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Food, Food News, Healthy Living

Workout Nutrition: Should I eat before (or after) exercising?

Food and exercise are an inseparable pair. But should you eat before or after exercise? That’s the million-dollar question we answered in this piece about workout nutrition.

Light exercises like walking and jogging are part of my 2024 New Year resolution. In preparation for my gym adventure, my sports kits are ready, and I want a smartwatch to monitor my calories and steps. But one question struck me a few days ago: Do I need to eat before (or after) exercise?

While I’m not a foodie, I plan to improve my breakfast habits, as eating early in the morning builds a healthy diet and lifestyle. So, I wondered if my workout plans wouldn’t affect my nutrition goals. Do you have similar concerns? This piece is for you, as I dug deep to find the answers as a fellow (aspiring) gym person.

Before you dive in, these are the takeaways you should note:

  • Your workout nutrition depends on your health status and goals, exercise duration and intensity, and exercise time.
  • Carbohydrates, proteins, and low-fat meals are food classes you should include in your exercise diet.
  • Water and water-rich foods improve fluid and electrolyte restoration after exercise.

Should I eat before exercise?

Nutrition and exercise go hand-in-hand like two peas in a pod. In 2018, a study discovered that fat burning is higher when you exercise without food (or fast exercise), while insulin and glucose levels were higher during non-fasted exercises.

If burning fat is your goal, it’s tempting not to eat before exercise, especially because some scientists believe fasted exercise causes more beneficial changes in overweight men than non-fasting exercises. However, in 2017, another study revealed no strong correlation between skipping meals before working out and weight loss.

The seemingly conflicting answers are on-brand with health-related conversations, in which a one-size-fits-all approach is rarely the answer. Jennifer McDaniel, RDN, CCSD (the founder of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy), believes the time of day, type and length of workout, and health goals are factors you should consider before deciding your nutrition pre- and post-exercise.

A quote about workout nutrition: "Consider the time of the day, type and length of workout, and health goals before deciding your workout nutrition."
For example, a light or easy workout in the morning doesn’t necessarily require food. “If you have an early workout that’s easy or light and you’re trying to lose weight, it might be best to have a glass of water, but skip the food,” Jennifer told Everyday Health. The 2015 study, which explained that people burn more fat over a 24-hour period if they work out before eating breakfast, likely proves Jennifer’s point.

However, if you exercise for over an hour in the morning, you need a light breakfast. Likewise, you need a meal if you’re working out later in the day, especially if you’ve not had food within the last three to four hours before hitting the gym.

The story is different with moderate or high-intensity exercise. Typically, your body burns more calories during intense exercise, making food a compulsory fuel you need.

Should I eat after exercise and how soon?

Food, like rest, aids post-workout recovery. The timing and type of food you should eat depend on your workout intensity and pre-workout routine. For instance, Jennifer believes individuals involved in light or moderate-intensity sessions don’t need a specific recovery food.

Similarly, individuals with diabetes trying to lose weight through low-intensity exercise (such as power walking and jogging) don’t need post-workout meals. Instead, they need to eat “whole foods every four to five hours throughout the day to support their calorie needs while getting daily exercise,” as the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommended.

A quote about workout nutrition for diabetics: "People with diabetes on a weight-loss journey should avoid sugar-rich foods to prevent calorie buildup."
Meanwhile, eating within an hour after a workout session should be a mainstay after an intense workout, like weight-lifting, endurance training, rigorous exercise lasting over 1 hour, and high-intensity competitive sports such as football, tennis, and basketball.

Your pre-workout nutrition also influences the food you eat after workout sessions. If you didn’t eat before your workout, you need food almost immediately after the workout to replenish your body. If you eat during workout training or several hours before exercise, your body has sufficient nutrients for post-workout recovery. In this case, post-workout meals aren’t compulsory unless a medical professional tells you otherwise.

Workout Nutrition: What should I eat pre- and post-workout?

It’s not enough to eat before (or after) exercises; you must eat the right food in the appropriate proportion. Workout nutrition follows the unwritten diet rule: Always tailor your food based on your body and health needs. For instance, people with diabetes on a weight-loss journey should avoid sugar-rich foods to prevent calorie buildup. Instead, they should stick with high-calorie foods (without sugar) and high-protein meals.

Generally, your workout nutrition should contain the following macronutrients:

1. Carbohydrate

It provides glycogen, a form of glucose, which serves as fuel for the body during workout sessions. Glycogen is in limited quantities in the muscles, and the higher the exercise intensity, the more glycogen you’ll use. Carbs, however, replenish glycogen. That is why individuals involved in short and high-intensity bouts of exercise must include high-carb diets in their workout meals.

Examples of carbohydrate-rich foods your pre-and post-workout nutrition must contain include:

2. Protein

It enhances muscle performance and lean body mass. High-protein nutrition suits people with diabetes in workout training because it doesn’t directly affect blood glucose levels.

Protein also improves recovery, especially when it’s combined with carbs. A mixed-protein and carbohydrate diet stimulates insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen replenishment in the body.

Examples of protein-rich foods you should include in your workout nutrition include:

Health tip: Cooking methods affect nutrient and calorie composition. For instance, frying adds more fat to meat. If losing weight is your gym goal, it’s advisable to grill, boil, or bake meat to remove excess fat.

3. Fat

For pre-workout sessions, fat provides fuel, especially for long and moderate-to-low-intensity exercise sessions. A low-carb, high-fat diet improves oxygen intake during intense workout training sessions.

It’s a slightly different story for post-workout. Fat might cause stomach upset or cramping, slow digestion, and inhibit nutrient absorption. As a result, be careful how you consume fat after a workout.

Examples of foods rich in healthy oil best suited for workout nutrition include

  • Nuts, e.g., walnuts, almonds, and peanuts
  • Oily fish such as mackerel (aka Titus fish), salmon, and sardines
  • Avocado

Besides food, your body needs water, especially during exercise and post-workout sessions, to restore the fluids in your body. Other drinks that enhance fluid balance are listed below.

Frequently Asked Questions about workout nutrition

Can I drink milk before working out?

Milk contains the necessary nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) to stay hydrated during and after exercise. Nevertheless, milk may cause indigestion, diarrhea, or bloating, especially when you take it shortly before you start your workout training. To avoid the potential complications of milk, take it 2–4 hours before exercising. As a rule, you shouldn’t take milk before and after exercise if you’re lactose intolerant.

Will I lose muscles if I don’t eat after a workout?

Eating post-workout meals rich in carbohydrates and proteins improves muscle growth and repair. While skipping meals immediately after a workout is acceptable in some circumstances, your muscle growth may suffer if you consistently avoid post-workout foods.

Does exercising on an empty stomach burn more fat?

Some pieces of evidence suggest that people burn more fat during fast exercise. In 2022, sports scientists at Nottingham Trent University revealed that exercising on an empty stomach in the evening burns more calories than fed exercise. The study also discovered that fasting during the day reduces exercise performance and motivation, making fasted exercise a tricky adventure for people in the long term.

Despite the benefits of fast exercise, the decision to fast or eat before exercise depends on multiple factors, including nutrition goals, exercise intensity and duration, and health status.

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