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Before A Workout: To Eat or Not to Eat?


Should you eat before a workout? On the one hand, eating something, particularly carbohydrate-rich foods, can fuel exercise for improved performance. On the other hand, there is the theory that one would burn more fat if they fast before a workout. For the most part, finding a regimen that works best for you, in the end, will keep you motivated to exercise longer and reap all of the health benefits exercise provides.

Most recently, a small study published from the University of Leuven in Belgium, seven people were assigned to cycle three days a week followed by an intense session an hour later without eating. Another seven people followed the same regimen, but without fasting. The researchers found that those who exercised on an empty stomach burned a higher proportion of fat to carbohydrates than the group that ate.

Muscles usually get energy from carbohydrate. Peter Hespel, a professor of exercise physiology, says, “When you exercise (after fasting) your adrenalin is high and your insulin is low. That ratio of favorable for your muscles to oxidize (break down) more fatty acids.”

The study, however, is not without limitations. Andrew Greenberg, director of the Obesity and Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University says “When you exercise (without eating)…you may enhance how you burn the fat in the muscles, but it doesn’t affect your overall body fat.”

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Another issue is that the researchers in the study found that the fasting cyclers didn’t perform as well during the intensive training. Ron Maughan, a professor of sport, exercise and health sciences at Loughborough University in Britain said, “That might help you get very good at burning fat, but you won’t be very good at whatever exercise it is you are doing. Without enough fuel, you won’t get the intensity of training you need to get improvements.”

For optimum performance during exercise, a University of Georgia study found that athletes who ate regular meals and who ate before and after intense workout sessions showed the best performance in their sports and were leaner than those who ate erratically throughout the day. Additionally, those who skipped meals had worse muscle mass, lower energy levels, and poor mental focus.

Another thing to keep in mind is that these studies are performed on athletes doing elite training, not the average American out to get exercise for his or her health. Maintaining a regular program of exercise with the appropriate level of fuel (calorie intake) will ultimately be best for both health and weight loss.

Don’t enter a workout hungry, says Martica Heaner MA, MEd. If you start exercising in an energy deficit, your body will not perform as well, possibly causing you to cut your workout short. However, eating too much before a workout can cause you to feel sluggish or have an upset stomach, cramping and diarrhea. To get the most from your workout, eat large meals at least three to four hours before exercising. Most people can eat a snack right before and during exercise without problems.

Active.com offers these ideas for pre-workout snacks:

• Banana
• Low-fat yogurt
• Whole wheat English muffin or toast with light spread of nut butter
• Unsweetened cereal with skim milk and fruit
• Oatmeal with fruit