many of us don’t get enough of this mineral, which is found only in small amounts in most foods. So you need to eat lots of potassium-containing foods throughout the day to rack up your 4,700-milligram daily dose. Top sources include cucumbers (442 mg each), bananas (422 mg each), fennel (36o mg per sliced cup), shelled edamame (338 mg per 1/2 cup), and cooked garbanzo beans (239 mg per 1/2 cup).
Question 5: Are your muscles usually sore after class?
Popping ibuprofen isn’t the only way to relieve post-yoga muscle aches. There are some effective natural muscle-soothers that can help you recover more quickly, too. Cohen advises yogis who suffer from achy muscles to try snacks containing magnesium, a natural muscle relaxer. Sources of the mineral include nuts; seeds; beans; green, leafy vegetables; avocados; and Greek yogurt. Aim for the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of 310–320 mg of magnesium for women and 400–420 mg for men. A bowl of whole-grain cereal like 3/4 cup of bran flakes with 3/4 cup 1 percent milk delivers up to 29 percent of your RDI (89 mg magnesium, 9 g protein, 33 g carbs, 175 calories). Or try a cup of hot chocolate made with 1 cup soymilk, 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder, and 1 tsp sugar (70 mg magnesium, 8 g protein, 21 g carbs, 151 calories).
Another option: ginger, which soothes tender, spent muscles and reduces the inflammation that can cause pain. Try a few shakes of ground ginger in a smoothie, or simply sprinkle it into cottage cheese or yogurt for a sugar-free flavor boost.
Finally, try tart dried cherries. Several studies have shown that tart cherries’ potent antioxidants help speed recovery from exercise-related inflammation and muscle tenderness.
Snack right from the bag or toss them into a trail mix or cereal.All that said, the most important thing to remember is this: “Yoga is about balance, and so are the basic nutrition recommendations that go along with it,” says Cohen. The recipes we’ve presented provide a full complement of the nutrients just discussed to help you find your ideal snacking solutions. Enjoy!
Karen Ansel MS, RDN, is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and author in Syosset, New York.