Gut-Friendly Foods to Fuel Exercise

Gut-Friendly Foods to Fuel Exercise

Exercise is one of the ways to support gut health, so how can you fuel your workouts in a way that not only enhances performance but also gives your gut a helping hand at the same time? We asked dietitian Laura Tilt...

Exercise and Your Gut

If you’ve been following the Symprove blog for a while, you’ll probably have heard us say that moving your body (be that jogging, yoga, cycling, dancing or any other exercise you enjoy) is one way you can take care of your gut health.

Many of us will testify to the fact that exercise helps to boost our mood and keep stress levels in check. But research also shows that regular exercise can shift the gut microbiome in positive ways, so it’s not just you that stands to benefit from a run in the park or a regular yoga class, but your microbes too.

Food for Active Pursuits

Those of you who are regular runners, cyclists or gym goers will be aware that diet is important when it comes to fuelling exercise - particularly if you want to perform at your best. But beyond performance, the right foods can also help prevent injury and speed recovery too.

Carbs Are King

One of (if not the) most important nutrients for exercise is carbohydrate. Whilst it’s true that we use a mix of fuel sources (carbohydrate and fat) to provide us with energy at rest or when exercising at low intensity, during high intensity or prolonged exercise (think about a HIIT class or long run), the body becomes increasingly reliant on carbohydrate for energy. This is because carbohydrate can very rapidly be turned into a compound known as ATP (or adenosine triphosphate), the body’s preferred energy currency.

Because our bodies can only store limited amounts of carbohydrate in the muscles and liver, we need a regular supply to keep our fuel stores topped up. As well as eating a carbohydrate rich meal or snack after exercise, basing your meals around carbohydrate rich starchy foods like bread, breakfast cereals, pasta, rice and potatoes is one way to ensure a steady energy supply.

Top tip: Opting for wholegrain versions of starchy foods (like wholemeal bread or wholemeal pasta, porridge oats and potatoes with their skins on) will increase your fibre intake too. This is great news for your gut microbes, as they thrive on fibre. Foods containing 6 grams of fibre or more per 100 grams are considered high fibre.

Remember! The hour or two before exercise is one time to avoid eating lots of very high fibre foods. During exercise blood flow moves from the gut to the working muscles, which can delay stomach emptying. A lighter meal (something like cereal and milk or a slice of toast with peanut butter) eaten a couple of hours before exercise shouldn’t cause you any problems. If it’s the hour before, try a ripe banana or a small glass of juice.

Protein Power

Protein provides the body with building blocks to maintain and repair its tissues and cells, and after exercise, it plays an important role in helping muscles to recover.

Having some protein at each meal is a good idea, but you can also help maximise muscle recovery by consuming a meal or snack with around 20-30 grams of protein after a tough workout - think a long run or a weights based workout. You can easily find 20-30 grams of protein in 3 eggs, a small can of tuna or a large glass of milk and some cereal.

Dairy proteins, eggs, seafood and poultry are particularly helpful choices as they are rich in a protein building block known as leucine, which is important for switching on new muscle synthesis.

Top tip: Try a milk kefir smoothie with a banana after a workout for a good mix of protein, carbohydrate and the possibility of gut-friendly microbes! Kefir is a fermented milk drink which is made with strains of beneficial bacteria. We’re still learning how fermented foods affect the human gut, so it’s too early to say whether it has a meaningful effect, but it’s worth consuming for its other nutrients like protein and calcium.

Vitamins and Minerals

There are many vitamins and minerals which play an important role in helping the body fuel and recover from exercise - B vitamins help the body convert carbohydrates into energy, vitamin C helps the body to repair cells and iron is needed to transport oxygen around the body.

One of the best ways to get a good supply of vitamins and minerals is to include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables in your diet each day. Remember that pulses (like chickpeas and beans) can count as one serving, as do dried fruits. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh and are handy for quick meals such as smoothies, soups or adding to things like scrambled eggs and stews. Try to include at least one portion of fruit or vegetables with breakfast and lunch, two with your evening meal - and then a piece of fruit as a snack.

Top tip: Aiming for 30 different types of plant foods each week will keep your diet varied and your gut bugs thriving - in one study, adults consuming 30 different types of plant foods each week had a more diverse microbiome than those eating 10 different plants or fewer.


Van Loon, L. J. C., Greenhaff, P. L., Constantin-Teodosiu, D., Saris, W. H. M., & Wagenmakers, A. J. M. (2001). The effects of increasing exercise intensity on muscle fuel utilisation in humans. Journal of Physiology.

Moore, D. R., Robinson, M. J., Fry, J. L., Tang, J. E., Glover, E. I., Wilkinson, S. B., … Phillips, S. M. (2009). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Mcdonald, D., Hyde, E., Debelius, J. W., Morton, J. T., Gonzalez, A., Ackermann, G., … Kosciolek, T. (2018). American Gut : an Open Platform for Citizen Science. 3(3), 1–28.

Fermented foods