They say you can’t outrun a bad diet, and if you’re looking to improve health and performance, that’s certainly true! Individually, exercise and nutrition are powerful agents in the journey towards longevity, but they’re stronger when paired together. That’s why it’s vital to make strategic food choices before and after your workouts — you’ll be reaching your weight-loss goals faster and seriously boosting your health in the process.
No matter your diet type or workout preferences, stick around for the why, when, and what of pre and post-workout nutrition.
The Why and When of Working Out Determine the What
Some people work out in the morning. This choice is often based on schedule (“I can’t fit it in anywhere else during my day”) or preference (“I’m most motivated in the morning”). And when it comes to weight loss, this may also be strategic. If you’re an avid faster (and we hope you are!), exercising in the morning can provide a burst of activity towards the end of your fasting window. In turn, this increases your ability to burn fat, since your glycogen stores — the first place your body looks for fuel — have already been depleted through the absence of food. Once your glycogen levels become low enough, your body has to look for fuel elsewhere and starts tapping into its own fat stores, eventually resulting in weight loss.
People who work out in the evening, on the other hand, are often exercising at the very beginning of their fasting window. This timing is no better or worse for weight loss; the exercise just serves a different function. Instead of capitalizing on already-depleted glycogen levels to push your body into fat burning during exercise, exercising at the beginning of a fasting window (i.e., after your last meal of the day) speeds up glycogen depletion going into the fast, which ultimately means you’ll start burning fat earlier in your fast than if you hadn’t exercised.
Of course, timing isn’t everything; what you eat around exercise also influences these glycogen-depleting, fat-burning dynamics. Let’s take a closer look at your best food choices for weight loss according to when you exercise.
Early bird catches the worm? Well, if they’re trying to lose weight, we want our early birds to hold off on eating that worm until after they’ve gotten their movement in. Extending your overnight fast will help you continue to burn fat as you exercise — something your body tends to stop doing if you eat beforehand. Then, after your workout, you’ll want to fuel up with a meal rich in protein, healthy fats, and fiber, along with a moderate serving of lower-glycemic carbohydrates.
What to Eat BEFORE a Morning Workout
You may be in a fasted state before your workout, but you don’t need to be dehydrated! Water, black coffee and tea, or even a sugar-free electrolytes mix can be great options prior to a workout; none are considered Fast Breakers in the context of a weight-loss goal. Just skip the sugary sports drinks, smoothies, and fancy barista beverages that use milk, whipped cream, and/or syrups.
What to Eat AFTER a Morning Workout
After your morning bout of movement, choose foods that will fuel your body, help you recover and rebuild, and encourage a healthy metabolic state.
Components of Your Meal
- Protein. Protein — and amino acids in particular — is essential for muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Therefore, because physical activity stimulates MPS, it’s important to consume protein-rich foods after you exercise.
- Healthy fats. Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds provide energy without raising your blood sugar and will keep you better fueled and more satiated for the day ahead.
- Fiber. Fiber can come from a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. While its most popular role is moving food along the digestive tract, fiber is equally important for moderating your blood sugar response from a meal, and it also often comes paired with vitamins and minerals that are essential for recovery.
- Whole-food carbohydrates. Carbohydrates from whole foods, in addition to protein, can help with muscle growth and repair post-workout. Additionally, by focusing on unprocessed sources, you’re supporting a lower inflammatory environment — an important piece of our overall health that has been linked to the ability to lose or gain weight.
- Keto: Omelet with eggs (protein), kale and mushrooms (fiber), topped with avocado (healthy fat).
- Paleo: Smoked salmon (protein) on top of a sweet potato hash that includes diced sweet potato (lower-glycemic carb), bell peppers (fiber), and onions (fiber) cooked in avocado oil (healthy fat).
- Vegan: Tempeh “bacon” (protein and fiber) with a handful of cashews (healthy fat and lower-glycemic carb) and strawberries (fiber and lower-glycemic carb).
