To eat or not to eat?

by Khushboo on May 21, 2012

Happy Monday, All!  Today is not just any Monday for me…it actually marks my last week of Bill Phillips’ Body For Life.  It seems like I’ve been following the plan forever.  As I had to take a couple of breaks during the 12 weeks because I was traveling, it’s taken a little longer than expected- better late than never or something like that ;) !  I’m going to post properly about my take on the plan once I’m done but overall it has been a great experience.  However there is one thing which Bill advocates which I’m not entirely on board with:

Aerobic exercise on an empty stomach speeds up fat loss

Speaking from experience as well as drawing from what I learned when I was studying to become a nutrition specialist, I couldn’t disagree more with Bill.  In theory it makes sense.  A prolonged absence of food will reduce circulating blood sugar and therefore cause glycogen (a.k.a stored carbs) levels to fall.  As a result our bodies have no choice but to rely more on fat, rather than glucose, to fuel workouts.  However this is too simplistic a view to consider how the body works.

Technically you do burn fat because there is fat stored in the muscles and you’ll use that fat to fuel the workout.  However the fat that you probably want to get rid of, i.e. around your stomach/butt, is not really impacted in any significant way.  More so, if you’re trying to lose fat, high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts are shown to be more effective than steady-state cardio.  Reason being is that HIIT sessions allow you to burn more calories during your session.  Unlike steady-state cardio, you also continue to burn calories even after you’re done thanks to the workout’s intensity.  Without a ready source of glycogen, you’re hindering your body’s ability to perform at its potential, and hence limiting overall fat loss.

Without enough energy to put forth an exceptional workout, chances are you won’t see the results you’re looking for both in terms of fitness and appearance.  There’s no point slogging away in order to “get the workout in” just because you’re too hungry and tired to do it properly. If anything, exercise is meant to leave you energized as opposed to zapped of energy.  Here are some other benefits of eating before a workout:

  • Boost recovery after workout and overall progressive strength & cardio gains
  • Sustain longer, more intense workouts
  • Avoid low blood sugar which may cause you to feel dizzy and nauseous
  • Workout enjoyment (as opposed to thinking about hungry you are)

What do I eat before a workout?
As a morning exerciser, I usually don’t have time to eat a substantial meal/snack before my workouts.  As much as I love to eat, sleep just about trumps food for me at that hour.  I do, however, grab a handful of almonds & raisins to eat on the way to the gym and that seems to do the trick.  That being said I want to start doing my weight lifting sessions in the evenings after work.  Towards the end of my morning weight training sessions, I always feel like my energy levels are flagging and breakfast is all my mind can concentrate on.

While each of our bodies process foods differently, pre-workout meals which I’ve had success with in the past include:

When eaten within 1 hour of exercising:

1) Fruit with yogurt & nuts

2) Snack bars

3) Peanut butter on rice cakes

I try to leave at least a 2-3 hour gap if I’m eating a ‘proper’ meal such as:

4) Oatmeal

5) Teriyaki tofu, greens & roasted squash with almond butter

At the end of the day, it’s important to the listen to your body and learn with experience. If you had a huge dinner the night before, chances are there are enough calories still stored in your body to get you through your workout. If you find yourself half-assing your way through your workout because of low energy levels, it’s probably important to reassess what you eat beforehand. Find what works for you and stick to it!  Perhaps Bill Phillips has found his cardio workouts to be at their optimum when he is on empty, and that’s great for him.  However the way our bodies perform is way too individual to try and generalize.

Do you eat before working out? If so, what?

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Sara K May 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm

I try to eat within 3 hours before a workout; if I have a snack it will be around two hours prior whereas for a meal I feel like I would need 3-4 to provide enough time to digest a bit. However, working out without eating is badddd news for me since I’m prone to low blood sugar/blood pressure (plus when you feel like you’re about to faint the workout is far less effective)

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm

True story..and when you feel like you’re about to faint, chances are you shouldn’t be working out at all!

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forgottenbeast May 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Ugh, no eating before a workout? Yeah, that definitely wouldn’t work for me. I go in the morning, so I usually have a breakfast of oatmeal or oat bran (oorrrr, like a lazy morning like today–a serving of PB with lots of raisins and shredded coconut), do chores for about an hour, then hit the gym. But if there’s no food in me?? How does he expect anyone to push at the gym? Maybe it would work for steady cardio, but yeah, that’s definitely not my exercise style.

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Apparently fats aren’t an ideal pre-workout choice because they take a while to digest but it looks like that clearly doesn’t apply to you and me both…workout or not, peanut butter is always a good idea :) !

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Alexandra May 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Great post topic! Personally, I can’t stomach anything within 2 hours of working out or else I get SUPER queasy and blow chunks eww haha But if I’m ravenous, usually a banana hits the spot! :)

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Ick working out while feeling queasy is not fun at all…it’s great that you’ve found what works for u :) !

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Honey What May 22, 2012 at 1:11 am

Yes, I do eat before working out, at least 1 hour before. Usually oatmeal and tea… or a slice of toast with almond butter.. or banana.. basically anything healthy. i don’t believe in exercising on an empty stomach, i used to, but now i understand you need energy to workout..
hey, do they sell avocados in mumbai? I heard they aren’t available in India.

