I’ve been exercising on an empty stomach for the last decade. Typically I try to have my biggest meal be dinner and then I work out first thing in the morning before I have a chance to get hungry. It works for me, even though this is very different from the advice we’re usually given. I’m a strong believer that we’re all different and you have to find out what works best for you! Just because going gluten-free and doing Zumba works best for your friend doesn’t mean that’s what you should do! With that said I was very happy when I read a New York Times article The Best Thing to Eat Before a Workout? Maybe Nothing at All because it goes to prove that it’s not necessarily one size fits all.
That said, like most studies, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. “This new study published in the American Journal of Physiology is interesting, but they only studied the subjects for two days, which is not long enough to confirm the findings,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, best-selling author and nutrition expert. “Even if there is a small benefit at the cellular level of not eating before exercise, what’s most important is that people exercise—period! Also, the breakfast that was used in the study was a very carbohydrate-heavy one. The outcome may have been different if the breakfast given to the subjects pre-exercise was primarily protein or fat, or a more balanced mix of carbs, protein and healthy fat.”
Why do some studies say it’s better not to eat before working out?
“When you eat food, your body releases insulin into your bloodstream to help carry molecules from the food into your body’s cells to be utilized as energy. So if you exercise right after eating, your body has these molecules available and uses them as a primary source of energy.
But if you don’t eat before your workout, your insulin levels are low and there’s not a lot of sugar in your bloodstream to use as energy, so instead your body turns to your fat storage as a primary source of fuel. Consistently fasting before your workouts can lead to an increase in the amount of fat you burn.”
Is this true for everyone or are there some people you would not recommend try this?
“While fasted workouts can be beneficial to some, they definitely are not ideal for everyone. They are most beneficial to people that already have a consistent or strict workout and diet regimen and are looking to burn their last bit of stubborn fat. If a person is just beginning their fitness journey or is inconsistent with their workouts and diet, it’s best to have some food in their system before their workout to keep their energy levels consistent.”
Is pre-workout ‘fasting’ a good idea for every type of workout?
“Definitely not. High intensity and long duration workouts done while fasting can both put a lot of strain on your body and can lead to muscle degradation and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The ideal types of fasted workouts for fat loss are light to moderate intensity cardio or resistance training types of exercise.”
If you’re not eating pre-workout what do you suggest eating after?
“Depending on how long and intense their fasted workout was, some people wait 30 mins after their workout to eat a meal. It’s important for your body to get some energy in, and it’s recommended to keep the food high in protein and good fats, and low in carbs so your blood sugar doesn’t spike too quickly. Some examples are meats, eggs, yogurt, veggies, or protein shakes.
Also, some athletes take low calorie BCAA supplements before their fasted workouts, so their body has some nutrients to prevent muscle degradation and support muscle function. Small amounts of caffeine can also help you exert more energy and burn more fat!”
Other quick post-workout snack ideas I’ve seen a lot of popular trainers reach for include Muscle Milk Protein Bars and Quest Bars. As Seki mentioned post-workout you want to load up on something that’s high in protein and good fats and low in carbs. I also like to do a snack that is high in fiber because it helps keep me full longer. A go-to for me is a high-fiber pancake made with 4 egg whites, 4 GG crackers, and cinnamon. I then top it with fruit. Nut butter on GG crackers is another great option to add on the side (lots of good fats!) – just make sure you’re opting for a nut butter with no filler. I love the ones from Legendary Foods.
If you’re not in the mood for something sweet try some GG crackers (they keep coming up here because they’re a great alternative to bread – they’re a lot lower in carbs and calories and a lot higher in fiber) topped with avocado and smoked salmon or avocado and grilled eggplant (or any non-starchy veggie you like!). I’ll typically have four of the above “sandwiches” (each GG has a mere 20 calories).