- Low carb: Plain, grass-fed yogurt (protein and lower-glycemic carb), hemp and chia seeds (healthy fat and fiber), blueberries (lower-glycemic carb), and cinnamon.
- Mediterranean: Barley bowl with barley (lower-glycemic carb), chickpeas (protein), feta (protein), olives (healthy fat), cucumbers (fiber), red onions (fiber), cherry tomatoes (fiber), and a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil (healthy fat).
If working out later in the day is more your style, then you’ll want to fuel up differently from your early bird counterparts. Typically, evening exercisers have already broken their fast with a few meals or snacks. This is completely fine; in fact, fueling with healthy, satiating foods will help energize your upcoming workout! The trick is to couple your exercise and fasting practices by finishing your last meal of the day prior to working out. That way, your physical activity will burn the fuel you’ve been consuming throughout the day, start depleting your glycogen stores, and get you into a catabolic and then fat-burning state more quickly.
What to Eat BEFORE an Evening Workout
To start burning fat as fast as possible, you’ll want to make your pre-workout meal the last meal of the day, making sure it’s nutrient-dense and composed of whole foods in order to get the most out of your workout and prepare your body for an optimal fast.
Components of Your Meal
- Protein. Protein is an essential nutrient for muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Since physical activity stimulates MPS, it’s crucial to have amino acids from food available to you after exercising. With that being said, it’s also important to eat protein before your workout in order to ensure that you’ve consumed enough of it throughout your eating window. Studies have shown that the total amount of protein consumed throughout the day is the most important factor when focusing on muscle strength and growth.
- Healthy fats. Healthy fats can provide satiating calories going into your workout and sequential fast. High-fat meals prior to exercise have been shown to increase fatty acid oxidation and improve performance, both of which will support your weight-loss goals.
- Fiber. As a type of carbohydrate, some fiber is helpful pre-workout in order to enhance performance. However, studies have shown that keeping carbohydrate intake on the lower side will result in storing less glycogen, which will help your body progress to the fat-burning zone quicker. When a carbohydrate has a higher fiber content, less of the carbohydrate will be available for absorption. In addition, high-fiber foods tend to come from low-glycemic carbohydrates, meaning they increase our blood sugar at a lesser degree compared to other carbohydrates higher on the index. These lower-glycemic foods include non-starchy vegetables, berries, nuts, and unsweetened, whole-milk dairy. In comparison to high-glycemic carbohydrates, those that fall on the lower end of the scale have been shown to facilitate higher fatty acid oxidation rates and even greater endurance capacity during exercise following that meal.
- Keto: Egg salad lettuce wraps with chives and eggs (protein), avocado oil and mayo (healthy fat), herbs and spices (fiber), and lettuce leaves (fiber).
- Paleo: Paprika steak (protein) with sautéed kale (fiber) and twice baked sweet potatoes (fiber and healthy fat).
- Vegan: Portobello mushroom steak (fiber) with vegan pesto (healthy fat and protein) and sun-dried tomatoes (fiber).
- Low carb: Spinach (fiber) and chicken (protein) Dijon salad with dijon vinaigrette (healthy fat).
- Mediterranean: Salmon (protein and healthy fat) and vegetable (fiber) kabobs.
What to Eat AFTER an Evening Workout
If you’re aiming for weight loss, ending your feeding window prior to your evening workout is best. Exercise kickstarts glycogen depletion so your body will start burning its next-favorite fuel, body fat, earlier in your fast. While you’ll want to forgo meals or snacks post-workout, you can (and should) consume water and non-caloric beverages such as herbal tea or sugar-free electrolyte mixes.
Combining healthy nutrition and exercise strategies can help you make enormous strides in your metabolic health and weight-loss journey. Coupling your fasting practice with movement and being mindful of what you consume during your eating window — i.e., focusing on protein, healthy fat, and fiber — can help you deplete glycogen stores and start burning fat faster.