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Take Time for a Good Lunch

Nancy Clark, MS, RD


For people who have the attitude that "food is fattening and I don't have time to eat anyway," lunch is just something to avoid. But for active people, and especially for performance-driven athletes, lunch is an important time to refuel after a busy morning or to fuel up for an afternoon workout. Also, lunchtime may offer an opportunity to rest your mind and recharge for a productive afternoon.

Active people tend to get hungry at least every 3 to 4 hours, so if you eat breakfast at 7:00 or 8:00 am you're generally ready for more fuel by 11:00 am or noon. Skipping or skimping on lunch can easily lead to problems: inadequate calorie replacement; poor quality afternoon exercise bouts; ravenous hunger and cravings for sweets, usually triggering a high intake of "junk food" later in the day; and weight gain due to overcompensating in the evening.

Research suggests that athletes who eat a substantial meal 4 hours before exercising do better than those who have eaten nothing for more than 4 hours. In one study (1), a group of cyclists consumed 1,200 calories in the form of a high-carbohydrate drink 4 hours before a workout. They performed 15% better during a post-workout performance test than those who had eaten nothing since the last night's dinner.

A general guideline is that athletes should consume 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight approximately 4 hours before competition or rigorous training (2). For a 150-pound athlete, this is 300 grams of carbohydrate, or 1,200 calories. Using pasta as an example, 1,200 calories would be about 6 cups cooked, or about I of a pound dry—quite a pile of pasta!

Of course, endurance athletes who train for competition need lots of calories, but even the average active person needs more than a mere apple or bagel for lunch. So how can you fit a healthful and enjoyable lunch into your busy day? Following are some tips that will help.

Overcome Your Excuses

"I don't have time to eat." Correction: You choose to do other things such as work, study, or exercise instead of eat. Make lunch more of a priority, and you can generally find a few minutes to eat. Even if you can't stop for a relaxing lunch break, you can perhaps snack on part of a sandwich between classes or customers. You could drink liquid lunches of juice or milk, or even meal supplements such as instant breakfast drinks, GatorPro, or Ensure.

"I'm on a diet." Skipping lunch is a common mistake among weight-conscious people who believe eating lunch adds needless calories to their diet. I counsel many athletes who habitually restrict their intake at breakfast and lunch, struggle through workouts, "blow their diet" in the late afternoon, overeat at night, and then start the vicious cycle over again the next day. They commonly have little success with weight loss—and little energy to enjoy exercising. They'd be better off eating a substantial breakfast and lunch and restricting calories at night.

"I don't like the cafeteria's lunches, but I'm too rushed to make lunch in the morning." If the food available to you at lunch is unappetizing, try these options:

  1. Consider eating the food anyway. Any fuel is better than no fuel. If the available lunches are high in fat, compensate by eating less fat at other meals.
  2. Go elsewhere to eat. If this means going to the local fast-food place or sub shop, be sure to choose carbohydrate-rich lunches, not burgers and fries laden with saturated fat. High-fat lunches fill your stomach, but they also clog arteries and leave carbohydrate-hungry muscles unfueled. Some ideas for fast-food sports lunches include:
    • Bean or broth-based soups with a roll or sandwich and lowfat milk;
    • A submarine sandwich with more bread than filling—containing lean meats such as deli turkey, roast beef, or ham, and lettuce, tomato, mustard, or light salad dressing for moistness;
    • Thick-crust pizza topped with veggies rather than sausage or pepperoni (use napkins to blot obvious grease off the top of the pizza); and
    • Fruit yogurt, a bagel, and a banana from the corner store.
  3. Keep a variety of lunch foods stocked in your desk drawer. You can pull together a reasonable meal from dried soups, crackers, peanut butter, dried fruits, instant oatmeal, energy bars, and other nonperishable items. Just be sure to balance the day's intake with adequate low-fat dairy foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein-rich foods at other meals.
  4. Make time to pack a lunch. If packing lunches is a chore regardless of whether you pack them the night before or in the morning, see "Lunch Packing Tips" below to lighten the load.

Count the Benefits

Lunch is an important part of your exercise program. Keep in mind that your midday meal refuels muscles after a morning workout or prepares them for afternoon exercise. If you struggle with eating an adequate lunch, examine your excuses and experiment with different solutions. Notice the benefits that accompany proper lunchtime nutrition: reduced hunger, more energy, better workouts, fewer food cravings and obsessions, and more energy to choose and prepare a proper dinner. You won't go wrong if you strive to eat about a third of your day's calorie intake at lunch.

Lunch Packing Tips

Start at the Supermarket

Good nutrition starts in the supermarket. When shopping, plan for at least three different types of foods to include in each lunch—preferably from different food groups:

Low-fat dairy foods. Low-fat milk (for a thermos), yogurt (may be unrefrigerated for 4 to 6 hours without spoiling), low-fat cheese (for sandwiches, or to eat with crackers or bagels), cheese sticks, cottage cheese.

Fruits. Oranges, grapefruit, bananas, dried apricots or other dried fruits, or any seasonal fruit.

Vegetables. Raw carrots, green peppers (to be seeded and cut into wedges), tomatoes (for sandwiches), vegetable juices, salad ingredients.

Protein. Turkey, ham, lean roast beef (from the deli or home cooked), peanut butter, hummus, refried beans, bean burritos, tuna.

Bread and grain foods. Preferably whole-grain breads, bagels, crackers or other lightly processed grain foods; pretzels, popcorn.

Keep It Fresh

To preserve freshness, keep breads in the freezer and take out slices as you need them. You can make a sandwich on frozen bread; it will be thawed within minutes—certainly by lunchtime!

Buy an assortment of food containers such as a wide-mouth thermos to hold dinner leftovers, canned or homemade soups, or cottage cheese; 6- to 8-ounce containers for applesauce, canned fruits, or yogurt; sandwich containers to keep bread fresh and unsquished; and an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack to keep foods chilled.

Make It Quick and Easy

Cook extra dinner and then enjoy the leftovers for lunch. Leftover casseroles, pasta, burritos, bean dishes, pizza, and soups can easily be reheated in a microwave oven.

Reduce decision making by finding a healthful lunch that you enjoy and are willing to eat day after day. This makes shopping and planning much easier, and is nutritionally acceptable as long as you are making wholesome choices and getting a variety of foods at other meals. Some popular standby lunches:

  • A big bagel with peanut butter, a cup of yogurt, and a banana;
  • A turkey sandwich made with light mayonnaise, an orange, a lowfat cheese stick, and pretzels;
  • Pita bread with hummus, a cup of yogurt, baby carrots, and a green pepper.


  1. Sherman WM, Brodowicz G, Wright DA, et al: Effects of 4 h preexercise carbohydrate feedings on cycling performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1989;21(5):598-604
  2. Sherman, WM: Pre-event nutrition. Sports Science Exchange (Gatorade Sports Science Institute) 1989;1(12)

Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Ms Clark is director of Nutrition Services at SportsMedicine Brookline in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and a member of its practice group, Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN).



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