Fuel or Fiction: Should You Always Eat Before You Exercise?

by | Jun 27, 2024 | Nutrition

Between work, errands, DIY and the school run, finding time to feast before your fitness pursuits can be tricky. Maybe you’ve resorted to slurping down a protein shake before your lifting session, or stepping under the rack with nothing in your stomach. Naturally, you’re probably wondering if these empty-tank exertions are tanking your performance. No fear; we’re here to help you figure out whether you should eat before exercise or save the buffet for your post-sesh cooldown.

What Happens if I Don’t Eat Before I Work Out?

We’ll level with you, heading to the gym on an empty tank will probably leave you feeling a little more lethargic than usual. Ultimately, plenty of studies have shown that even a small pre-workout snack can have a dramatic impact on your ability to lift heavier and ramp up the reps. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits to a “fasted” fitness session.

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Let’s look at a few of these perks in closer detail:

You May Burn More Fat

When your body needs energy, it’ll usually start burning carbs to keep your engine firing on all cylinders. Typically, your carbs are stored in your liver and muscles as something called glycogen. However, on an empty stomach, your body won’t have the same supply of easy energy. So instead, it may turn to your fat stores for some fuel on tap. One study found that guys who exercised “fasted” were burning fat a higher rate than those with carbs to call on. Disclaimer: there isn’t any concrete evidence that “fasted” exercise will accelerate weight-loss in the long run.

Your May Still Perform the Same

If you don’t have time to grab a bite, that PB might still be within reach. An analysis of 23 studies found that, at least when it comes to short-term exercise, your performance may be entirely affected by exercising on an empty stomach. (Short-term in this context was defined as any session shorter than an hour.)

Bottom line: research has shown that when it comes to losing fat, “fasted” training versus “fueled” training is more about how many calories you’re consuming during the day. Their verdict? You should make the decision to eat (or not) based on personal preference.

Okay, I Want To Eat… When Should I Nosh Before My Sessions?

plate with carrots arranged as two hands of a clock
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If you’re thinking of sneaking in a quick snack a couple minutes before you start lifting, you could end up heaving. Different foods can take minutes to hours to digest, and hitting the gym floor with a full stomach could leave you feeling sluggish and you may find your meal, um, “returning” if you’re going particularly hard.

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According to one review, it takes up to four hours for your body to digest carbs and stash them away as live and muscle glycogen. As such, you should usually aim to eat your meal a few hours before you plan to train. (Fitter guys can get away with eating two hours before their sessions.) However, some research suggests that chowing down on a light carb-loaded snack around an hour before exercise could help ramp up your performance. You’ll have to try it to see if it works for you.

And, you also need to keep the type of exercise you’re doing in mind. For instance, if you’re just planning to take the dog for a walk, you can probably wolf down a meal and feel great on your stroll. But for more vigorous sessions, like CrossFit, cycling or running – try time your meal so that you’ve got at least an hour or more to digest.

I’m Famished… What About Eating Straight After My Session?

Eating a solid meal after exercising, especially one packed with protein, will help your muscles recover and replenish their glycogen stores. But if you’re going straight from the barbell to the buffet, you might suffer a few complications. Nasty stuff like nausea, gas, sluggishness, vomiting, you name it.

The right timing for your post-sesh meal will depend on your own preferences. Felt terrible after tucking into a meal 20 minutes after exercising, try wait another 10 minutes and you might have an entirely different experience. Like all things in health, your mileage will vary, so it’s important to go back to the drawing board if you’re not getting the desired results.

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What I Should Be Eat Before/After I Exercise?

bowl of protein-packed feast next to weight plate
Getty Images/iStockphoto

We recommend skipping the junk food, chocolates and fizzy drinks. But, we always recommend that. If you’re looking for direction, we’ve got you covered.

Before Your Workouts

You want to pick foods that are digested quickly and won’t cause any stomach issues. Try these:

  • Energy bars
  • Protein bars
  • Trail mix (nuts, raisins, etc.)

After Your Workouts

The name of the game is muscle recovery, so opt for high-protein ingredients. But make sure you include a few carbs to top up those glycogen reserves.

  • Cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • Salmon
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Veggies

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