Food and Nutrition

Sorry Protein Bars, but the Banana Is the MVP of Pre-Workout Snacks

Isadora Baum

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Photo: Getty Images / Istetiana
When you think of workout snacks, one word typically comes to mind: protein, protein, protein. People load up on whey powders, munch on nuts or grass-fed beef jerky, or stash some protein bars in their gym bag. Protein is the watchword, friends.

But we've all been wrong about our pre-workout nutritional needs this entire time. Because today I learned that the best snack to eat before exercising for energy, endurance, and recovery has nothing to do with anything protein-related at all. Apparently, we should all be eating a banana before we work out.

Wait, why bananas before a workout?

The TL;DR version: the banana's nutritional profile is just what the RD ordered for a snack that provides the energy required to get through those tough, sweaty workouts.

“A medium banana is nutrient rich, providing 24 grams of carbohydrates—14 of which are sugar and three of which are fiber,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. “The fiber in bananas, along with the gram of protein, keeps the rest of the carbohydrate from being absorbed too rapidly, but there isn't so much that the food will sit in your stomach,” she says.

That may sound like a lot of carbs at once, but Jones says you need that digestible fuel right before you exercise. “The energy you absorb into the blood stream—ingested as both fructose and starch—is able to either get to muscle cells or maintain blood sugar levels, depending on how much carbohydrate the person already had stored in the muscles,” she says. The banana is the perfect balance: that fast-acting carb count gives immediate energy, and the fiber makes it more sustainable for that whole workout.

Need more reason to love bananas? They're a form of natural sugar, which is pretty good for you:

“On top of that, bananas provide potassium, vitamin B6, and even some vitamin C,” Jones says. The potassium is an electrolyte, which can help replenish depleted levels lost through sweat. Plus, “potassium is an important nutrient for regulating fluid balance,” she adds. “Those who regularly endure moderate to intense exercise for several hours are those most likely to lose small amounts of potassium in sweat and benefit from extra ingestion of the nutrient via foods such as bananas, potatoes, nuts and seeds, greens and legumes,” Jones says.

“The balance of sodium and potassium in the body is most important for heart health via regulation of blood volume and muscle contractions as well,” she says. Bananas also provide some antioxidants and other beneficial compounds such as phenolics, carotenoids, and phytosterols to support your heart and lower inflammation that can come immediately after strenuous exercise.

So do I...just eat a plain banana and call it a day?

Yes, you can absolutely just throw a banana in your gym bag and be done with it. But if you're looking for a slightly more interesting pre-workout snack, Jones has some easy ideas:

  • Go classic and pair your banana with nut butter (almond, peanut, macadamia, and cashew are all fair game), and add some cacao nibs for antioxidants and sweetness.
  • Jones also loves making banana "nice cream" mixed with cocoa powder and honey. Grab a scoop or two before you leave for the gym and you're good to go.
  • Make a peanut butter banana smoothie for a portable pre-workout snack you can sip on.
  • Slice some banana into some cooked oats and top with chia seeds and a dash of maple syrup.

So yes, a banana before a workout is secretly the best thing you can do for your exercise routine. Besides, you know, actually having one that you love in the first place.

It's not just a great workout snack—a banana before bed is a pretty good idea, too. And as healthy as it sounds, a salad before you exercise is not a good idea.

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