The Price of Fitness: Eating before exercise – good or bad?
This question is pretty simple; however, the answer isn’t quite as straightforward. The best answer is that it isn’t good or bad whether or not you eat before exercise.
To answer as correctly and thoroughly as possible, I did a lot of research instead of merely giving you my opinion on the subject.
The reason for eating before a workout is so that you’ll have energy when you’re going through your program or following an exercise class. But it’s all about balance. There’s a pretty thin line between providing enough food to give you a needed boost and feeling overly full when you’re working out.
Once, a bunch of us had come from yoga pictorials and we were running late for my evening yoga class, which they all were attending. Everyone was starving because, of course, we had done the pictorials on empty stomachs so we’d be able to do difficult poses looking as fit as possible.
We still had about an hour so we ordered several vegetarian pizzas to go and ate them on the way to class. Unfortunately, they took a bit long to fill the orders so we were not only hungrier, we were also so late that we only had enough time to munch quickly and put our mats in place.
In a class of about 20 or so people that night, there were about six of us who were feeling really sick, especially during the bent-over stretches! I’m sure I am speaking for all of us when I say we learned our lesson.
Research shows that when you eat before exercise instead of exercising with an empty stomach, it improves your athletic performance. We’re not talking about full meal here; this is just a snack, so generally, a snack taken before an activity will provide fuel for that activity – or practice, game, workout, run, etc. – depending on how long the session lasts.
When you exercise with an empty stomach, your body burns more fat than if you ate before you exercised, But – and this is an important consideration – your body also ends up burning lean mass or muscle.
Remember that your body will still burn fat even if you don’t exercise with an empty stomach; it just won’t burn as much. But to be able to burn fat as a fuel, your body needs carbohydrates.
Also, a snack before a workout will keep you from becoming very hungry after a workout, which happens often and ends up making you eat more than you intend to and definitely more than is good for you.
If you decide to go ahead and eat before exercise, these are the best ways to do it for maximum benefit:
• Choose a light 200- to 300-calorie meal containing some carbohydrates and protein.
• Allow at least one half to an hour to pass before you begin your workout.
• Dehydrated muscles perform poorly so drink water not just before, during, and after a workout, but throughout the day.
• Don’t go longer than four hours without eating. Make sure that in between meals, instead of suddenly feeling hungry and grabbing the nearest unhealthy snack, you have planned nutritious snacks.
Some possibilities (these can also be breakfast if you exercise early in the morning):
• egg whites
• cottage cheese
• nonfat or low-fat yogurt
• protein shake
• fruits (bananas, oranges, apples, grapes)
• unsalted and/or whole-grain crackers
• a slice of whole-wheat or multi-grain bread
• soups that are low in fat and salt (pureed soups, minestrone, miso, etc.)
Avoid high-fat proteins:
• peanut butter
• red meat
These take longer to digest and sometimes make you feel even more tired. Look for food that is quickly digested and absorbed. Experiment with various options.
And if you have an important event or scheduled workout activity with a friend, this may not be the best time to try a new food, just to be safe.
Sources: Go Ask Alice! Columbia University Health Services; Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 1997; American Dietetic Association.
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