Is it a good idea to eat before a workout, or should I try to get to the gym before eating breakfast in the morning?
-- Paul Jernis
Fort Wayne, IN
It's a good idea to eat something approximately two or one and a half hours prior to beginning your workout.
By "something", I am referring to foods that are quickly digested and, thus, available for energy when you need it. Low-fat carbohydrates like a piece of fresh fruit, a small bowl of oatmeal, or a handful of whole grain crackers with are ideal.
Your pre-workout snack should not exceed 200 calories.
Keep in mind the time mentioned above. Grabbing a quick snack half an hour before walking into the gym is ineffective, as it will not be ready to be used as fuel in such a short amount of time.
This is one time to stay away from high-fat foods, as they stay in your stomach longer (which is why healthy fats are always good to include in a meal -- they help you stay full!).
If you overeat, blood will be busy in your stomach breaking down food, rather than helping build muscle. Additionally, too much food prior to working out will result in your fat stores not being burned up by exercise.
I have recently seen a few energy bars touted as "pre-workout" specific. Do not fall for advertising. These bars are, in essence, candy. Full of sugar and fat, they will result in nothing but stomach aches and sugar crashes if followed by an exercise session.
Some people claim getting their cardio in on an empty stomach is ideal for the burning of fat. In part, they are right. However, they are forgetting the second part of the situation -- your body is also simultaneously breaking down muscle for energy!
This is less than ideal for several reasons. Firstly, remember that the body needs to burn calories in order to sustain muscle. If this tissue is broken down, that means fewer calories are burned -- the exact opposite effect you are looking for.
Additionally, the breakdown of muscle tissue during exercise can result in dehydration, dizziness, and fatigue.
Think about it -- if you are easily fatigued, you will work out at a lower intensity for a lower amount of time. In other words, you are sabotaging your own workout!
For successful weight loss and maintenance, focus on smart eating and frequent physical activity. Attempting to gain an edge by depriving yourself of food before exercising is not only hazardous to your health, it also just doesn't make sense.