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm

They DO sell avocado in Mumbai…thank goodness :) ! In fact I just had some for lunch! The only problem is that they are sometimes hit or miss- I’ve bought a few which refused to ripen and when I finally cut it open, it was disgustingly brown.

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Brittany May 22, 2012 at 1:39 am

YEs yes yes I most DEFINITELY eat. Your facts are spot on, and I am shocked a nutrition trainer would advocate not eating. Shame on him.

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm

As a trainer, I think Bill’s (yeah we on first name basis now ;) ) fitness approach is excellent…too bad the same cannot be said about his approach to nutrition!

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The Healthy Engineer May 22, 2012 at 1:52 am

I made the mistake of drinking soda before going for a run…seriously what was I (not) thinking?!

But I really need to look into eating a bar before working out….everyone keeps talking about the Think Thin bars…maybe I should give those a try

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Oh man, that run must have been full of burps! I haven’t tried those bars yet but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know whether they’re worth buying!

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Tessa at Amazing Assett May 22, 2012 at 5:19 am

Hmm this is quite….interesting I guess but also odd at the same time. When you don’t eat before doing anything, you get hungry, fatigued, worn out and you just can’t do as much! Food is fuel after all. I always have something light before (if I am working out in the morning) like a banana with pb or an apple, and then come home to my main breakfast. But I do have to have something!

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm

I’m the same- I rather not eat too much before a workout and then just eat a proper breakfast once I’m done!

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sprint2thetable May 22, 2012 at 6:53 am

I prefer to workout in the morning before I eat. Typically I’m not that hungry first thing, so I don’t have a problem… but if I do wake up starving I try to have a spoonful of PB or a cookie dough bite. If I’m running a race, I’ll have 1/2 a banana. It really is all about listening to your body!

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Exactly- listen to your body & find out what works for YOU! On a separate note, you have me intrigued about these cookie dough bites :) !

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ritika May 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm

oh my goodness, if this isn’t serendipity then what is, i have been debating on this forever, usually i will sometime down half a glass of milk or half an apple or a few almonds/walnuts or pb on a slice of bread.

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Khushboo Thadani May 22, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Haha glad we on the same wavelength :) !

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janae@hungryrunnergirl.com May 22, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Love the benefits of eating before a workout! In the morning I just have a banana or some orange juice because I can’t stomach much else that early but if I run later in the day I love LOVE to have some toast before a workout. Hope you are having an amazing day!

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Khushboo Thadani May 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Toast before a workout works well for me too- it gives me such a great energy boost without sitting like a rock in my stomach!

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Parita May 22, 2012 at 10:14 pm

If I’m working out first thing in the morning, I usually don’t eat anything. I do, however, try to ensure that the previous night’s dinner was a well balanced meal. And I try to eat within an hour of working out. I agree with both you and Laura, doing what’s right for your body is key! Great post, K!

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Khushboo Thadani May 23, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Good point about the previous night’s dinner! I always eat something before bed so I guess that helps in terms of not needing to eat too much before my morning workouts :) !

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onehealthymunchkin May 23, 2012 at 12:26 am

I’m a morning exerciser and I ALWAYS need to eat before I work out, otherwise I get way too hungry! :P Usually I have a full oatmeal breakfast and feel fine to exercise an hour later.

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Khushboo Thadani May 23, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I wish I had your stomach…I love oatmeal but always have to wait for at least 2 hours if I want to run!

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sassywifechronicles May 23, 2012 at 7:36 am

What perfect timing for this post.. Just started training with a PT this morning and had 10 cashews before and when I got there I was told not to eat before working out anymore. Going to give it a shot for a month before deciding to eat or not before working out.
On another note, I am loving the gym again with a new routine!

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Khushboo Thadani May 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Good luck with your PT – I’m curious to see how you enjoy your sessions :) !

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Purvi May 23, 2012 at 11:45 am

I generally do not eat much before a breakfast, may be an apple or a banana but somehow I want to eat a good breakfast after the workout

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Khushboo Thadani May 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I’m with you on a good breakfast after…knowing that I’ve already got my sweat on makes it taste that much better!

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Nada May 24, 2012 at 3:09 am

So glad you did a post about this! Back when I was trying to lose weight almost never ate before my pre-work morning workouts. I was convinced it was the way to burn fat (and I suppose it kind of worked) but it definitely came at a price and I’m not surprised I was exhausted all the time. I’m

Nowadays if I’m doing an early morning workout/run first thing in the morning I have a couple of dates and walnuts or a dried fig with some tahini, but I’ve actually grown to prefer eating a proper breakfast and then working out 2-3 hours afterwards purely because I perform so much better! In fact I’m pretty sure I broke my 5K PB last Sunday after an epic pancake breakfast :)

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Khushboo Thadani May 24, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Firstly way to go on the 5K PB- such a great feeling! Pancakes really do make amazing pre-workout fuel…as do regular cakes! The cake I’m referring to wasn’t healthy by any means (as I’m sure your pancakes were) but all that sugar overload translated into one of the best runs I’ve possibly had till date!

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