To eat or not to eat? That is the question.
Ask a dozen different people who regularly exercise about their perspective on eating before a workout, and you will receive just as many answers. Some swear by a certain type of protein shake. Others have a pre-workout drink with a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, but it sure does amp them up. Then there are those who scoff at the idea of eating when they’re even thinking about a workout.
The question of whether or not to eat before a workout can be a hazy mess of misconceptions and misinformation. We talked to two nutrition experts to break down the most common myths—Gabrielle Mancella, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health, and Marie Spano, a registered dietician and Sports Nutritionist for the Atlanta Braves, Hawks, and Falcons—and to clear the air on the topic. Long story short: If you’re not eating before your workouts, there are plenty of reasons you should start, ASAP.
Eating before a workout doesn’t make sense if I’m trying to lose weight.
The math checks out—shouldn’t less calories going in mean fewer extra pounds? Mancella explained that while on paper, this is true, that “weight loss” that happens solely from calorie depletion isn’t the type of weight loss most of us are looking for. “When we focus on just restricting energy consumption, that weight loss, especially at the beginning, is water weight,” she told MensHealth.com. “That isn’t helping us lose fat or build lean muscle mass.”
BOTTOM LINE: Even if your goal is weight loss, eating before exercising will help you get more from your effort. Having more successful workouts will help build more muscle and burn more fat.
Eating before a workout is only important if I’m doing cardio.
Seem ridiculous to eat before a 40-minute lifting session? It shouldn’t. “You need carbohydrates in order to lift hard,” Spano explained. “I can’t really think of a workout where it wouldn’t be helpful to have eaten carbohydrates beforehand.”
Mancella agreed. “The point of eating before a workout is to provide energy to perform at a higher level—lift heavier weights, work faster and harder,” she said.
BOTTOM LINE: It doesn’t matter if you’re going for a short HIIT session or a long cardio session, eating before will give you the energy you need to crush it.
Protein shakes before a workout = good idea.
Nope. “Our bodies don’t use protein as an energy source. Taking in a bunch of protein before a workout will not help fuel your workout, and will not help you build extra muscle,” Mancella said.
That’s right—that protein shake you chug right before your workout is not going to do much to boost your performance.
That isn’t to say that protein isn’t important. “Taking protein in soon after a workout will help build muscle,” Spano said. “But it’s carbohydrates that are going to give you that energy for an actual workout. Our bodies simply do not use protein for energy.”
BOTTOM LINE: Stop with the pre-workout protein. Instead, opt for a carbohydrate-rich snack of about 200 to 300 kcals roughly 2 to 3 hours before your workout.
Eating before a workout is going to mess with my stomach.
“One of the most common reasons athletes (at the professional level) tell me they never eat before workouts is that they are scared it will make them sick to their stomachs,” Spano said. “If this is happening, a person should adjust either what or when they are eating instead of not eating at all.”
Spano said that when she has athletes worried about indigestion, she has them start small, like a banana three hours before a workout. “There are also options like gels and gummies that are digested very quickly,” she said.
If you’re a person who has tried eating before a workout and get an upset stomach, double-check what is in your food. Spano said foods high in fiber or contain ingredients such as sugar alcohols, inulin and chicory root can cause gas and bloating, all no-gos for sweat sessions.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve tried eating before a workout and had some unpleasant results, check the ingredients. Start with simple carbohydrates 2 to 3 hours out from your workout.
Overall, eating before a workout is something that can give anyone some extra energy for gains, and who doesn’t want that? Start small, keep it carbohydrate-rich, and remember—if you’re able to push a little harder because of that extra boost, the results are going to show.