It can be hard to figure out how to eat around your workout schedule. If you exercise too soon after eating, you might feel sick. And if you wait too long to eat after, you might not reap the maximum benefits. If you're trying to find the right balance, here's some expert-backed advice.
Find What Works For You
If you've ever exercised right after eating only to feel nauseous, you're not alone. "Some people can eat minutes before exercising and have no issues. Others have to wait at least 30 to 60 minutes," says Tony Castillo, RDN, LDN, a dietitian and co-founder of Nutrition for Performance in Clearwater, Florida.
Those who can tolerate working out without eating first may see some benefits. The American Council on Exercise notes that past research has found exercising on an empty stomach — when the body is in a fasted state — may help burn fat more rapidly.
To the contrary, there are also many perks to grabbing a bite pre-workout, making it something many registered dietitians recommend.
According to Brittany Modell, RD, CDN, dietitian and founder of Brittany Model Nutrition and Wellness in New York City, the food you eat before your workouts is the best pre-exercise fuel. "It can help prevent low blood sugar, settle your stomach and fuel your muscles," she says.
The key is eating for whatever type of workout you're doing. While the body is still able to digest food during easy and moderately hard exercise, that's not the case during more sweat-inducing sessions. In those cases, keep your pre-workout snacks light. "During intense exercise, there is a shift of blood flow from stomach to working muscles, which may create some gastrointestinal issues," Modell says.
Pre- and Post-Workout Options
To get the most out of your workouts — and keep your stomach happy — Modell suggests fueling primarily with carbs if you're doing a workout that's less than 60 to 90 minutes long, as most people are. "They're more readily available for your muscles to use up and empty quickly from the stomach, compared to a protein or fat," she says. Castillo notes that high-protein and high-fat foods are harder to digest in time, making them more likely to make you feel sick.
Whether your primary goal of exercising is to lose weight or build muscle, Castillo recommends eating fast-acting carbs 30 to 60 minutes before your workouts. "That ensures your body has fuel to exercise," he says. "Try a piece of fruit, a slice of toast or some granola." Having that fuel to keep you going is what will help shed the pounds. Modell says eating helps you exercise harder, so you can ultimately burn more calories. "That's great if your motive is to burn fat," she says.
What you eat after your workout is just as important as what you eat before. Castillo recommends eating a mix of proteins and carbs. "Protein turns on the muscle-building, and carbs fuel your muscles for the next workout," he says. "Some ideas include a protein shake and a piece of fruit or a grilled chicken wrap."
The Cleveland Clinic recommends getting at least 20 grams of protein immediately after your workout in order for your body to properly rebuild your muscles. As for those carbs, they're great for recovery, too. Research published in the journal Nutrients in 2012 found that they help replenish the glycogen in your muscles, which helps fight off muscle soreness.
The Bottom Line
It may take some trial and error to see what helps you maintain your routine and reach your goals. When it comes down to it, when and what you eat before or after your workouts is a personal choice, Castillo says.
You have to do what works best for your body. But, as long as you're getting those sweat sessions in and fueling your body with wholesome options, you'll reach your goals in no time.
Is This an Emergency?
- Brittany Modell, MS, RD, CDN, dietician, founder, Brittany Model Nutrition and Wellness, New York City
- Tony Castillo, MS, RDN, LDN, dietitian, co-founder, Nutrition for Performance, Clearwater, Florida
- American Council on Exercise: “Does Fasted Cardio Provide Significant Benefits?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Strenuous Workouts: Try These 6 Best Recovery Tips”
- Nutrients: “Recovery from Cycling Exercise: Effects of Carbohydrate and Protein Beverages”